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For Middle Children, We Need to Rethink the Shape of Our Families

Photograph by Twenty20

I knew that my second-born son was a middle child from the day he was born. Or rather, I knew that he was likely to be a middle child. My husband and I had always wanted three or four kids, and thus the birth of our second child seemed like a pause until our family was complete.

Of course, viewing another human being’s birth as a “pause” is a surefire way to set that child on the path to the dreaded middle-child syndrome. And despite my best efforts, that syndrome has indeed been my middle son’s fate.

He has a gregarious, driven older brother who gets good grades and excels at sports and can strike up a conversation with anyone. He also has a wild, free-spirited younger brother who is cute and little and will always be the baby of our family.

He is his own amazing person, too. He is a compassionate and sensitive kid who has a quick temper for bullies (and his brothers) and a soft spot for the downtrodden (and, every so often, his brothers). But sometimes I fear that his greatest qualities gets muted by his place in our family.

He is stuck right there in the middle. And I wish that he didn’t feel that way.

It might very well be impossible to completely escape middle-child syndrome, especially when one thinks long and hard about what it means to be in the middle of something. To be “middle” is to be defined “in relation to”: something (or someone) bigger and smaller, older and younger, first and last. It is to be caught between two endpoints, perhaps never feeling as if you are an endpoint of your own.

This perspective, however, hinges on a very one-dimensional view of birth order. It is the view, that also contributes most strikingly to the left-outness (or the Jan Bradyness, for those of you old/cool enough to get the pop culture reference) that many middle children experience. In this view, the family is a straight line, with the middle child flanked by their older and younger siblings. The middle child is always defined by those siblings. They are always stuck between them, too.

In other words, how do we get our children to truly see each other and themselves as unique and interdependent entities?

Perhaps what we need—and what our middle children need—is a two-dimensional view of sibling relationships. Instead of a straight line, a triangle. Or a square. Or whatever shape best represents each child in a family as a unique point with its own identity, rather than a middle whose identity is entirely dependent on two separate endpoints. (That geometry metaphor is for my creative, Lego-building, engineering-minded middle child.)

Besides nerdy visuals, what exactly is the difference between a line-family and a triangle-family (or a square or a pentagon or a hexagon-plus family)? In other words, how do we get our children to truly see each other and themselves as unique and interdependent entities?

How do we get our middle children "unstuck"?

I think that it starts with our middle children. (That’s right, middle children of the world: I’m starting with you!) Metaphorically speaking, middle children need to be pulled out from that one-dimensional line and given their own plane of existence.

They need the space to shine, all on their own.

As a parent, I think that this takes some work and attentiveness. For instance, I find myself fiercely protecting my middle son’s activities and interests. He bakes the world’s best chocolate chip cookies (at least according to his obviously biased mother). He makes beaded jewelry. He plays baseball. His brothers don’t do any of those activities and I’m in no rush to encourage them to, either.

My middle son was also the first in the family to start piano lessons. Now that his younger brother is also expressing an interest in piano, I’m trying to find other creative outlets for my middle child: ones that are all his own.

If I take my attention away for one moment, my oldest and youngest children can overtake the space I’ve cleared for my middle child, crowding it like so much bramble and weeds.

Sometimes it feels as if I’m fighting to clear an encroaching forest. If I take my attention away for one moment, my oldest and youngest children can overtake the space I’ve cleared for my middle child, crowding it like so much bramble and weeds. (I hope my middle son will someday know that I compared his brothers to bothersome weeds). I know that this is a struggle for my middle son, too. And my hope is that it will one day make him more resilient. More aware. More attuned to other people’s feelings.

This separate space, however, is not enough. Like my sweet middle son, I think other middle children also need their siblings to recognize just how interconnected they all are.

My clumsy geometry metaphor can come back into play here. A triangle cannot take shape unless all three of its points are connected to one another. Each point depends on the other. They are all an important part of a whole—just like each member of a family is.

If we take that old straight line view of family relationships, our middle children are stuck in the middle—and they are the only ones stuck there. But if we broaden our understanding of the shape of our families, maybe we can help our middle children and their siblings realize that they—and we—are all stuck together.

Our families cannot take their shape without the beautiful, unique, separate existence of our middle children.

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