Amid the morning chaos of our house one day recently, I stood near the stove, keeping an eye on a row of pancakes. Our 13-month-old rested against my opposite hip, away from the heat of the griddle. Next to me, our 7-year-old narrated a long story about camp. The baby tried repeatedly to swipe my glasses off my face, and I made sounds to confirm I was listening to the camp story while ferrying dirty utensils to the sink.
Our 3-year-old, perhaps feeling a little too ignored, careened into the living room where my husband was folding laundry, then made a beeline for the fridge to pull a handful of artwork and alphabet magnets to the floor.
Like just about every other parent we know, my husband and I feel time-poor and overstretched. We are frantically trying to meet the individual needs of three girls while also running a business, managing extra-curricular activities and keeping our house just below the threshold for mortifyingly dishevelled.
We know our kids’ desires for engagement and attention fluctuate based on their age, personality and how a given day happens to be going. But are these things also impacted by their birth order? Lately, I have been paying closer attention to our preschooler and wondering how her position as a middle child is affecting her.
Courtney Bolton, a clinical child psychologist and parenting coach in Nashville, Tennessee, helps families navigate the day-to-day challenges of raising kids.
“As a psychologist, I do believe birth order influences our development in the context of family relationships, and as a mother of four, I also believe middle children are uniquely positioned within that family dynamic,” she says. Bolton’s kids range from seven months to 9 years old.
But that does not necessarily mean the warnings about “middle-child syndrome” ring true. While the existence of this “condition” continues to be debated, you have probably heard of the supposed effects: That middle kids all grow up feeling lonely, neglected and bitter thanks to their birth order.
“What I don’t love about middle-child syndrome,” Bolton says, “is the oversimplification and focus on negative qualities, like jealousy and neediness.”
To be fair, I anticipate plenty of neediness and jealousy from each of our kids, given their ages. But I am curious about the years ahead, and I wonder what practices my husband and I should think about implementing now to help our girls — especially our middle daughter — feel seen and heard.
According to Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, the solution is pretty straightforward. “For many psychologists, the explanation for middle-child syndrome comes from the amount of individual time children have with their parents.”
Hafeez explains a common set-up for a family of five, like mine: A firstborn child gets years of one-on-one attention, which the second child will never have. Then a third kid comes along, further reducing that already shared time and potentially causing the middle child to feel overshadowed.
However, she says, “It’s important to look at each family unit and observe how the wheels turn.” Not all middle children feel ignored or resentful, and the ones who do, she says, do not necessarily feel that way because of where they fall in the sibling line-up.
For some, though, the experience of being a middle child is felt more acutely. This was the case for Aja Barber, a writer and stylist currently based in London, when she was growing up. Now in her mid-30s, Barber cites clear disadvantages to being the middle child of three girls. “I often felt that I had to fight to be heard, fight to be understood and fight to get the spotlight,” she says. “Relatives would fuss over both my siblings in very age-specific ways due to their birth order, but no one really made much of a fuss about the middle.”
But Barber acknowledges there were some positive elements to her place in the family, too. “Being a middle child made me more strong-willed and scrappy,” she says. “In my working life, I think my middle-child position put me in a place where I have a tough skin.”
Bolton is quick to call attention to these advantages as well. She describes the positive social qualities that can come from being the middle kid, such as independence, maturity and skills in compromising and negotiating.
It is too soon to see how all of these things are playing out in our own household, but we have watched our 3-year-old model her big sister’s empathy and compassion in really neat ways. Any time our middle daughter is offered a snack, for instance, she immediately brings half to her little sister. We have never asked her to do this, but it is something her older sister does often with her, so now she is passing it along.
According to Jonathan Caspi, a New Jersey-based family therapist, sibling relationship expert and father of three, “There is some evidence to support that middle children tend to get less attention and feel more like outsiders in their own families.” But overall, he says, the support for the influence of birth order is mixed. It would be wrong to say there is absolutely no influence, he says, “but a lot of people want to use it like a Zodiac — that part of it doesn’t hold up quite so much.”
Susan Nason, a parent educator and interfaith minister, has spent 30 years helping parents develop more conscious parenting tactics. Trained by her aunt, the author and communication expert Adele Faber, Nason leads parenting workshops in New York centred on themes from the popular books “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” and “Siblings Without Rivalry.” Nason is not convinced birth order matters much.
“Every single child wants your undivided attention,” she says. “They want to know they’re seen and heard. Does being a middle child impact you in different ways? It probably does, but the reality is each child, no matter where they place in their family, wants the same thing.”
In advising parents, Bolton also stresses the importance of being intentional and proactive in spending time individually with each child, but she recognises that families’ lives are busy. “Parents get overwhelmed with creating experiences for each of their children when just going to the grocery store without other siblings or snuggling while having that first cup of coffee in the morning may be all they need.”
After that hectic family breakfast last week, my husband suggested I take our middle daughter with me to run errands for some special one-on-one time.
My daughter and I walked unhurried through each aisle of the grocery store, talking while we searched for the items on our list. She carried around a coveted ring pop and fell in love with a pair of firefighter rain boots on clearance, which she proudly wore to the checkout.
She seemed to be having fun, but I’m not sure how important that one-on-one time is to her just yet.
Every few minutes she paused to tell me, “I wish my sisters were here with us.”
Kirsten Clodfelter is a columnist and author. Her latest work is Casualties (Ropewalk Press)