The Care And Feeding Of The Middle Child

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
middle child

I had my kids back-to-back, three sons, each two years apart. The oldest gets plenty of attention. He’s almost 7 now and reading chapter books aloud, so we tell everyone, “Blaise is reading Peter Pan!”

He’s the one who gets the most attention when we home-school, too, because he’s the oldest, so he needs to do math, reading, social studies, science, and writing on a regular basis.

And the baby… Well, he’s the baby, even if he is almost 3. It doesn’t help that he says he’s the baby. He still sleeps with us, still nurses to sleep, and he still gets wrapped up on my back when he wants. When he cries, we presume it’s someone else’s fault, not his. Even his oldest brother picks him up and carries him around. He is consummately and totally the baby.

Then there’s my middle child — my lovey, sneaky, sweetheart middle child. August doesn’t know his letters yet because he’s a late bloomer when it comes to reading. He doesn’t get as much attention when we home-school because he’s still technically a preschooler at age 4, so he likes to make mischief to get attention while we’re busy. He needs me as much as the other two. But it’s easy to lose him in the shuffle sometimes.

So I had to figure out ways to keep us connected. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Everyone I know with three kids struggles to make their middle child feel noticed and loved. I have to work harder with him than I do with the others, simply because the other two are so immediately demanding and attention-grabbing that his needs can get lost. Middle children need to feel as loved and as wanted as the others, and that calls for some targeted intensive parenting.

I indulge him in one specific area, the way I indulge his little brother in most things.

You can’t treat an older kid the same way you treat his baby brother. But you can do that with one or two specific things that make him feel special and loved. With August, that thing happens to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. August is obsessed with peanut butter and jelly. He would eat them for every single meal, and then as snacks in between. It’s fairly healthy and easy to make, so when he asks for one, I give it to him. Most often that happens between meals. I might tell his brothers to get a banana or an apple, but August always gets a sandwich when he asks.

I try hard to touch him frequently.

Children thrive on touch. My oldest cuddles against me when he reads aloud. The baby gets carted around all day and still sleeps with me. August doesn’t have a special time to get mama cuddles. So I try hard to hug him a lot, to touch his head, to pick him up, and to sit down and read to him. It’s an effort — not because I don’t love him as much as the others, but because I simply don’t think about it because he’s not demanding it from me.

I give him something to do like his older brother.

I’m always working with his older brother on something, for several concentrated hours every day. We involve August when we can, but he obviously isn’t interested in everything (like reading Peter Pan, oddly enough). So I tell August that he has to do his work too, and set him up with ABCMouse (to hopefully help with those letters). I make sure he has easy access to crayons, paper, scissors, tape, and glue to make his own creations. Then he does “school” like his brother, and he doesn’t feel left out.

I treat him like a baby sometimes.

Sometimes, he sees me cooing over the youngest and just wants the same thing for himself. So I pick August up. I wrap him on my back, which he loves. We let him fall asleep in our bed sometimes, especially when he has trouble sleeping. I kiss him and pull him into my lap and fuss over his hair. He loves it, and it gives him those cuddles he sorely needs.

We have a ritual together.

This could be anything you do together every day that your kid can count on. August and I have one: He picks out my clothes. Most days, I give him a choice of several outfits, and he selects the one he likes the best. It’s not a big deal for me since I’m still wearing something decent (though August would prefer me to wear my black prom dresses every day), but it’s something that he loves. He feels like he has a secret say in something no one else does, and it helps give him a sense of control. It helps him feel needed and valued.

When I manage to do all (or most) of these things, August seldom throws tantrums. He’s cuddly and lovey, and he shows a lot more patience with his little brother. He’s also much less likely to antagonize his brothers for attention from them and from me.

Middle children can be easy to ignore. But they make sure it won’t happen, one way or the other.

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