Joanna Gaden

My poor father never had anyone to bond with over golf stats in our household full of women.  Technically, he was biologically to blame for my mother birthing three daughters, but I’m certain he missed the presence of another boy, especially when my two sisters and I were all teenagers at the same time, volatile and bickering.  But he seemed to endure our emotionally-charged calamities and synced-up-period days okay, so long as my younger sister’s nonchalant attitude graced the household.  She was the calm amongst chaos, when my older sister and I had fiery arguments and hormone-induced tantrums.  I wonder how all three of us ended up with clashing personalities but grew up with the same parents and in the same environment; my youngest sister was the ‘clever,’ I was the ‘cranky,’ and my oldest sister was the ‘courageous.’

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Maybe it’s my interest in psychology or the presence of my two sisters growing up, but I’ve always been fascinated with birth order theories.  Astrological signs are cool and all, but there’s something extra compelling about studies that show that oldest siblings tend to be leaders, youngest tend to make the most money, and… wait, did we forget about the middle child?

If you’re also a middle child, you understand my pain.  Sometimes, it feels like you’re thriving in your creative state, blissfully hiding under the coattails of your older sibling, or being an amazing older sister.  But most of the time, it feels like when two men are ‘mansplaining’ on the subway and you’re sandwiched in the middle-- legs crossed and elbows in-- forced to take up as little space as possible.

And if you really understand my pain, you’ve been physically left behind and forgotten by your family not one, not two, but THREE TIMES… or was that just me?

As the middle child, it can feel like events aren’t exciting because your parents went through them before and they’ll do it again-- you won’t get the hype of being the first one to graduate or the tears when the ‘baby’ is no longer in high school.      

On the flip side, it can actually be really nice to be living in a happy medium, between the first-child guinea pig and the youngest-child last chance.  I’ve benefited countless times from looking up to and learning from my older sister’s mistakes, but still get to be a role model for my younger sister (which keeps my ‘don’t do anything I wouldn’t do’ hypocrisy meter in check).  I get to be an older sister and a younger sister all at the same time, which has undoubtedly sculpted my personality in ways that I’ll never fully understand.  I’m still salty sometimes that my younger sister had a way later curfew in high school and my older sister got first dibs on everything because ‘seniority,’ but hey, I’ll get over it eventually.

Okay, enough about my feelings.  Let’s delve into the nitty gritty psychological findings about birth order--

*Caveat: conclusions about birth order can vary based on other factors, including family size, age gaps, gender, and upbringing.  Birth order effects have been largely debated and these results certainly do not apply to every family and individual situation.*

Alfred Adler, the psychologist behind birth order theories, proposed that the order in which a child was born impacted their personality traits.  He theorized that first born children are perfectionistic, middle children are rebellious peacemakers, and youngest children are self-centered, but confident.    

But many of his theories were insufficiently proved.  One of the main findings in the latest wave of birth order studies is that birth order has no significant impact on major personality traits.  After visiting several formal and informal psychological sources, the consensus seems to be that although there may not be a statistically significant effect of birth order on personality, there are proposed personality tendencies according to birth order.  In other words, the following results are inconclusive, but compelling. Here’s what I found:

First born, oldest siblings are natural leaders.  This is probably the most obvious finding, as they were thrown into the world without a biological older sibling to look up to, forced to fend for themselves.  This also may be the reason that oldest siblings score slightly higher on intelligence and intellect tests than their fellow siblings.  From a young age, first born children were under immense pressure from their parents to succeed, which may also result in their perfectionism, intellect, and high achievement.     

Youngest, last born children tend to be the most dependent and the "least helpful" of their siblings.  They grow up being the center of attention, as they were never ‘pushed out’ by a more exciting, cuter younger sibling when they were growing up.  Youngest siblings are also seen as the easy-going life of the party, perhaps due to their parents’ increasingly relaxed rules after several trial runs with the older siblings.  However, this lax attitude from parents may also result in the youngest child being the most manipulative of their siblings, as they are used to getting their way.  (This is likely where the ‘youngest children are spoiled’ stereotype came from).     

Dangit, did we forget about the middle child again?  Middle children are easily ignored, as their older siblings have ‘firsts’ and their younger siblings require the attention of being the baby.  Because of this middle position, they may be more competitive, fighting to establish an identity of their own.  But, the upside of being squeezed in the middle is their ability to compromise.  Because they are used to dealing with sibling squabbles from both sides, they are often the most agreeable and socially ept of their siblings.  Likely due to this, middle siblings often end up in creative and caring careers.

I’ve benefited countless times by learning from my older sister’s mistakes, but still get to be a role model for my younger sister.

Contrasting these findings, my sisters and I are all birth-order-mixed-bags.  My older sister is arguably the most manipulative, as she was always able to outsmart me and my little sister in games of ‘princess and servant.’  But she is also a natural leader because of this; her ability to persuade people never fails to amaze me.  My younger sister has always been the most passive, balanced, and naturally smart.  She has thrived in math and science, but is also extremely creative (likely due to the information she gathered from me and my older sister!).  And I tend to be the most perfectionistic, organized, and responsible-- which are typically oldest sibling traits-- but I also tend to be compassionate and creative.  So, I can see why results have been labeled as ‘inconclusive’; many of the proposed birth order traits don’t hold true in our family.

I guess this is all to say that being the middle sister isn’t that bad.  It’s easy to get caught up in the stereotypes of birth order theories and fret about being pushed aside, but I’m also grateful for my ability to be empathetic and social.  After all, us middle daughters are well-rounded, rebellious, and caring ladies with a little extra spunk… and most importantly, there’s a wine named after us!  So if you similarly feel like you’ve lived your life receiving the short end of the stick, take a swig of those creative ‘juices’ named just for you and bask in the glory of living in the middle.

 

Joanna Gaden is a recent college graduate from the University of Michigan who moved from her small town in the Detroit metro area to pursue big city living in Manhattan, NY.  Her interests include psychology, jewelry making, cats, barista-ing, and exploring the world one bite at a time.

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