THE ENDURING MYTHS
Middleborns make up a significant proportion of the population. After all, every family with three or more children has at least one middleborn. While there are around 70 million middles in America (counting adults and children), there's been remarkably little focus on understanding the role that birth order has played in shaping their lives. They're often referred to as "the neglected birth order" — a reference both to the way they've experienced their family growing up and the way they've been overlooked by researchers.
But what do people really think about middles? One study from the City College of New York asked participants to list three words that described each birth order position and then rate those words in terms of their positive or negative connotations. The firstborn position was seen as the most favored, with more positively viewed traits than negative ones.
Many traits, such as "ambitious" and "friendly," were listed across several birth orders. Middleborns were the only birth order, however, that did not have the word "spoiled" as a descriptor. Several traits appeared only in relation to the middle position, including "neglected/overlooked" and "confused." While they actually shared many positive terms with other birth orders (such as "caring," "outgoing," and "responsible"), it's often the traits that make someone different that stick in people's heads. Would you remember that middles are "ambitious/achievers" or only that they are "neglected" and "confused"?
A more recent study explored people's beliefs about which features they attribute to which birth order so researchers could examine how those beliefs influence the way people act. This is important because, for instance, if you believe firstborns are more hardworking or intelligent than others, it could impact which employee you decide to promote. After all, our beliefs about people affect how we behave toward them. Researchers asked Stanford University undergraduates to complete questionnaires that had them rate only children, firstborns, middleborns, lastborns, and themselves on five point scales, including such descriptors as agreeable-disagreeable; bold-timid; and creative-uncreative. Firstborns were seen as most intelligent, obedient, stable, and responsible. Lastborns were the most emotional, extroverted, irresponsible, and talkative.
Middle children were perceived as most envious, and least bold and talkative. Not a very good showing for middles in terms of how others perceive them.
And let's take a look at how birth order is portrayed in the media. Dozens and dozens of articles are focused on the so-called "middle child syndrome." According to online, newspaper, and magazine articles, this syndrome is characterized by the following:
• low creativity
• lack of career focus
• a negative outlook on life
• the feeling that they don't belong
The overall picture is tremendously negative. It portrays middleborns as unable to find their place in the world, shying away from the spotlight, bitter and resentful, underachievers, and loners. One author of a birth order book remarked that a reader had written to complain about how few pages were devoted to middles compared to other birth orders. The author quipped that only a middle child — neglected and envious — would care about something like that. Considering the lack of attention paid to them in the research literature, I couldn't help but feel for the reader and be annoyed by the author. But it definitely reflects the way middles have been perceived — up until now.
The Secret Power of Middle Children will dismantle these outdated middle child myths and present a fascinating new character sketch. In reality, contrary to expectations, middleborns are agents of change in business, politics, and science — more so than firstborns or lastborns. Middles are self-aware team players with remarkable diplomatic skills. Because they're both outgoing and flexible, they tend to deal well with others — in the workplace and at home. They're more motivated by fairness than money when making life choices, and have a deep sense of family, friends, and loyalty. History shows them to be risk takers and trailblazers, yet they do suffer needlessly from poor self-esteem. Through this book I hope to set the record straight.
Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group [USA] Inc., from The Secret Power of Middle Children by Catherine Salmon, Ph.D., and Katrin Schumann.