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


Noah773 said...

Very interesting article! I may now understand my sibs a little more.