Birth Order - Middle Child

Posted at 01:00am on 17th October 2008

According to the Wikipedia website, one of the first people to suggest that birth order has an effect on personality was an Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler. A contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, he argued that the way in which each of us tackles the major aspects of life – friendship, love and work – is greatly influenced by our birth order in the family.


It seems to be widely accepted – as I wrote in my post on eldest child syndrome – that the first baby to be born into a family will grow up with a tendency to be analytical, methodical and high achieving. Whether every first born adheres to these attributes is debatable, not least because as a first born, myself, I show none of these traits. Creative, naturally flexible and spontaneous (though I’ve disciplined myself to be orderly where to be otherwise causes me grief) my only achievement was a No. 4 bestseller – and that crept up on me unawares!

The familyrapp website includes the following statement: this child values control and once again this is the very opposite of my personality. Perhaps there’s something my parents aren’t telling me, and I’m not actually the eldest child in our family?

MIDDLE CHILD COMPLEX seems to meet more with my experience of middle children. This website maintains that the middle child may feel insecure, that they feel they have to fight to receive attention from parents and others, and feel out of place because they are being ignored or played off against the eldest.

I would certainly agree that middle children are often compared unfavourably with the eldest child in a family. This was borne out in my own daughters’ experience. The eldest, who even as a toddler played ‘little mum’ - much to her younger sister’s displeasure - displayed many of the traits listed above for first-borns. Although fun-loving at play, she was studious and competitive both at school and with her chosen hobbies, riding and sailing. In fact her interest in sailing only came about when we bought a Mirror dinghy exclusively for the use of her younger sister, in an attempt to give her a boost. Unfortunately, Middle Daughter had inherited my fear of the water and hated the hobby! Eldest Daughter excelled.

Middle Daughter was a born entertainer, and although bright and intelligent, lacked the zeal to compete with her older sister. The result was that she felt she was under constant attack from her teachers, who urged her to be ‘more like your sister’.


Sadly, that injunction to work harder had the opposite effect. Middle Daughter’s attitude seemed to be: why compete when you can command as much parental attention as you wish simply by being mischievous? Even when we bought her a flute – which she’d pleaded for – in the hope that she would excel at something for which her sister had no aptitude, she did not succeed. Nature conspired against her in the form of mouth herpes, brought on by the physical stress of contorting her lips to play her instrument. Her insecurity issues were thus compounded.

But it is helpful, I believe, for parents to be aware of the part they can play in alleviating the symptoms of middle child problems. We talked about sending our middle child to a different school where the emphasis was on art, rather than academia and where – perhaps more importantly – she would be out of her older sister’s shadow. Once again events conspired against her, this time in the form of the breakdown of my marriage to her father.


Literature is strewn with tales of sibling rivalry, one of the latest being I See You Everywhere,
by Julia Glass (pb. Pantheon Books). An autobiographically inspired novel, the story centres on two sisters – the elder ‘brainy, cautious and urban’ – whose jealousy of a younger sister’s ‘superior vitality’ and ‘supercharged love life’ simmers beneath the surface.

A second sister, of course, is not strictly speaking a middle child. But it does seem to reflect a phenomenon which is frequently played out in families, namely the rivalry which often exists between two same sex sibs. Although this is more likely to occur between brothers (all that testosterone) it does also exist between sisters.

This was the basis for conflict between two of the characters in my book A Painful Post Mortem. Always the good, compliant elder child, Rosie is unaware of the influence that her younger sister’s rebelliousness has had upon her, until Katya dies, suddenly. Working through the various components of grief, guilt and anger, Rosie begins to realise the extent of the jealousy she felt as Katya’s self-destructive behaviour commanded all their parents’ attention. Her attempts to please her parents have even influenced her choice of employment, she tells her husband, in a moment of revelation. Instead of pursuing her real interests, she has gone in for nursing – one of the caring professions – and her whole life, she believes, has been a misguided attempt to win approval.


I was reading about Henri Nouwen this week, in preparation for the Readers’ Group which I lead. He was a priest and university professor and, following an exhausting tour on issues concerned with Central American justice, he came across Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. It was to change his life.

He began to realize the extent to which he identified with the eldest son: the one who was miffed when the prodigal returned. You know the scenario? Eldest – good, obedient, dutiful, responsible. Youngest - spoiled, womaniser, spendthrift, runs away from home. And who gets the party thrown for them, and all the attention when they return? Not the eldest, that’s for sure!

The more Nouwen studied the painting, and the parable which it depicts, the more he realised that this was a story of two lost sons. The one who had overtly left the love of his father and gone to a far off country. The other who had remained to do his duty, but whose heart was afar – in a ‘country’ steeped in resentment.

‘The lostness of the resentful “saint” is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous,’ Nouwen wrote. And, ‘The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realise how deeply rooted this form of lostness is.’

And that about sums it up for me. Whether we’re the eldest, middle child or youngest in a family, we’re all prone to jealousy and resentment at times. The point is that, in maintaining that position, we put ourselves in a far off country eating pig-swill when, with a little humility, we have the comfort of home to return to. And a loving Father to welcome us back.

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