There is all kinds of information written about middle children, and I’ve read a lot of it because I am a middle child, and I have a middle child. Others in my family have a middle child, as well, and if there’s one thing I have seen it is that so much that is written about middle children is misguided and simply wrong.
There are, of course, a few realities for middle children that, if parents just understood those, would make being a middle child feel absolutely no different from a first-born or last-born sibling when it comes to feeling valued as an individual.
The first thing parents need to do is stop themselves from being too aware that their middle child is, in fact, a “Middle Child”. Parents who focus too much on that run the risk of looking for problems that the child “may” develop or interpreting differences that result from a child’s uniqueness to as problems or flaws. Parents often compare the second child to the first one, and just doing that – even when it relates to something seemingly harmless, such as liking or disliking some activity, can highlight for the child that his parents are seeing him as different. Parents who were delighted with their first baby often come to see that child as a model by which to measure any younger children, and comparing the second child to his older sibling doesn’t give the younger child the benefit of feeling as if he is in this world on his own, individual, terms.
Another simple thing parents can do is make sure that all of their children have time alone with each parent. The ideal thing, beyond having time alone with each parent and with both parents together, is when a child has, say, a special aunt or friend of his parents to have some special time with as well. Regardless of a child’s place among his siblings, all children benefit from time alone with special adults.
Being aware of what often happens in families of three children may help parents see their middle child in a slightly different light: When the first baby is born that baby is usually “his mother’s baby”. This isn’t to underestimate the child’s relationship with his father because he’s his father’s first baby too, but there is that bond between mothers and first babies that is, rightfully so, so strong little can break into what the two share. When the second baby is born the bond is the same, but there is the presence of the older child, and the mother usually works hard to keep the closeness she and the older child have shared and to make sure her first child doesn’t feel pushed aside when the baby arrives. The older child is old enough, too, to enjoy certain activities for which the baby is too young, so there may be the tendency for the mother to take her first child out somewhere; while leaving the younger one with his father. As the younger child grows to enjoy this special time with Dad he may actually prefer it even if Mom is going somewhere with his older sibling and asks if he wants to come. It gets “established” in some subtle way that one child tends to go with Mom more often, and one tends to stay with Dad more often.
By the time the third child is born the older one may have his own life at school and with friends, so Mom naturally and once again has the opportunity to spend extra time with her new baby (and rightfully so), while the second child already gets his special time and attention from Dad. What can happen as a result of this family dynamic is that while the second child has “claimed” Dad for his individual attention, he has also done the very natural thing of differentiating himself from his older sibling as a way to have his own identity. This can result in Mom’s knowing the middle child leans toward his father more than the other children do and that he is “different” from them (because the “baby” of the family may have differentiated himself from his closest older sibling or because he may have a more similar relationship with his mother that the oldest child had).
As a middle child, I grew up never wanting attention because I saw how my older sister enjoyed it and saw her eagerness to please adults and enjoy a lot of attention as undignified (not a word my vocubularly included back then but the meaning of it was something I knew even if I didn’t know the word). Somehow it seemed there was a lack of self-respect in the individual who thrived so on attention.
Because of children’s differentiating themselves, mothers and fathers need to be careful not to allow themselves to view their second child as “odd” just because he is different from the other two.
Being careful not to over-emphasize how important something like the first child’s school involvement is as compared with a younger child’s lack of attending school is something else parents may want to try to do. In my own situation, I grew up with a sister who did more grown-up things first and while I was still doing less grown-up things. It did create a feeling that everything she was doing was more important than what I was doing, whether that was attending kindergarten while I was still home, attending elementary school while I was kindergarten age, attending highschool while I was still “only” in elementary school, or getting married while I was still worried about the senior prom.
Parents should also be careful about offering second-borns too many second-hand things. Sometimes second-born children are given the clothes of first-borns when those clothes may not even be that tastes or style of that younger child. Every child needs his share of brand, new, things that were bought just for him.
In the song, Evergreen, there is the line, “You and I will make each night a first, every day a beginning.” When it comes to children parents should vow – when it comes to each baby they bring into the world – that “you and I will make each child a first, every life a beginning”. Keeping that idea in mind and refusing to allow the term, “middle child”, to become a part of family vernacular may help each child feel as if he is the first.