science of us

The Extinction of the Middle Child

I don’t need to ask you what you’re doing on August 12, 2018. You’re no doubt planning to attend your local Middle Child Day parade, or take in a lecture on Famous Middle Children Throughout History (Abraham Lincoln, Anne Hathaway, Jan Brady), or perhaps treat your own middle child (or middle children — after all, every child born after the first and before the last is technically a middle) to a special Middle Child’s dinner, then come home and cut your Happy Middle Child Day cake into several perfectly equal pieces, then crack open a bottle of Middle Sister wine to celebrate. (It’s a real product, created for “middle sisters everywhere.”)

Or, more likely, you’re doing none of these things, because you had no idea that August 12 is National Middle Child Day. I am a middle child, and until very recently, I had no idea. Of course, to middle children, this exact brand of ambient neglect is what defines being a middle: Not the lionized firstborn, adored and groomed to succeed, and not the coddled lastborn, the baby of the family, who benefits from inexhaustible attention and experienced parents. No, the middle child is just that — the middle. Excluded, forgotten, shoved into the role of de facto peacemaker among squabbling kinfolk, stripped rudely at an early age of the privileged status as the youngest and taught instead to accept benign indifference from siblings, parents, and the world.

So here’s a suggestion as to how you can spend the next National Middle Child Day: contemplating the extinction of the middle child. Because, like the mountain gorilla and the hawksbill turtle, the American Middle Child is now an endangered species. As the ideal number of children per family has shrunk to two — that’s not me speaking, it’s demographics — the middle child, in a very real sense, is disappearing. According to a study by the Pew Research Center in 1976, “the average mother at the end of her childbearing years had given birth to more than three children.” Read that again: In the ’70s, four kids (or more) was the most common family unit. Back then, 40 percent of mothers between 40 and 44 had four or more children. Twenty-five percent had three kids; 24 percent had two; and 11 percent had one.

Today, those numbers have essentially reversed. Nearly two-thirds of women with children now have two or one — i.e., an oldest, a youngest, but no middle.

This holds true not just in space-and-time-and-money-crunched New York, but all across the country: Families with two or fewer kids have become the norm for every demographic group. Middle children, the most populous birth-order demographic throughout most of human history, will soon be the tiniest.

While dramatic, this shift won’t be surprising if you haunt the playgrounds of New York. As a fairly recent new parent (of one, so far), I know that, observationally speaking, two kids has become the default norm. The common argument for two kids is a reasonable one: You have an oldest, a youngest, and a sibling for both. Three kids — which a generation ago was considered a slightly smaller brood than ideal — now seems aspirational, even decadent. “A certain set of married, affluent New Yorkers are going for the third child,” the New York Times reported in 2014, and went on to quote a father of three: “At some level, the third child is a proxy for having enough wealth to have a very comfortable life.” For most everyone else, two seems like plenty. Millennials are waiting longer to get married and women are waiting longer to have children. Housing and college are more expensive than ever, and the future of the planet itself is increasingly in question. Personally, I know lots and lots of couples in New York who have children; I know precisely one family with a middle child. That couple has three kids — the Brooklyn equivalent of Cheaper by the Dozen or Jon & Kate Plus 8.

The extinction of middle children might not seem, at first, like a pressing dilemma. Middles, when they’re thought of at all, are most often thought of as beleaguered, overburdened, and underappreciated. Being a middle child is not something you aspire to; it’s something that happens to you. As one middle child said to me, “There is a thing called Middle Child Syndrome. There’s no Oldest Child Syndrome or Youngest Child Syndrome. We’re the only ones with a syndrome.” Yet if you give credence to the concept of birth-order attributes — the idea that where you are born among your siblings leaves an indelible mark on your personality — then you must now contemplate a world in which an entire subspecies is about to disappear, for generations to come. Which affects all of us — first, last, and in between.

The middle Brontës, Emily (center) and Charlotte (right), wrote the masterpieces. Photo: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

As a middle child (or, in the lingo of psychologists, a “middleborn,” which has a pleasingly Tolkien-ish ring to it), I am dismayed at the potential disappearance of my ilk. I’m the middle of three — two boys, one girl — so I’m what’s sometimes referred to as a “classic middle,” as opposed to, say, the five middle kids in between the oldest and youngest in a family of seven. I’m a redhead, too, another species that, thanks to regressive genetics, faces theoretical extinction in the next hundred years — a distinction I share with Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, who once noted: “I was a redhead and a middle child; both can make you feel excluded. It’s like fighting to be included in the swim of things. After a while, you start to develop a bit of a victim mentality, which isn’t great for a happy life.”

