The Forgotten Children - A Study of Children with Alcoholic Parents
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Forgotten fathers: New dads also at risk for postpartum depression
Forgot password? Old Password. New Password. Password Changed Successfully Your password has been changed. Twenty-five percent had three kids; 24 percent had two; and 11 percent had one. Today, those numbers have essentially reversed.
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. 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. 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.
The Forgotten Children
The extinction of middle children might not seem, at first, like a pressing dilemma. Which affects all of us — first, last, and in between. 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.
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. Many psychologists discount it altogether, citing the so-called Barnum Effect. The Barnum Effect helps explain, for example, the perceived accuracy of fortune tellers, who are expert at manipulating this tendency.
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.
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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. 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.
Mostly, what I learned as a middle child is that being the middle means being defined by what you are not. 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.
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.
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For every admirable middle child in world history did I mention Abraham Lincoln? Such notions about the disadvantages of middleness are pervasive. 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.
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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. 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 was in the unenviable position of being both an oldest and a youngest child. 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. 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. 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 even once developed a sitcom for CBS about an adult middle child called Smack Dab, which was, fittingly, passed over.