Rachel is a sweet and caring 9-year-old. Her mother describes her as a real people-pleaser, showing sincere concern for others' feelings and needs. She's busy, too, with piano lessons, cheerleading and scouting filling her afternoons.
Her older sister is in a program for bright students, but Rachel seems to struggle with schoolwork. Even though Rachel has the aptitude, her mother is concerned she doesn't apply herself the way her older sister does. And then there's Rachel's little brother, who became "the baby" when he was born six years ago. Rachel enjoys bossing him around when the mood hits her. Speaking of moods, when Rachel gets in a bad one, look out!
If you're the parent of three or more children, perhaps you have a Rachel in your family. If you haven't guessed already, she's the middle child in a family of three. Some say she's a perfect candidate for Middle Child Syndrome.
The Importance of Birth Order
Rachel's mother, Shari Emas, says her daughter is definitely "the kid who's stuck in the middle and can't find her spot." According to experts, this definition is not far off.
Middle Child Syndrome occurs when children feel left out because parents are caring for a baby, while also providing constant support to an older child, who is attempting so many things for the first time. In a worst-case scenario, the middle child feels squeezed out and unattended to, and can even become angry and start acting out, says Meri Wallace, author of "Birth Order Blues."
Wallace and a handful of others have done extensive studies on birth order and the effects it can have on growing children. Understanding birth order is important in parenting, says Wallace, because each child holds a unique position in the family that has both positives and negatives. If you know what the negatives might be, then you're better equipped to help your child - especially the middle one - overcome the difficulties.
Kevin Leman, author of "The New Birth Order Book," describes birth order as one important piece of the puzzle that comprises our personalities. "When you've got three or four kids coming out of the same den, you can see how different each of them is. The middle child usually is hammered between the crown prince and baby snookie, who gets away with murder."
An Outgoing Risk-Taker
A middle child is not limited to the one spot exactly between two other children in a family. Middle children are simply those born in between the first and last, who, by the luck of the draw, are precluded from enjoying all the glory heaped on the oldest, or the privileges bequeathed to the baby. As a result, middle children tend to develop some specific character traits. But many of them can be quite positive. For example, middle children tend to be social butterflies, developing strong relationships outside the family in order to seek a position among friends they can't find at home.
"That's my daughter Kellie," says Lauri Bessent. "On a daily basis she asks, ‘Who can I call?' and ‘Who can come over?'"
Middle children are particularly well-known for developing loyalty in relationships, as well. However, an overzealous effort to fit in among "friends" is something parents of teens should be especially aware of, says Wallace. "They can fall in with the wrong crowd, because they're trying to find a unique identity or a way to stand out."
Another common middle-child trait is strong negotiation skills. According to Kellie's mom, the young girl often is working out disagreements over Barbie dolls between her two sisters, and she's usually the one to "give in" just to keep the peace. In some instances, middle children can be taken advantage of, because they don't want to make waves. Parents should make a special point of encouraging middle children to speak up.
Independence and risk-taking are other typical middle-child traits, according to Leman. He says that early on a middle child will follow an older sibling like a god, even when the older brother or sister pushes him or her down. But pretty soon, the middle child finds out it's not working and sets out to find his or her own path in life, often in a totally different direction from the firstborn.
When Rachel decided to try gymnastics, like her big sister, there was a lot of competition, especially when her older sister began to do better. But then Rachel tried out a few different activities, and she settled on cheerleading.
"She's thrilled," says her mom. "Now she's found her own niche, and she can do her best and not have to compete with her sister."
Birth order, however, is not a perfect science. For example, a five-year gap between siblings essentially starts a new subgroup, according to Leman, and usually results in the later-born child exhibiting more first-born traits than middle-child traits. Also, if the oldest child is a female and the next child is a male, he may develop more firstborn qualities since he is the oldest male.
One of the biggest keys to understanding middle child syndrome is recognizing it isn't one size fits all. Some middle children may feel angry they didn't get enough attention at home and act out negatively, while others may put the lessons they've learned to good use by becoming an artist or performer ... or maybe even President.
Famous Middle Children
Michele Piazzoni is a mother of three and California-based freelance writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.