Reading Jeffrey Kluger’s fascinating book, The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us, I learned that “Schoolhouse Rock” may have lied to me.
Three may well not be a magic number.
In fact, when it comes to the ideal number of children per family, three might possibly be the very worst one. (Fun fact: I have three kids! I would go for four, but my husband has informed me that while I may have as many children as I see fit, he’s never changing another diaper again. I am to do with that information what I will.)
So three it is. Two boys and a girl. Boy, boy, girl. Also not an optimal line-up, I have learned. Boy, girl, boy would have been better.
Now, while I am obviously simplifying matters (the book is almost 300 pages, after all), the basic gist appears to be this:
Despite widespread belief to the contrary, only children are no worse off than those with siblings on such measurable scales as: Achievement, Intelligence, Character, Parent-Child Relationships, Adjustment, and Sociability.
So called “singletons” do better on verbal tests due to the bulk of their interaction being with adults, rather than children. They are also very good at entertaining themselves, and tend to be rule followers who love to please, thus leading to career and personal success.
Doing only a little bit better than them in the fields of Achievement, Intelligence, and Sociability are first-borns from two child families. Not only do they get the advantage of being an only child for a while, but they then receive the added advantage of mentoring a younger sibling, which has been demonstrated to boost IQ. (In sibling research, it is a given that every subsequent child in the family scores slightly less on standardized intelligence tests all the way up through the SATs.)
But, here is the real advantage to stopping with two children, according to researchers: With only two children, the odds of each child being one parent’s favorite are high. With any more than two, one child is very likely to be no one’s favorite. (This is averted when you go to four or more, because two siblings are prone to forming a bond and becoming each other’s favorites. With three, alliances are constantly shifting, and one child inevitably feels left out.)
Mothers tend to prefer their oldest boy, fathers their youngest girl. And then there’s the middle child.
Oh, the poor, poor middle child. Unless they are of a different gender than the sibling on either side, which at least makes them stand out in one way and tilts the favorite odds, the middle child is apparently doomed.
For one thing, the middle child is the one who never gets his parents all to himself, like the firstborn did before the middle one arrived, and like the last one does once both older siblings are out of the house.
A study of whom kids are likely to call in the event of a car accident found that the oldest and the youngest call their parents. The middle one calls a friend.
Then there’s the rebellion factor. The oldest child is the high-achiever, so the middle child, in order to differentiate himself, goes completely in the other direction. The third child then rebels against the middle child and there you have it: Two “good” kids, one “bad.”
The middle one is then supposed to make up for what he lacks in not being the favorite, “the smart one,” or “the good one” with superior skills, and the ability to negotiate both up and down the age scale, not to mention a tendency to be the class clown and the life of the party.
Okay. So that’s the academic take.
Now let’s talk reality. Me and my three kids. Boy, boy, girl. Four years between the older two, three and a half years between the younger. (Spacing also plays a key role, as anything above four years is considered not to inspire competition and the issues that come with that. I am eight years older than my own brother and we get along great because, honestly, what would we have had to compete over?)
First, the easily measurable stuff. My middle child scored much higher on the standardized IQ test given to NYC preschoolers than my oldest son did. And my youngest daughter, though a few points lower than my middle son, still left my oldest in the dust. (The oldest was born four weeks early. And, as we learned recently: it matters. On the other hand, by seventh grade he’d more than caught up.)
My middle son is my most sociable child, by far. Anyone who has seen him in action on the playground–we get there alone, he starts doing something, and within 15 minutes, he’s got a small mob surrounding him, all wanting to do what he’s doing–off-handedly remarks, “Typical middle child!”
He was also my most difficult toddler and preschooler, throwing violent temper tantrums when it came to learning to read, arguing incessantly, digging his heels in and absolutely refusing to do something, no cajoling, bribery or damn good reason need apply. Eager to please was not in his wheel-house.
“What can you expect, he’s the middle child?” I was reassured.
Except, here’s the thing: He was like that even before he was one.
My son was born with personality intact. I could tell the difference at his bris. While my oldest cried because he was in pain, the younger one was clearly furious–you could tell.
Everything that gets attributed to his birth order can also be explained by, “He came hard-wired that way.”
(Of course, there’s always the possibility God knew he was destined to become a middle child and thus made him accordingly, but that’s impossible to either prove or disprove.)
Finally, my youngest born daughter is the one who is hysterically funny (think Jackie Mason trapped in a 5-year-old girl’s body). The one who loves to perform, the one who can out-negotiate even her oldest brother and, on occasion, my husband and I.
It could be because she’s a girl. It could be because she’s the youngest. Or, you know, it could be just because that’s who she is.
All children are born with a temperament. And that temperament gets affected by their circumstances, of which birth order and number of children in the family is just a small part.
Do siblings influence who we become? Of course they do.
Is having three doing them all a disservice?
I’ll keep you posted.