Growing up, I certainly was always aware that the middle was not a position to be envied, even as I came to see typical middle-child traits in myself. Middle children are natural mediators; I avoid conflict and habitually act as the family mediator. Middle children tend to be private but also starved for affection; I keep to myself but am not exactly attention-averse. Yet unlike Shirley Manson, I never felt my middleness (or my redheadedness) stood in the way of a happy life. To me, middles were the ones who’d lucked out, the equivalent of the porridge in Goldilocks: Among the too hot and too cold, we’re the just right. Sure, oldest kids may grow up to be CEOs (they disproportionately do), and youngest kids may grow up to be comedians (they disproportionately do), but middle kids have particular strengths, too. If the middle child has to work harder to find a way to shine, then we all benefit from their efforts. If the middle child is more likely to take risks, those risks might reward us all. If the middle child is a natural peacemaker, can’t we all use a little more peace? “What few people realize is that middle children are actually more likely to successfully effect change in the world than any other birth order,” says psychologist Catherine Salmon, a leading expert on middle children. “As is so often the case with middles, they’re perennially underestimated.”

It’s possible, of course, that the entire theory of birth-order attribution is overblown. Many psychologists discount it altogether, citing the so-called Barnum Effect. Coined by psychologist Paul Meehl in 1956, the Barnum Effect describes our tendency to recognize and agree with personality traits that seem to be tailored specifically for us, even when they’re general enough to apply to a large group. (If you’re told that, say, redheads are “nice, but occasionally stubborn” you’ll agree if you’re a redhead, even though that could really describe anyone.) The Barnum Effect helps explain, for example, the perceived accuracy of fortune tellers, who are expert at manipulating this tendency. There’s undoubtedly an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to any set of characteristics ascribed to birth order, much as there is to, say, those linked to astrological signs. And there have been large studies of birth order that seem to discredit the notion that common attributes exist at all.

The best counterargument in favor of birth order is that it helps explain — along with genetics — why siblings can be so different from each other. After all, siblings are generally exposed to the same developmental conditions, whether parental, geographic, or economic. The only obvious variances in siblings are gender and birth order. So when it comes to you and your siblings, other factors (like divorce, or affluence, or poverty) might help explain the ways in which your family is different from everyone else. But birth order helps explain why you’re different from one another. Plus, self-fulfilling attributes work both ways: If you believe that being a middle child (or a firstborn) has made you into a certain kind of person, you might also become that kind of person — in the same way that a fervent belief that Scorpios possess specific attributes might cause you to highlight or cultivate those attributes.

Jennifer Lopez; her little sister, Lynda; and her older sister, Leslie.

Mostly, what I learned as a middle child is that being the middle means being defined by what you are not. You’re shaped primarily by what you missed out on and what you don’t possess. According to studies, middles, traditionally, receive less financial and emotional support from their parents. They also typically have a less intimate relationship with their mothers and fathers compared to other siblings, so they tend to have more friends, presumably in compensation. The list of famous middle children includes figures as diverse as Warren Buffett and Jennifer Lopez, but for the most part, middles are reliably cast in the culture as oddballs, outcasts, and misfits. On TV family sitcoms, the middle child is the misunderstood smart aleck, whether it’s Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons), Darlene Conner (Roseanne), Alex Dunphy (Modern Family), or Malcolm Wilkerson (Malcolm in the Middle). Then there’s Peter and Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch, the middles in their respective gender troikas. It was certainly not lost on me as a kid that, in the opening-credits grid of the Brady-family offspring, Peter and Jan occupy the least favorable squares (middle left, middle right) — the same squares that the least famous and least funny guests on Hollywood Squares, people like Joey Bishop and Totie Fields, always got stuck in.

Nonetheless, watching The Brady Bunch, I instinctively associated with Peter, who seemed more self-aware than heartthrob Greg and less irritating than mewling baby Bobby. As for Jan Brady — well, Jan, in both her initial incarnation (played by Eve Plumb) and her ’90s-era Saturday Night Live parody (played by Melanie Hutsell), became pop culture’s most enduring embodiment of the middle child, a character so epically persecuted by her birth-order status that her cri de middledom — Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! — could be the Latin motto emblazoned above the family crest of Middle Children, where something like fide fortuna forti would normally go.

