Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Middle Child is a Bridge Between Siblings by Dr. Alan Singer

Here's what I wrote in the Home News Tribune on 01/11/07 when New Jersey Transit announced it's new double-decker trains. Night and day in the tri-state area, all you heard in the media was that the new trains eliminate those dreadful "middle" seats and it made me feel sorry for middle children, so I did some research and also got some insightful comments from brother and my daughter.

You no doubt are aware of the most exciting arrival in New Jersey for new millennium: New Jersey Transit's new double-decker trains! The enthusiasm is palpable. Last week, when I was New York-bound at 6:50 a.m. (and asleep) the conductor woke us up using the public-address system just so we could look out the window and see a westbound double-decker; a truly forgettable experience.

But the feature that is getting all the attention on the new trains is not safety or capacity. It is "No Middle Seats." Being in the middle is seemingly the bane of our existence, because commuters will end up sandwiched between two sumo wrestlers for an hour ride to or from work. As a family therapist and social science researcher for 30 years, I am sensitive to the unique and often misunderstood position of middle children, which is the topic of this column.

Why does the middle spot get such a bad rap? And with nicknames like "middleitis" and "middle child syndrome" it sounds like scientists are working around the clock to find a vaccination for this dreaded disease. Why do some people assume that since the oldest is independent and the youngest gets all the coddling, therefore the middle child must be neglected and dysfunctional?
In Frank Sulloway's book on birth order titled "Born to Rebel," he states: "The toughest minded individuals are first-borns. Youngest children hold their own ground because parents and sometimes other siblings intervene on behalf of the "baby' of the family. As a result of such tactical constraints, middle children do well to develop diplomatic skills and to cultivate coalitions with other siblings.

"Compared with other siblings," Sulloway indicates, "middle children are more flexible and favor compromise." An excellent example of an individual who favored nonviolent methods of political protest is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the second of three children.

In order to uphold the high standards of this column, I contacted two distinguished experts in the field of middle children: my brother and my daughter. My middle brother Marc is the founding partner of SingerXenos Wealth Management in Miami. He asserts, "The positive benefit for middle children is they learn to be expert negotiators and navigators." Marc cleverly observes: "Middle children can find allies in either older siblings or younger siblings depending on the circumstances that best suit them at the time, which teaches them diplomatic skills. Middle children quickly learn to avoid mistakes that the less experienced older child may make." (Yikes that's me — the oldest brother.) He adds, "Middles also don't suffer from the "our youngest child is so cute so let's spoil him' syndrome." Thanks for the insight, bro.

My middle daughter Dee is a psychology major at Stern College in New York. She relates that her older sister assumes the role of peacemaker. "However, being that I am in the middle," commented Dee, "I sometimes feel like I'm a bridge between all the siblings and will often be the one to facilitate communication amongst the siblings."

Dee described a visit to her teacher's home when her teacher's baby dropped her pacifier on the floor. My daughter went to wash it off and the woman commented, "That's OK, you can just rub it off; by the third child you don't do that anymore." My daughter felt slighted. "Just because I was born third, I don't get clean pacifiers? What else didn't I get that I should have?" Dee believes that middle children often think in terms of "rights" or things they are entitled to. "Middles don't want to be cheated," she concludes, "and often may feel like they are since their position in the family is not as unique as the others."

What are we to learn from these experts? This is certainly not a disease or a syndrome. As with many other patterns of behavior, it may describe you but it shouldn't define you.

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park and can be reached at

Lifestyles, Child Rearing Differ Based on Politics by Dr. Alan Singer

Here is an essay I wrote in the Home News Tribune on 12/20/06 regarding the 2006 Elections. To see this essay on the SmartMarriages website click here.

Red States have higher divorce rates? Blue states have smaller families? Read on if that sounds intriguing.....

Consider two unusual political trends relating to marriage and children. Red states have higher divorce rates than democratic states and blue states have smaller families than republicans. What's behind these trends?

