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On being in the middle

I am a middle child: older brother, younger sister, me in the middle. What do you think about that? What does it mean to you? It probably depends on your own circumstances: whether you had siblings and, if so, how many, and the order in which you were born.

Many of the families we knew when we were growing up also had three children. One Christmas around 25 years ago, by which time we were all grown up, my brother, sister and I had many discussions about these groups of three, and whether we could generalize about how the children had developed. Were there characteristics that were shared by the oldest, the youngest, and the one in between? Overall, who had turned out to be the most sorted, the most pleasant, the most personable? We tried to generalize, to find patterns, as you do. It wasn’t a detailed scientific analysis, you understand, just a continuing theme that went on for many days, at mealtimes and other shared times during the holiday season. We have not returned to the idea much in recent years.

Naturally each of us tried to find evidence that our position in the family had provided more people that you would want to hang out with and fewer people that you would want to avoid. My memory of all this is that, on balance, the highest concentration of reliable, sorted, pleasant people came from the middle children. I make no claims for myself here, just the families we knew and had, for want of a better word, analysed. My brother and sister might remember things differently.

The topic came up one night all those years ago when Judy, a friend of my brother’s, was visiting. There were also three children in her family, but we had never met her siblings. Her brother was the middle child. They did not get on. As far as she was concerned, however much evidence we could supply to support middle children as the most likely to turn out well, her brother alone would cancel it all out. She had nothing good to say about him.

How much useful information, or even wisdom, can this kind of reflection provide? Maybe not much, but it did provide us with a great deal of amusement and influenced our responses to stories about people we knew. For example:

“Did you hear about the terrible thing that [name deleted for obvious reasons] did?”
Response: “Well, youngest child, you know.”

Or, “Do you remember [another name deleted for obvious reasons]?”
Response: “Oh yeah, he was weird – middle child you see.”

Many years ago, when most of our information came from printed sources, I read a review of a book suggesting that many of history’s tyrants and dictators were younger sons: their position in the family was a significant factor in how they turned out. All these years later I have no idea who wrote it or what it was called. The idea seemed tenuous to me. How would Stalin have turned out if he didn’t have an older brother? We’ll never know. To me, it is barely worth speculating about. Our discussions about older, middle and younger siblings were mostly light-hearted but at least we were reflecting on how we thought the kids had turned out. We didn’t speculate about what might have happened if the combination of brothers and sisters had been different.

We have occasional discussions now about combinations of children, about the children in my son’s and daughter’s classes at school. One question that my brother, sister and I did not consider back in the 1990s was whether the pattern of boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl created any extra challenges. From our recent experience maybe it does. Maybe that was the issue in Judy’s family. Maybe her brother had an older sister and a younger sister. If the pattern had been boy-girl-girl or girl-girl-boy it could all have worked out so differently. Another woman I knew back in the 1990s was the youngest in a girl-boy-girl family. She spoke about her brother in much the same way as Judy did about hers: on his own he provided all the evidence you could want to condemn all middle children.

I will speculate more about this in the months ahead but if you have a low opinion of middle children you might not be interested.




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