Not much has changed since The Brady Bunch in popular attitudes about middles, who are now common fodder for BuzzFeed listicles like “19 Things All Middle Children Know Too Well.” There are middle-child memes that feature observations like BORN SECOND, COMES LAST and “LET’S FOCUS ON THE MIDDLE CHILD FOR A WHILE” … SAID NO PARENT EVER superimposed over the faces of sad little neglected squirts. For every admirable middle child in world history (did I mention Abraham Lincoln?), there’s a classic famous middle who seems to embody a middle child’s insatiable need for attention and affirmation (did I mention Madonna?).

Such notions about the disadvantages of middleness are pervasive. In a study conducted by the City College of New York in which participants were asked to choose words they associate with first, last, and middle kids, positive attributes such as “caring” and “ambitious” were cited in reference to all three birth orders. Only middles, however, were described with such negative terms as “overlooked” and “confused.” More significantly, middles were the only birth order to which no one applied the term “spoiled.” Middles may be many things, but they are not overindulged. A similar study at Stanford reached a near-identical conclusion: People largely believe firstborns to be stable, responsible, obedient, and intelligent. Lastborns are thought to be emotional, outgoing, and disobedient. Middles, by contrast, are characterized primarily as envious and are perceived as especially deficient in attributes related to confidence. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

The true evidence, though, comes from middles themselves, who — while ostensibly more prone to secrecy than their siblings, given the lack of attention and the need to build an internal world all their own — will reliably share a good story of the perils of growing up middle. (Though, in typical middle-child fashion, the middles I spoke with requested that their name be changed, as if to erase their own identity.) There’s Candace, the middle of seven, who told me, “Nobody took baby pictures of me — which I didn’t realize until I was in my 40s and asked for them. That was a strange, awful discovery.”

Or consider the case of Naomi, the middle sister between two boys. When she was a kid, her uncle would try to bribe her and her brothers into good behavior by handing out behavior points toward an eventual reward. Her younger brother, Blake, who was 5, was having trouble with potty training, so he got extra points whenever he made it to the bathroom and did not pee his pants. Her older brother, Mike, who was 10, complained that this was unfair: After all, he never peed his pants, so didn’t he deserve reward points, too? The uncle — a bit of an amateur comedian, apparently — replied that it was easy for Mike to not pee his pants, then offered points to Mike for peeing his pants. Which Mike did. And he got points.

This left Naomi, at age 8, in a vexing dilemma. In a way, her conundrum echoed an observation by the American pastor Tullian Tchividjian (a grandson of Billy Graham), who is the middle of seven. “I found it difficult being the middle child,” Tchividjian recalled. “I couldn’t figure out if I was the youngest of the older set or the oldest of the younger set. I was in the unenviable position of being both an oldest and a youngest child.”

Naomi found herself in a similar situation vis-à-vis pant-peeing. She, too, was not getting points for not peeing her pants, like her younger brother was. So she, too, figured that she must be eligible for points for peeing her pants, like her older brother. “So the next day,” she explains, “I carefully peed my pants. I did not get any points. I did get in big trouble. And that is the definition of being a middle child, at least in my family.”

Daniel (far right) and Billy (second from right) hold the middle for the Baldwin brothers. Photo: Time Life Pictures/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

If not even middles enjoy being middles, should it matter if middles disappear? I posed this question to Bruce Hopman, a classic middle child and the father of a classic middle child. He’s also the acting president of the International Middle Child’s Union (which he founded) and the world’s leading, and possibly only, proponent of switching Middle Child’s Day to July 2. (“It’s the middle of the calendar!”) Hopman is the proprietor of Smack Dab: A Middle Child’s Blog, which he started in part to promote a book he’s tentatively titled Pay No Attention to This Book: The World’s Most Comprehensive Collection of Middle Child Highlights, Slights, and Insights. He even once developed a sitcom for CBS about an adult middle child called Smack Dab, which was, fittingly, passed over. As such, Hopman is a font of middle-child trivia. He points out to me that Abel, Adam and Eve’s middle son and the brother to Cain and Seth, was both history’s first middle child and history’s first murder victim.

For Hopman, middle children are primarily distinguished by an inexhaustible need for attention, a description from which he does not exempt himself. “Britney Spears: middle child,” he points out. “Kesha: middle child. Nicki Minaj: middle child. Also a middle child: Don King.” He cites these celebrities in support of his theory that, if nothing else, “middle children have distinguished themselves by mastering the art of doing funny things to get attention with their hair.” He sees Joey Chestnut, the world-champion hot-dog eater, as another archetypal middle child: “I know; I’ll shove as many hot dogs in my mouth at once. That will get Mom’s attention!”