Divorce first: Wouldn't you think that California, the "left" side of the country with its free-spirited open-mindedness and "splitsville" movie stars, has a high divorce rate? Conversely, shouldn't Bible belt states like Arkansas and Mississippi, with their family values, have low divorce rates? Wrong on both accounts.

California has one of the lowest divorce rates and Mississippi and Arkansas two of the highest (Census Bureau). Pam Belluck of the New York Times observed: "The lowest divorce rates are largely in the blue states: the Northeast and the Upper Midwest. And the state with the lowest divorce rate (5.7 divorces per 1,000 married people) was Massachusetts, home to John Kerry and the Kennedys."

"The higher the educational level, higher the occupational level, higher the income, the less likely you are to divorce," said William V. D'Antonio, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America, noting that Massachusetts has the highest rate of high school and college completion. Kids who drop out of high school and get married very quickly suffer from the strains of not being emotionally mature and not having the income to help weather the difficulties of marriage," Belluck wrote.

I ran this question by several experts in the field. Dr. David Popenoe, of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, reiterated, "The more educated people found in the blue states have lower divorce rates and also lower fertility rates; for less educated people, it is the reverse."

Dr. William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota suggests, "The main issue for republicans and conservatives and evangelical Christians is that the discrepancy between their self-appraisals as the family values folks and the fact that being in those groups does not seem to convey any benefits for marital stability."
My thinking is that divorce is not an exclusively conservative nemesis and democrats have no reason to be smug. With the U.S. divorce rate hovering at 50 percent, we all have reason for serious concern.

"Larger social forces that fragment our marriages have far greater power than the teachings of conservative (or liberal) faith communities," Doherty said.
Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman, from his 47 years of treating marriages, explains: "We know that Southern Baptists have the highest rate of divorce of any Christian group, perhaps because they believe that lusting in your heart is as big a deal as doing it in public. The more conservative that people are, the less tolerant they are of human frailties, their own or those of others."

Pittman concludes, "Marriage, to last, requires two imperfect people with compassion for one another's struggles and conservatives can't always do that."
Liberal baby blues is a different matter. David Brooks of the New York Times observed that birthrates are falling in Western Europe and many regions of the United States. People are marrying later and having fewer children. "You can see surprising political correlations," he said. "Bush (in 2004) carried the 19 states with the highest fertility rates. Kerry won the 16 states with the lowest rates."

Arthur Brooks of the Wall Street Journal emphasized, "Liberals have a big baby problem: They're not having enough of them, they haven't for a long time, and their pool of potential new voters is suffering as a result."

According to the 2004 General Social Survey, if you picked 100 unrelated politically liberal adults at random, you would find that they had between them 147 children. If you picked 100 conservatives, you would find 208 kids. That's a fertility gap of 41 percent.
What are some factors that influence family size? Philip Longman of USA Today shed some light on this: "In the USA, 47 percent of people who attend church weekly say their ideal family size is three or more children. By contrast, 27 percent of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.'

Religious observance is a good predictor of ideal family size as well as income, education and family-of-origin family size. Should liberals try to persuade each other to have more children for the sake of their ideology? Procreate for the cause? I don't think so. Many governments enduring declines in fertility institute pronatalist policies. Incentives may include child allowances, birth grants and paid maternity leave, and are meant to increase family size. While these policies do not guarantee that family size will increase, they are a guarantee of treating families in a manner that makes child-rearing less of a financial burden, which is a welcome benefit. Governments often want to increase family size to ensure that there are enough soldiers for a formidable army and enough workers to pay taxes for programs that sustain the elderly such as Social Security. I don't see families having significantly more children for the sake of the Motherland or for an ideology such as liberalism.

From my two decades of research in family size and more practically speaking, as the father of four children, I can say with full confidence: The primary reason a couple should have a (another) child is because they want to love, cherish and care for that child, not for the sake of any cause or ideology.

Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park and can be reached at