The life of a middle child

Photo courtesy of Rosemary Pitrone

I recently came across an article from The Cut called “The Extinction of the Middle Child.” The piece examined how the increasing trend of two-child families is bringing about the demise of middle-born children. It also raised awareness for the middle children who will be tragically overlooked this August 12 on Middle Child Day.

I am the middle sister of three girls. I have experience being both the pesky little sibling who copies everything her older sister does, and being the bossy older sibling who offers her younger sister unsolicited advice.

When I sent that The Cut piece to my siblings, they told me it was not even worth a skim. Admittedly, the article is lengthy, but it made me reflect on the importance of birth order in defining one’s own identity.

Just like astrological signs and personality types, the characteristics associated with each birth order may be taken with a grain of salt. A 2015 German study found that birth order does not significantly influence five major personality traits — conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, imagination and emotional stability. However, there is some research that suggests birth order does affect one’s life outcomes. Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect, points out existing research that first-born children are more likely to become CEOs and last-born children are more likely to become comedians.

While the outcomes for middle children may be statistically murkier, I have learned from my own experience as a middle child — and as a daughter of two middle children — that being in the middle isn’t bad at all; in fact, there are times when adopting the mindset of a middle child may be beneficial to everyone.

Middle children love to claim that we are great mediators. It makes sense that someone physically in the middle of a family hierarchy would also develop a keen understanding of those around them. Growing up, my older sister and younger sister often found themselves at odds with each other, and as the middle sibling I was sometimes able to help them see from one other’s perspective.

Another popular notion held by middle children is that we are passed over for attention — the oldest sibling is the highest achiever, and the youngest sibling is the baby of the family. Does that force the children in the middle to fend for whatever attention is left?

Some experts have posited that this causes middle children to either act out — consider Stephanie Tanner from Full House — or to find creative or bizarre arenas to excel in. The Cut draws attention to Joey Chestnut, a middle child so starved for attention that he went on to win the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest 11 times.

I look at Chestnut as a testament to the creativity of middle children. When the roles of your older and younger siblings are more clearly defined, you may find yourself with more freedom and space to try new things.

The last characteristic middle children love to tout is our heightened empathy. I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but I feel that I owe most of the credit to my siblings for forcing me to be more compassionate and understanding.

My older sister gave me a leg up in school when I was younger, because she had already gone through everything I was going through. She demonstrated the importance of a compassionate voice in a person’s life.

My younger sister also gives surprisingly sage advice. She taught me that even someone who has never been in your situation before is able to understand exactly how you are feeling.

Through this reflection, I discovered that what makes being a middle child so great isn’t that we are great mediators, creative forces or empathetic souls. It is that we were born in the middle, and have been shaped by both sides of the spectrum. Being in the middle makes you more open to new ideas, and more understanding of different viewpoints.

So I hope that when Middle Child Day rolls around on August 12, you take the time to recognize a middle child you know, and to remember the importance of creativity and empathy in your own life.