The subject of middle-child extinction, as you might imagine, is one that troubles Hopman. But mostly what troubles him is the fact that no one else seems to really care — a typical fate for middle children. “I’m sure many will say our inevitable demise is a good thing,” he writes on his blog. “Future generations will be glad to be rid of our constant whining and complaining.” When I press him, though, on what a world without middle children might look like, he says, “It would probably be quieter. It would be a more boring place.”

He’s not alone in this evaluation. “Middle children are evaporating from life, and that isn’t good for all of us,” says Kevin Leman, who literally wrote the book on the subject, his 1985 The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are, which has sold over a million copies. “Middle children are like the peanut butter and jelly in the sandwich,” he explains. As for the coming extinction event, he says, “If you like a sandwich with nothing on it, enjoy.”

Leman, a frequent guest over the years on Oprah and, back in the day, The Phil Donahue Show, helped popularize the theory of birth order, but it dates back at least to 1874, when Francis Galton wrote English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, in which he hoped to prove that firstborn children are disproportionately high achievers. (Spoiler: They are.) In the 1920s, the pioneering Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler proposed a more fully formed notion of how birth order influences development. When a second child is born, Adler posited, the firstborn feels “dethroned” and is thus scarred by the loss of parental attention. The middle, for his or her part, feels “sandwiched” between oldest and youngers, robbed of both privilege and significance in the familial pecking order.

Princess Middle, Charlotte, with brother George. Photo: Samir Hussein/WireImage

But Adler also believed that, by virtue of being burdened neither by excessive expectation (like the firstborn) nor excessive attention (like the lastborn), middleborns are uniquely poised to succeed. Adler himself was the youngest of two boys, a sickly child who was fiercely competitive with his older brother, Sigmund. (It could not have helped, later, that his brother shared a name with the preeminent thinker in Adler’s chosen field.) So, though not a middle himself, Adler believed that middles were naturally even-tempered and, due to their recognition of the injustice of their own situation, the most likely to fight against injustice in the world. (Did I mention Abraham Lincoln?)

Many of Adler’s notions about birth order have been questioned or even discounted by subsequent psychologists, but his notion that middleness is a secret superpower is enjoying a resurgence. This argument is less about rethinking what attributes a middle child might possess and more about reframing the traditional middle-child attributes as advantages. In this revisionist school of middleness, for example, middle children are seen as skilled diplomats by virtue of being stuck between two siblings. They’re portrayed as loyal romantic partners and friends, because they are both hungry for intimate bonds and willing to compromise to maintain relationships. And they’re believed to be natural innovators, since they’re less likely to feel the weight of parental expectation. (Bill Gates is the middle child of a prominent lawyer. His older sister, Kristianne, grew up to become an accountant.)

Candace, who never had any baby photos and shared a bedroom with two sisters, sees in her middleness the seeds of her eventual vocation. “Because I had zero privacy, I always wanted to be invisible, to observe,” she says. “So of course I became a writer.” Naomi, of the pant-peeing dilemma, has also come to see the upside of middledom. “I think, in retrospect, that there’s a lot of unfairness,” she says. “Because you get none of the advantages of being the oldest nor of being the youngest. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I also avoided the pitfalls of each of those positions.” Even Hopman, who’s made a career of lampooning his middleness, wouldn’t trade it away. “As much as I like to complain about it, I would not want to be a firstborn,” he says. “That’s too much pressure.”

Ivanka Trump and her father, the president, are both middles. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

The emerging appreciation of middle children has been championed by Salmon, a professor at the University of Redlands in California. In 2011, she was the lead author of The Secret Power of Middle Children: How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and Remarkable Abilities. She wrote the book, in part, to convince middle children that their middleness is a strength, not a weakness. “If anyone’s going to write to me about that book,” she says now, “it’s going to be a middle child who’s thought a lot about their middleness and its effect on their lives.”

What spurred Salmon to undertake her study of middle children — she wrote her Ph.D. on “Sex, Birth Order, and the Nature of Kin Relations: An Evolutionary Analysis” — was, appropriately, the lack of academic research on middle children. Her mentor Frank Sulloway wrote the influential 1996 book Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, which focuses primarily on the tendency of firstborn children to become conformists and latter-born children to become iconoclasts. But few psychologists had specifically addressed the children smack dab in the middle. “The irony is that not only are middle children overlooked in their own families, but they are overlooked in terms of research,” Salmon explains. “There’s just not much out there.”

She cites the oft-repeated statistic that 36 percent of U.S. presidents have been firstborns, confirming our collective belief that firstborns are ambitious, responsible, and accomplished. Salmon points out that, in fact, 52 percent of presidents have been middleborns, and that the statistical prevalence of firstborn presidents has been historically overstated, since many of them had older sisters who were discounted: A president was considered a firstborn if he was the firstborn male.

