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Power of the middle child

| Monday, Aug. 1, 2011

J.J. Abbott of Shadyside says his status as the middle child is the best of both worlds.

Abbott, 24, has an older and younger sister: Molly, 27, and Megan, 20. He grew up playing dual roles, with benefits as both a little brother and big brother.

"I never saw it as a negative thing," Abbott says. "I think, as the middle child, it gives you good perspective on how to deal with different personalities. I have the older sister who is a boss, and a younger sister who is looking to (me) for advice and stuff."

A person's birth order often carries roles and expectations. The firstborn is the accomplished, serious leader with high expectations from parents. The baby of the family is the funny, laid-back, spoiled one. But the middle child has been burdened with a negative stereotype, caught in a murky, undefined area between oldest and youngest, lacking a clear family identity, feeling neglected and insecure.

Such negative typecasting isn't justified, say the authors of a new book, "The Secret Power of Middle Children: How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and Remarkable Abilities" (Penguin Group, $25.95). While many middle children experience emotional struggles from being sandwiched between siblings, the middle role has its benefits and can produce many positive personality and character traits, say authors Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann.

Though it is often true that "in the middle of the equations, the middle child loses out; there can be an advantage to that," Salmon says.

"When you're young, you don't see it that way, but you may be more capable and independent because of growing up in that environment," says Salmon, a professor of psychology at the University of Redlands in California. "The ones in the middle tend to get lost a bit in the shuffle, but they develop strategies to get what they need and want in the midst of those conditions."

Schumann, of the Boston area, says that the negatives of being a middle child are real for many people, but they can change the negatives into positives.

"Once middles realize that they have developed these really wonderful strategies as a result of the neglect they experienced growing up, they will become more confident and aware of abilities," Schumann says.

Middleborns -- who number more than 70 million in America -- show traits including marked empathy, a sense of fairness, flexibility and the ability to go with the flow. Middle children tend to be social, have strong friendships and be loyal friends.

Famous middle kids include numerous U.S. presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower -- 52 percent of U.S. presidents are middle borns. Other middle borns are actor Tom Selleck; model Cindy Crawford; writer Jane Austen, TV talk-show hosts Johnny Carson and David Letterman; and Princess Diana of Wales.

A surprising member of the middle club is bossy businessman Donald Trump, who seems more like the oldest-brother type. But, Salmon points out, Trump is good at negotiating and identifying what people want.

Some now-adult middle children, like Andrew Linden of Greensburg, say they experienced no negativity with their middle-child role.

"I didn't even know I was a middle child, until I saw Jan on 'The Brady Bunch,' " says Linden, 26. He has an older brother -- Greg, 29 -- and younger sister, Ashley, 23. "I thought, 'Is that supposed to be a bad thing?' "

Linden says he fits the middle-child personality type described in the book. He is outgoing, adventurous and humorous. Linden says he has an independent spirit, and likes to help solve conflicts.

"My parents really did a great job," he says. "I never felt like I wasn't ... given enough attention."

Except for firstborns, the role of middle or youngest children develops most among children close in age. If a youngest-child girl has been in that role for several years, she is not likely to shift into a middle-child personality if she gets a younger sibling when she's 10, Schumann says.

A boy sandwiched between girls, or vice-versa, may have an easier time than a middle child with all same-sex siblings. Salmon says this is because same-sex siblings tend to compare themselves to each other more.

Jamie Lee Smittle, 19, of Lower Burrell, plays the middle role between two sisters: Carly, 20, and Eva, 15.

"I feel a little bit like the oddball of the group but I've never had too much of a problem with it," she says. "All of us are really close to each other."

Smittle says she has the creativity and easygoing nature often attributed to middle children.

"I don't feel unhappy with the spot I've been given, and it's made me the person I am today," she says. "I get to be both a big and little sister. I've been bossed around, but I get to boss around the little ones too."

Mary Jane Smittle, Jamie Lee Smittle's mother, is the youngest of four children. With her own kids, Mary Jane Smittle, 47, says she has made a conscious effort to make all her children feel loved and valued, and to cater to each daughter's individuality.

"We were always conscious to treat them according to their personalities," she says.

Parenting the middle child

Authors Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann offer the following tips for parents:

• Attention isn't everything. Less attention from parents lets kids become more independent.

• Encourage them to have a social life. Peer pressure is a concern with middles, but social skills are important.

• Spend one-on-one time with your middle child.

• Ask questions to open up your middle child, who may be on the quiet side.

• Celebrate your middle child's achievements -- with plaques and banners, and vocally.

• Watch out for signs of danger; middleborns often don't seek attention in dramatic ways.

• Make your middle child the boss, and let him/her make decisions sometimes, like which movie to see.

• Give your middle child compliments.

Source: "The Secret Power of Middle Children: How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and Remarkable Abilities"

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