Middle child syndrome is it fact or fiction?
I recently received an email from a mum who was agonising over whether to have a third child. She was concerned that her second child would become the ‘middle child’ and suffer from middle child syndrome.
This mum told me:
“When I told someone what we’re thinking they immediately said with horror that ‘poor Sophie will be a middle child!’. What does that mean? I never thought of it being a problem, so now I’m wondering what all the fuss is about. Please explain?”
Birth order proponents have argued for decades that firstborn kids are leaders, who are responsible, and intelligent. They say middle children feel left out and isolated, are laid back and learn to negotiate well. Oh, and they’ll likely move far from home to get out of their older sibling’s shadow. And last-borns? They can be seen as a little spoiled and manipulative. And they’re seen as not being too disciplined.
But there are lots of questions left to be answered about birth order
What about when you only have two kids or four or more? And does it matter how far apart the kids are? How does it work with twins or triplets? What about when families blend? Or separate? What happens when a child dies? And does the timing of death matter? Does the third child now become the second? How about gender? Does it matter whether your elder sibling is a male or female? Do firstborn sons act differently to firstborn daughters?
What does the science say?
Researchers have been trying to generate evidence to support birth-order hypotheses for decades. But the evidence they’ve gathered is poor, lacks reliability and isn’t easily replicated, possesses significant methodological challenges (to put it politely), and generally doesn’t stack up to anything meaningful at all.
Here’s a snapshot of what researchers have found:
Research indicates that there are birth order differences, but they’re so small as to be essentially meaningless, accounting for less than one percent of the overall difference among the children.
The data show a miniscule difference in intelligence (measured by IQ). A Norwegian study of more than 240, 000 children focused exclusively on males and found an IQ difference of just three points from firstborn to last-born – in other words, nothing.
A study of nearly 300, 000 Taiwanese students showed a relationship of both gender and birth order on intelligence, but it seems that parental income is the critical issue on test scores, rather than birth order. Other researchers have also discredited studies promoting the idea that birth order influences intelligence.
Plus, in really big families later-born children do better educationally – probably because their folks have finally gotten it together financially by then!
A recent study linked birth order with conduct and emotional disorders. However, family structure, gender and the number of children also contribute to risk – and the sample did not come from the general population.
In this study, children’s personalities were assessed with no evidence found that birth order was related to personality. This is consistent with several other studies that provide compelling evidence comparing personality and birth order both within and between families.
One area that shows some support for birth order effects is in the kinds of goals we set for ourselves.
Research indicates firstborn children are strongly mastery-oriented and are willing to learn, while later-born children prefer to prove what they can do by setting performance goals.
In this area, findings are mixed, but once again, when birth order is implicated in risky behaviour, it tends to mean very little.
Sometimes some children may be more or less risk-averse based on their birth order, but other factors such as gender, siblings, etc, can impact whether the birth order effect exists. (For examples, see here and here.)
One exception may be that middle- and last-borns may take more risks with alcohol and sex. However, this may be less to do with birth order and more to do with parenting style, with parents becoming more relaxed with later-born than firstborn children.
There are dozens of other categories that have been investigated in relation to birth order. Sometimes evidence supports a birth order effect, but the weight of evidence does not.
And at the risk of getting all scientific, studies that compare ‘across’ or ‘between’ families really aren’t valid because of huge differences within families. We need research within families to really get the data we need – and that data tends to dissuade us from believing the birth order hype.
In short, there may be small effects of birth order on some aspects of who we become. But research suggests our choice of friends, the influence of our parents and (in later life, partners), and a wide variety of other factors appear to have a much more significant impact on who we become.
Birth order is like astrology or the Myers-Briggs Type Index (MBTI). By all means, read it, do the surveys and laugh about how much like you that description really is. If you look for similarities you’ll find them.
But don’t take it too seriously. And whatever you do, don’t let it define you.
- How birth order affects siblings
- Birth order tool
- Family influences on birth order
- Why study birth order
This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz