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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Thoughts on a middle-born child


"I just don't get my middle child," a mother told me recently. It prompted me to look up an old column which reminded me that, by definition, a middle born can be any child/ren between the first and last. I love what Meri Wallace said to me once in an interview: "This child always feels as if he's in a race. Above you is the child you are racing to catch up with; below you is the child you are racing to stay ahead of." (Wallace is author of "Birth Order Blues.")

So does this describe your middle-born?

Independent. More liikely to do sleepovers younger than the first or the last; have a wider circle of friends than the first-born at the same ages; be the first among friends to dye his hair purple (the first-born may never do that!). What accounts for this streak of independence? Middles typically are not as connected to mom and dad. Don't panic; that doesn't mean they aren't connected, period. It just means that in comparison they are less connected than first- or last-borns and thus more able to be more independent at younger ages. In a survey of 7,000 siblings, when asked, "Who would you turn to for help in a crisis," first- and last-borns said mom or dad. Middle-borns were more likely to say a peer or sibling. Great book on this: "Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creatives Lives" by Frank Sulloway. Here's one red flag: The middle born typically is at greater risk than first-or last-borns during the middle- and high-school years. He's more easily influenced by peers because he tends to be less reliant on the family for emotional support.

Adaptive. With a first-born, the family's schedule revolves around hte baby. With the second-born, the schedule revolves around car pools for the first. When the next baby comes along, the now-middle child's schedule gets adapted to that one. Don't feel guilty; this is a fact of life. It's what makes a middle-born flexible, even if, at the time, it makes her cranky. Who's the best friend you had as a child? Any chance it was a middle-born?

A peacemaker. Feeling the squeeze from both ends -- she has to deal with the quirks, needs and wants of both the older and younger sibs, tends to make this child good at negotiation, compromise and peacemaking. What may begin as a survival skill frequently becomes a source of satisfcation.

Of course, this doesn't mean middle-borns can't also be comptetitive and downright mean. What's behind any middle's behavior is often a need to find a niche in the family.
So what's a parent to do?

Make a point of asking for his opinion. The middle child often feels -- and, let's face, is -- lost in the shuffle. The more you ask, "What do you think," the less he'll need to seek negative attention.

Make time alone with her. Every child needs this; it's the single best antidote to almost any negative behavior. But with the middle-child, perhaps more than first- or last-borns, it will really pay off.

Quit with the comparisons! -- or at least, turn them on their head. Because middles tend to feel competitive with the first-born, they are constantly asking questions like, "How old was Will when he read his first chapter book?" Consider an answer like this: "Will was younger than you. He started to read first. But you were younger when you started to draw. You started to draw first."

A word about that sense of competition. It's a strong motivator for middle's. When they want to do the same sport as the older sib, the thought they have often is, ""I can do it better!" Even when they feel, "No matter how hard I try, it's not as good!" there's that drive to try again anyway. If a middle insists on playing soccer like his brother, it doesn't mean he shouldn't; in fact, it may mean a lot to him to be able to prove to himself that he can cut it. But the hard work is for us, the parents: don't compare him to how his brother played at this age. And always help each child, but especially a middle, find some activity that only he does. By the way, if a middle-born never seems to stay with only activity very long -- a season at baseball, a season at bastketball -- it may be because he's looking for the gap in the family that he can fill. Let him experiment.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:24 AM
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