So we’ve all heard the term “Middle Child Syndrome.”
It is generally bullshit, and was never even intended by the man who inspired the discussion, Alfred Adler, to be considered a “syndrome.” An actual syndrome is a near-universally repeatable and definable set of symptoms that is characteristic of a disease or disorder. Adler had theories about how birth order relates to behavior at certain times in the development in children, and he had public discussions with Sigmund Freud about the subject. He had certain hypotheses related to this birth order theory and how it could have been caused.
Like many theories during the early years of Psychiatry, it was pretty basic in its assumptions. The idea basically was that because the first child is usually receives privileges and responsibilities within the family, because they are the oldest, and the youngest in the family is more likely to receive indulgences because of their being the baby. The middle child is therefore prone to feeling excluded because they did not receive individual attention from their parents as the oldest did, nor being doted upon as the youngest is. The middle is therefore said to feel both inferior and resentful of their forgotten place in the hierarchy.
No generally, there are environmental factors that can create issues within the family dynamic. For example, one of the things that fits the stereotype for me was when I learned to drive. I went along several times with my father and my brother, who was 18 months older than me, as he practiced driving before getting his learner’s permit in parking and vacant lots. Additionally, I was with them as they went to look at new cars that were intended for my brother and I to share. I thought that given our fraught relationship at the time, there was not a chance in hell that any sharing would occur, but that was a later bridge to be crossed. But I was definitely anticipating my turn at the wheel. After all, my father had been very excited to begin the process with my brother.
But as the time came up, it became obvious that he was less excited about the process. We did drive together twice, but it was only for very short distances behind the grocery store near my house. I continued to ask him every time we were in the car, but he was usually not in the mood and told me that we could do that later, maybe after I got my permit. So as a “middle child,” I improvised, as the oft repeated tendencies indicated I would. I had a friend who had a car and a license, but who did not like to drive. So I began borrowing his car and giving him rides with it whenever possible. I ended up getting my license, and a while later my dad got me a used car from one of his friends, because it was obvious by then that there was no way my brother and I were going to share the other one, as my brother needed it for band practice, etc.
Eventually, when my younger brother was ready to learn to drive a few years later, they would go out often to practice and I tried not to think about it much, because it bothered me a little at the time. Additionally, his business was not in good shape at the time, so they went out and got a 1970 Plymouth Valiant for him to drive. It was an odd indeterminate flesh-like color, but it had style and was not too expensive. After it eventually needed a repair a year or so later that was more expensive than its worth, he got him a new sports car.
One time, many years later, he asked me if it bothered me that they had gotten both of my brothers new cars, but had not done so for me. At the time he asked, he had moved back up to San Francisco because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So I said, no, it had not really bothered me because I liked the car that they had given me. Which was mostly true.
So in some ways, the environmental aspects of life as a middle child may have contributed in this instance, but two things bother me about this definition. The theory posits that middle children can be excellent communicators, and have strong interpersonal relationship skills and empathy. Sure, some of this may fit sometimes, but not in all cases. I am fairly empathetic, and communicate well in some ways, but even still have interpersonal relationship skills that I would consider significantly below average. Another generalization is that we are often considered to be a peacemaker within the family, mediating within the family because of the skills arising from learning how to function in our ill-defined family role. On that one, I can only laugh, because not only is my family dynamic far too complex and tangled for there to be a peacemaker, I grew out of any desire to fill that role very early on.
In general, I think that all generalizations do not serve us well, but ones like this are not useful in many cases because they influence the very behaviors that they say causes the result. The cause, according to Adler, is that parents create this issue by their behaviors because the birth order of their children gives them no choice but to act that way. As with all one size fits all explanations, this fits only a very few, and even those it fits poorly. But the popularization of the outline of the theory does make it into a source of humor about or excuse for any family dynamic that comes up.
Personally, coming from a family of three boys, and having three boys of my own, I can only say this: As parents, it is inevitable that you are going to screw up your children in some way. The only thing you can do is to figure out how to make sure that you screw them up in the best way you possibly can.
Middle child or not.