Inside: Get a free printable list of activities to connect with your middle child and accountability sheet. If you worry about “the middle child syndrome” in your family, this article is for you.
The other afternoon I caught myself doing it again.
My oldest was sitting at the kitchen table sweating over his math books. My youngest was sitting under the table, building a den, and waiting for her snack. I told my oldest that I would help him divide fractions as soon as I finished making the snack.
That’s when one of my super energetic middle children frog-jumped across the kitchen and landed on the floor at my feet. “How about my math?” he demanded loudly.
“Just wait for one of your siblings,” I said distractedly, “they can help you.”
My eight-year-old son looked away, disappointed. He wanted me, not his siblings.
“I’m hungry,” he announced.
“You can warm up some chicken noodle soup. The bottom shelf in the fridge,” I replied, turning away from him to take the “baby’s” snack to the table. “I’m busy right now.”
Do you see it?
The oldest keeps me highly involved with all his firsts: first teenager, first bike rider, first OMG, your feet are bigger than mine! child. The youngest keeps me riveted with all her lasts: last-child, last stroller rider, last “Mommy, carry me” child.
But my middle children?
They are often “old enough” to do things for themselves, while no longer “old enough” to be fussed about as when they were babies.
Now I’ve said it many times…
I’ve promised myself that I will treat all my children equally, and that none of my children will ever suffer from the forgotten-middle-child syndrome.
And I try, I really try to give all my children hugs, kisses, eye contact, listening time…but time is a limited commodity, and sometimes (all the time), there is something else important that demands my attention.
You see, there are four of them, while there is only one of me! So, intentions be damned, but the siren call of shortcuts is inevitable, and gradually, over time, I begin to slide into an unfortunate habit of blowing off my middle children. After all, they can ask their older siblings for help, and they can warm up their own food.
So they’re fine, right?
Here is the problem
We don’t need to be reminded to love all our children. We already do. We love them with the fierce, aching, all-encompassing love of a mama bear. We will do anything to make sure that they are safe, secure, and loved.
But then comes life…
…and we find ourselves running from one task to another, foaming at the mouth and groaning with exertion from sunrise to bedtime. Most of the things we need to do had to be done five minutes ago. And that’s not even counting the unexpected things thrown at us like spilled milk and a lost shoe when you’re already running late.
According to last year’s survey, 86% of moms experience burnout occasionally, and 41% frequently. These days, everything is urgent. And the list of responsibilities and distractions is growing by the second.
But the truth is our middle children do still need us, even if they look fine and appear so self-sufficient.
Birth-order science tells us that middle children are the least likely of all children in the family to reach out to their parents for help when they need it. They tend to have a more distant relationship with their moms. And that’s because they learned not to count on her help from an early age. And that just breaks my heart.
Middle-child syndrome is not a rare occurrence. According to Jeffrey Kluger, the author of The Sibling Effect, “There are few [families] that can’t point to the lost-in-the-thickets middle-born.” And the emotional impact is grave.
Our middle children might have learned to do many things independently and rely on siblings and peers for advice, but just like all children, they thrive on parental attention.
Most importantly, even in a very large multi-child family, our middle children need to know that we will walk on hot coal for them. They deserve to know that we adore them.
And that even though we may be tired sometimes (all the time), we will never be tired of them.
We owe it to our middle children.
The good news
The good news is that, with a bit of effort, we can prevent our middle child from falling victim to the stereotyped fate. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated. All it takes is an intention and a few minutes each day.
I call it a bucket habit. Earlier in this century, the American Psychological Association honored Dr. Donald O. Clifton, who first promoted the idea of an invisible bucket as a reservoir of our emotional and mental health. This idea is lovely and such a great analogy and inspiration for being kind to ourselves and others.
When our buckets are full, we feel great.
Our confidence, sense of security, and positive feelings are flowing forth in abundance. You know your bucket is empty when you feel sad, stressed, worried, or simply feeling blah.
We usually think of bucket filling as what we do to ensure our own mental and emotional well-being. But as parents, we are feeding this well-being to our children. So I imagine that my children each have a bucket on their heads, and I need to ensure they are all filled up.
A few years ago, I made a list of bucket-filling activities that were simple and easily fit into everyday busy days.
These activities don’t require planning. They don’t take much time. All you need is this moment because, in truth, it is the only time that we have in which to live and make a difference.
My list came from my desire to make all my kids feel loved. Although the middle children are the focus today, it works great for all the kids in the birth line.
