The Middle Kid Advantage

by | Jun 13, 2010 | The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

REALITY CHECK: What the research really says about those “stuck in the middle kids” and using the results to raise them.

Have more than two kids?  Then chances are you’ve heard one of these comments lately….

“It’s like I’m stuck in the middle.”

“But I don’t want to do things like my sister.”

“I want my own stuff not these hand me downs.”

“My coach always asks why I can’t play like my brother.”

Let’s face it, middle kids get a bad rap. (I know… my middle kid keeps reminding me). But it seems these middle children also learn valuable skills and perspective because of their unique position in the family. In fact, those “advantages” (as I keep reminding my middle), appear to actually help them in life. The trick is nurturing those advantages.

The renowned psychologist, Alfred Adler, was one of the first of scores of researchers to study the effects of birth order on siblings. He found that middle kids are generally more creative and flexible because they are trying to be different from their elder and younger sibling. They are also often more relaxed, independent, diplomatic, resourceful, as well as more balanced and generous than their other siblings. And they can make great negotiators and have great people skills if we let them forge their own way. There is also new research to support Adler’s theory. Keep in mind that the “Birth Order Effect” only applies to a two-or three year spread.

Here are seven research-based tips from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions to help you use those tips to raise our middle kids.

7 Tips for Raising Middle Kids to Boosting their Life Advantage

  • Watch out for favoritism. Though we may think we treat our kids equally, research shows otherwise. In fact, 65 percent of moms and 70 percent of dads exhibited a preference for their older child. So here’s your test: “Do your eyes light up with the same intensity for each of your kids?” Beware: Middle kids do pick up on which sibling is your favorite. So tune into your interactions and how they might be perceived. Try hard not to express or leak out or even give a clue as to which of your offspring you favor even the tiniest bit more. Best yet, find a way to say what is special, loveable about each child, “You’re my diplomat.” Or “You’ll always be my little cuddler.”
  • Make “first times” special. Every “first” (word, step, recital, etc.) is a momentous occasion with our eldest; big moments for our youngest are special because we know it will be our last time. So the middle children’s “firsts” can get slighted. Be sure to make a big deal over your middle kid’s first loose tooth, soccer trophy, Holiday Pageant, and slumber party so he knows you’re just as elated about his accomplishment. Katherine Conger’s research at the University of California, Davis, found that second tier kids often tend to have more self-esteem questions and feel not quite as worthy as first-borns. Those little slights, those usually quite unintentionally, can dig deep.
  • Halt the comparisons. A big complaint of middle kids is being compared to their older sibling. “Your brother did that when he was three.” “Your sister practiced diligently.” Bite your tongue. Your cardinal rule is “Never compare siblings.”
  • Encourage them to share their thoughts. The first born is notoriously more verbal simply because they had “alone time” with us before the second child’s arrival when we listened and talked more. (In fact, firstborns on average have almost three point IQ edge over their other siblings and researchers say that is solely due to more parent one on one talking time with that child). As a result the middle kid often keeps things to himself and doesn’t reveal their feelings. So draw that child out. Ask how he’s feeling. Deliberately take that extra minute at the dinner table to make sure he’s not being overlooked, “How was your day, Honey?” “How did that project turn out?” Let him know you want to hear his thoughts. And make the older sib listen his ideas.
  • Don’t let him be taken advantage of. Middle kids are often the diplomat in the family and smoother things over because they hate conflicts. They also give in to their siblings just to keep the peace. Watch out that your middle child isn’t taken advantage of for her diplomacy. It causes resentment as well as just not being fair.
  • Beware of hand-me-downs. Every once in a while is fine, but watch out for always handing down those second-hand items. “The coat is still perfectly fine.” “Your sister never even played with that doll.” Middle kids hate getting the older kid’s used items.
  • Allow individuality. Research also tends to show that middle kids tend to be creative and individualistic. While the oldest child is generally more ambitious (and some of that is due to the one-on-one attention and early parental push) and strives to keep or regain his parents’ attention through conformity the middle kid often has to carve out his own and distinct identity. So tap into your middle kid’s unique strengths and provide opportunities to develop his talents. He shouldn’t have to follow the path of his older sibling.

P.S. By the way, as a mom of a middle kid let me assure you, they turn out not only fine, but just plain wonderful, thank you—especially if you let them march to their own drum.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

This blog is adapted from my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. And it also has tips for the Only Child, Multiples, Youngest, Oldest, Adopted… and dozens of more topics. For more tips, follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba or on my daily blog, MicheleBorba. Now go share an ice cream cone and a take walk with just that middle kid and let him (or her…haven’t figured out how you get a kid of that gender yet) know about his/her bright future.


Favoritism: J. Kluger, “The New Science of Siblings,” Time, Jul 2, 2006.

Second-tier children tend to be sadder and have more self-esteem questions: K. Jewsbury Conger, R.D. Conger, L.V. Scaramella, “Parents, Siblings, Psychological Control, and Adolescent Adjustment, Journal of Adolescent Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, 113-138, 1997.

Birth order characteristics: F. Romeo, “A Child’s Birth Order: Educational Implications” Journal of Instructional Psychology 21, 155-161, 1994

R. Travis, & V. Kohli   “The Birth Order Factor: Ordinal Position, Social Strata and Educational Achievement,” Journal of Social Psychology, 135, 1995, 499-508.

D. Gellene, “Firstborns Surge Ahead on IQ Points,” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2007.