This might be a good time to address the orange elephant in the Oval Office. Donald Trump, for the record, is a middle child. He’s the fourth of five children and the second-born son. In fact, a disorienting aspect of reading anything on middle children written prior to 2016 is that Trump is routinely cited as an example of the middle child’s proclivity for negotiation. Now he poses something of a dilemma for middle-child advocates: He certainly seems starved for attention, but he’s not notably diplomatic, is hardly a conciliator, and, we’ve now learned, was probably never a particularly good negotiator. “If most people didn’t know, they’d assume he was a firstborn,” says Salmon. “He’s pushy, aggressive, and projects the notion of wanting to be ‘the big man in the room.’ ”

But here’s the catch: Trump is what’s referred to by psychologists as “functionally firstborn,” meaning the particular circumstances of his family may have shaped him like a firstborn son. He shares this trait (as well as others perhaps) with Richard Nixon. Both Nixon and Trump had older brothers who died prematurely: Nixon’s from tubercular meningitis, Trump’s from alcoholism. In such cases, some psychologists posit, the second-born son assumes the mantle of the first, stepping up to seek the parental approval they were initially denied.

Birth order also appears to play a part in the decisions of Supreme Court justices. A 2015 paper in Law & Society Review found that, among the 55 justices who served from 1900 to 2010, oldest and only children showed a strong tendency toward conservative ideology, while middle and youngest children favored liberal decisions. On the current court, oldest and onlies reign — Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Neil Gorsuch (two of them had older siblings who either died young or were raised separately) — while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagan are middles. (For the record, the late Antonin Scalia was an only child, as is Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee for Kennedy’s seat.) So perhaps a litmus test for the next justice should simply be: Make him or her a middle child.

In fact, the more you learn about the skills of classic middle children — peacemakers, risk takers, levelheaded loyalists with expansive friend groups — the more middle children seem essential to our survival. Salmon cites “independence and resilience” as “characteristics I’d hate to see disappear in a future population of only small families — especially at a time when our world so needs these particular skills.”

Even though I’m a middle myself, my mourning for the disappearance of middles isn’t selfish. After all, the middle children who won’t exist won’t mourn the disappearance of themselves. I’m thinking instead of the world left behind — a world of fewer diplomats. A world without as many hardy types whose upbringing gives them a knack for empathy. Jennifer Garner, when asked about raising kids in Hollywood, once referred to her own essential middle-childness. “I am the model middle child,” she explained. “I am patient, and I like to take care of everyone. Being called nice is a compliment. It’s not a boring way to describe me.” Patient. Caring. Nice. Even boring. In this polarized, upside-down, tumultuous moment, does it feel like those are things we need less of? Or more?

These qualities, of course, won’t disappear entirely. But as families continue to shrink and the number of middle children dwindles, there is real reason to fear. Because the irony is the strengths associated with middle children come not from parental nurturing but parental inattention. That means these virtues are especially difficult to cultivate in other kids. The secret power of middles, says Salmon, “points away from the notion that successful parenting is all about time and attention.” In advocating for middles, Salmon is also promoting the idea that today’s culture of overparenting is actually hindering the development of classic middle-child merits in all children, because middles are forged in adversity. Alfred Adler took this idea even further: He believed that firstborns, scarred by resentment at their childhood dethronement, are most likely to become authoritarians. Middle children, spurred by an empathetic sense of being overlooked, are most likely to fight injustice.

It’s possible you are a middle child and you possess none of the qualities associated with your middleborn brethren. It’s also possible you’re a firstborn, or a lastborn, or an only child, or one of 20, and you possess all of a middle child’s qualities and more. And if you’re a parent — and I say this as a parent — who is thinking of having only one or two kids, it’s very unlikely that the notion of further depleting the world’s reserve of middle children will change your considerations, if you even consider it at all. Salmon, for her part, isn’t necessarily encouraging you to have more middle children, but rather to think about your middle children — and teach them to think about themselves — differently.

It’s hard to imagine a world without so many of the middle children we know of, she says. There’s Nelson Mandela and Susan B. Anthony and David Letterman and Charles Darwin and Charlotte and Emily Brontë and Martin Luther King Jr. You could no doubt make lists of firstborns and lastborns and only children that it would be just as hard to imagine the world without. But we’ve never had a problem celebrating the Marcias and the Cindys. Maybe it’s time for Jan to have her day.

*This article appears in the July 9, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Middle Children Are Going Extinct, Just As We Need Them Most