I’m happy to say that the list makes a difference. The problem is that it’s not a one-and-done deal. You have to remember to keep doing it on top of everything else you have to remember. Buy milk and new shoes, don’t miss a work project deadline, renew that science kit subscription, apply fancy-schmancy wrinkle cream, and be nice to my middle children. Arg! Somebody get me a new brain; this one is already filled to the brim!
Because I have a business and science background, I like things to be automatic, quantitative, and out on paper. I like the sense of calm that comes from having a well-designed plan. Plus, it frees up my mental space for other things.
So, besides the 50 Things You Can Do To Bond with Your Child In The Next 5 Minutes, I also made myself an accountability sheet. Laugh all you want, but this little piece of paper expands, deepens, and reinforces my commitment to my children.
I’ve used this accountability sheet multiple times over the years. Whenever I notice that my behavior is out of alignment with my parenting goal (giving enough love, hugs, and attention to all my children), I print it out and use it for a month.
Just a month is enough time to turn it into a habit.
I truly believe that understanding the problem is part of the solution. Yes, there are a ton of things pulling me away from my children, but that’s not an excuse. I need to check in every once in a while, become aware of what is really happening, and get back on track.
After all, everything in life is an ongoing process of learning. If we don’t want to forget the new skills, we have to practice them.
Today, our skill is learning to give enough love all around, and I’m approaching this skill using strategies, lists, and intention.
Do you want to ban middle-child syndrome in your house?
Let’s dive into my three-step process!
1. Set a Due Date
Deadlines make things happen.
It’s not just that having a due date creates a sense of urgency and accountability. It organizes your mind, mobilizes your energies, and demands your attention.
Be honest with yourself; without a deadline, you will let the to-do list distract you from your higher goals, and (yet again) make you feel like you’ve failed your middle child.
When I start, I have a four-week deadline in mind.
My goal is to consistently do nine bucket-filling things for one of my middle children every day, for four weeks. Obviously, some days are better than others. If I fall short, I’m still far ahead of what would have happened if I didn’t start my bucket habit at all.
You might decide to start with 5 things per day, or even just 2. It depends on how much time you spend with your child each day and how much energy you can spare.
Of course, love isn’t just a task, but it does take real work. It’s ok to use structure to teach yourself. The point is, have a deadline and a goal.
2. Get Real, Work Small
Setting aside a special time for each child is a lofty goal, but for most busy parents with multiple children, it’s just not sustainable.
There’s a common tendency to expect big changes only as a result of a big effort, but there are other ways.
Personally, I know that I do best with a series of small things. I can keep my child’s bucket filled throughout the day without giving it large chunks of time or too much emotional effort all at once. It’s a sip here and there.
But the result is huge. It’s particularly notable when I think back to a few weeks earlier and realize how much more peaceful my middle child is.
So, make sure to brainstorm a list of bucket-filling activities that will work for you and your kids.
Or you can print a copy of my 50 bucket-filling activities (link below).
The questions you can ask yourself to get started are:
What makes my child feel loved?
What does my child like?
What activities does he respond to?
What do they like to talk about?
What will fill their buckets?
3. Create Consistency
So, the big question: How are you going to remember to do bucket-filling activities throughout the day?
To see a change, we need to recognize the need to find the motivation to do something over and over again. Most people are motivated by progress. When they can see the results of their effort, they are positively reinforced to keep doing it.
I enter everything on my accountability sheet (standard and ink-saving versions). It works wonders for me, but you might decide to create your own accountability means. Go ahead! You can decide to put a stone into a jar with your child’s name for each time you fill your child’s bucket! Or simply scribble check marks on a napkin.
Whatever works for you.
If you decide to use my printable accountability sheet, here are some suggestions for use. When I print an accountability sheet, I print four (yep, 4!) sheets per A4 page. They are tiny, but I get a quick overview of my progress.
Once you print it, fold it up and put it in a place where you will see it often. If you are a heavy cell phone user, put it in a phone case. If you are a reader, use it as a bookmark. I keep them in pockets (if I have them), or roll them inside my sleeves!
Parenting is all about redemption. You slow down enough to catch yourself doing that thing you said you would never do (ignoring your middle child), and so you brush yourself off and make a plan to do better!
Doing better might mean going on a special playdate with your child or spending more time together at home. But if, like me, you’re short on time, the solution might be my list of quick things you can do each day to bond with your child. Print it here. Add an accountability sheet to keep you on track.