Posted: Monday April 9, 2012, 2:02 PM
Parenting: Stuck in the Middle
By Donna Nitzberg

What do Anne Hathaway, Joe Jonas and Hope Davis have in common? Sure, they're are all successful entertainers with North Jersey roots. But they're also middle children.

Surprised? You might be if you buy into the common perception of "middle child syndrome," in which middle children are subject to neglect, resentment, a negative outlook on life and the feeling that they don't belong. But that description is a myth according to Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann's book, The Secret Power of Middle Children: How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and Remarkable Abilities. As the title indicates, the authors – and many experts today – think it's time to turn the old stereotype on its head.

The idea is to coax good results out of the family dynamics that occur when a child is positioned in the middle. A middle child might not inspire as much energy and excitement as a firstborn, but she can be parented with more confidence and probably won't feel as pressured to perform. A middle child might not get as many passes and excuses as the last-born, but he learns how to work harder for his achievements.

Of course, birth order theories are, at best, controversial. Dr. Frank Sileo, a psychologist who works with children and families at his private practice in Ridgewood, makes it clear that birth order is one of the less powerful forces in the psychological makeup of a child. He quickly cites other common variables that affect a child's personality and need to be considered. These include inborn temperament, gender, family size and spacing, whether a family is blended or a child is adopted, whether there is a divorce or a parental death, and whether the primary caregiver is a parent, grandparent, nanny or au pair.

And he warns vigorously against mindlessly ascribing a child's personality type to birth order. It is, Sileo says, almost too easy to fall into the trap of treating birth order traits as a predetermined, horoscope-like way to classify kids. He says he sees it often in his practice. "Parents may say, 'Oh, she's the middle child. You know, she's so difficult,'" he explains. "But then when I meet the other siblings, they're not any more or less difficult than the child I'm seeing."

It's important to consider your personal prejudices and experiences when it comes to birth order and to ensure that you're as fair as possible when raising each of your children. "I think you need to try to parent based upon the temperament or personality of the child," Sileo says. "And be sure to not fall into that self-fulfilling process of pigeonholing children because they're the youngest or the oldest or the middle."

Kelly Lerch of Montvale, an accounting professional and mother of three teenage girls, agrees that birth order is not the be-all and end-all in her children's development. She notes that their personalities don't really reflect their birth order.

So what do "mid kids" have in common? Salmon and Schumann's research for their book uncovered a more positive profile of middle children than the common stereotype. Attributes include being self-aware team players, outgoing, flexible, diplomatic, motivated by justice rather than money, confident, loyal, risk-takers and trail-blazers.

And after all his warnings against taking birth order theory too seriously, Sileo concedes there is some solid psychological research showing slight but measurable differences in children who were born in the middle. He says the strongest findings show middle children are more agreeable and have stronger bonds with friends than family, compared to their siblings.

Of course, like any trait, either of those can have positive and negative implications. A child can become so agreeable that he loses himself in others. On the other hand, that attribute might make him a sought-after and trusted friend. Being agreeable can also lead to deft diplomacy, such as that displayed by the beloved peacemaker and middle child Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Randi Debruyn of Ho-Ho-Kus, the mother of three boys, ages 9, 6 and 4, recognizes in her middle son the traits of being a good-natured peacemaker. "He seems perfectly happy," she says. "He's never once complained that he's not the oldest or that he's not the youngest. For him, it's more about fairness and equality. He's very conscious of what the other children are getting versus what he's getting, and he is always trying to make sure that it's equal."

Then there is the child who bonds best outside the family. It might seem more difficult to raise such children – and maybe that is where the reputation of the difficult middle child comes from. But if a parent's job is to successfully launch children into the world, then middle kids who feel most comfortable outside the family can be effective partners in fulfilling that goal.

In addition to those two traits, a recent survey out of Britain's thebabywebsite.com found that about a third of the 1,000 parents with three kids who took part in the survey said they gave their middle child far less attention than the other two. And that 40 percent said it was so hard to treat their trio of offspring equally that they would recommend stopping at two.

"I think the middle one definitely gets squeezed," Lerch says. "In the scheme of things, she probably gets the least. For example, she gets hand-me-downs from her older sister, but by the time she's done with them, they're really not viable for the third one, who then gets new stuff."

But, Lerch continues, her middle daughter is also the most appreciative of the three. "She's very understanding and will grow to be a well-adjusted adult. From where she stands, she knows what's coming and where she's been."

Debruyn agrees the middle position seems to be beneficial for her son. "He has the older one to look up to and follow in his footsteps," she says. "And then he also gets to be the teacher to his little brother."

Making Middle Special

In a family where children are spaced close together, the first-born and the last-born typically get the lion's share of attention. Parenting a firstborn is an uncharted adventure, and everything baby does is remarkable. When the last little one enters the nest, they might be coddled and cooed over as the family baby for an entire lifetime. Sandwiched in between, middle kids can be more easily ignored.

Of course, "mid kids" don't have to contend as much with a glaring spotlight and can benefit from a more relaxed parenting style than their older sibling. They're also typically less pampered and thus learn to become more independent than their baby sibling. So overall, there are positives and negatives in every birth order. That's why psychologist Dr. Frank Sileo recommends you "parent based upon the temperament or personality of your child, and not their birth order."

He reminds parents that "during the first year of a child's life, the bonding between the mother or the caretaker and the child during that period is so important. Even though it is difficult to divide your time among children, you need to be aware of that."

In addition, he stresses five key ingredients in the parenting recipe. They are:

•    Communication between parent and child

•    Consistency in core behavioral expectations and household rules

•    Control over the household and over your emotions

•    Cooperation with your co-parent or partner in parenting

•    Consequences to behavior that are clearly laid out for children