Third Child as Outsider
by Peter Morrell
This essay on the behavior of social groups is based upon considering the family situation and the group dynamics impinging upon the first three children. It arises partly from recently contemplating the meaning of the phrase ‘social identity’ and also from considering my own family and childhood. It also derives from observing the behavior of my own children. Fundamentally, as a third child myself, it springs from considering some elements of my own personality, feelings and impulses and their possible origins.
Relationships begin at home. It is in the family where we are first tested and where we receive the first rude elements of our own identity. Or at least of our social identity, upon which so much of our later, more mature ‘sense of self’ depends. The eldest or only child has only his/her parents to please and apart from that can please him or herself. Their identity therefore stems from only one, narrow, relatively guaranteed and usually uncomplicated relationship. As a result, a rather headstrong, self-centered, determined, assertive and uncompromising, possibly arrogant sense of self [personality] tends to characterize the eldest or only child. Natural leaders by virtue of birth, and unused to compromise, they are rarely challenged.
With the arrival of the second child a new power dynamic is established: they must not only please their parents, whose affection they crave, but they must also deal with their elder sibling; inevitably this means some compromise. They fight a lot and vie with each other for the affection of their parents. They are rivals much of the time and fight playfully, falling in and out of love constantly like small kittens. While the first child was born into a completely new situation requiring few demands or compromise and more or less guaranteeing a continuous supply of undivided affection, all the later children have a diluted sense of worth and gradually command reducing amounts of attention and affection from their parents. Both are also divided to some degree between them all.
From the perspective of self-image and social identity, the third child is born into an even more complex and compromising environment. He or she arrives into a ready-made family with pre-formed complex relationships and power dynamics, about none of which he/she was consulted or involved. He or she not only wishes to gain affection of the parents (upon whom sanity depends) but must also negotiate with the other siblings and establish tolerably harmonious relationships with them. They stand in his/her way and between the third child and the parents whose affection and approval they crave. Thus there is a potential ‘zone of discomfort’ standing between the third child and their parents, occupied by the two older siblings. They feel more distant, a stranger almost, coming into this cozy environment with its own power structures already formed, and in which they feel excluded very easily and any little upset or challenge to their identity is upsetting and lonely. In any rivalry with the two older children, the third child feels especially threatened and insecure; nervous to some degree and at times even paranoid. The older siblings can appear to the third child like enemies blocking his/her access to and contact with the parents. They potentially threaten his/her supply of affection.
To the third child, the older siblings can at times seem like an uncomfortable barrier which cuts him her off from natural affection. Thus they may feel cooler towards their parents and more sensitive of any threat to their natural affection, to which they feel entitled by birthright. The parents at times also seem at times to be colluding with the older siblings and acting against the interests of the third child. This gives the impression of being 'ganged up against', cut-off and excluded, of an unfair three-against-one situation. Thus they can often feel lonely, excluded and left out. Feeling so marginalized can affect their identity. They tend to feel more distant and aloof, detached even and emotionally neutral to most of what happens. At times they may seem hesitant, confused, unsure and ambivalent. They cannot ‘take sides’, for to do so threatens some power relationship on one side or the other, which amounts to a non-option which will leave them all alone and excluded. Probably nothing terrifies the third child more than being excluded, left-out and lonely. They are constantly being forced to compromise, be diplomatic and to negotiate for any territory. Thus they develop a new sense of identity based not upon brash assertiveness but upon guile, quiet diplomacy and trying to please everybody. To some extent they seek and take refuge in friendships formed outside the home, as they have a little more control over them than those existing within the family.
They are thus often the most intelligent, sociable and subtle members of the family group. Rather than being innate, they probably develop these skills out of a need to do so; it arises from the situation they are in. They acquire subtle diplomatic and social skills in order to maintain their position in all the conflicting power dynamics of the family group. Thus they feel impelled to reason and communicate, plead with others and to operate shuttle diplomacy with everyone. They shuttle between parents and older siblings and their own friends and the friends of their elder siblings constantly moving around and maintaining a neutral position. Needs must they work hard at this. In order to develop any lasting and satisfying self-identity, they must labor hard and think up new strategies to help everyone to get along harmoniously, for in doing that they gain some personal comfort and security.
Experience teaches the third child that dogged assertiveness never gets them what they want: that is a ‘trail of tears’ they become familiar with at a very early stage. Essentially, they have entered a power structure completely constructed by others; they must fit into it and are not really allowed to dictate terms. They have an input, but cannot change things very much. That is the essential nature of their situation. But through quiet diplomacy, sharing things with others and long-reasoned schemes which please everyone, therein lies their greatest strength. Their identity therefore, does not, like child one, rest on any natural authority bestowed at birth, nor like child two, upon a special, cozy, one-to-one relationship tacitly condoned by parents and which excludes all newcomers. Thus the third child is forced to adapt to these grim realities and to ‘find a place at the table’ which suits everyone. For, in suiting everyone, they indirectly suit themselves. Like a pecking order. The third child must develop their own distinctive identity, and sound and happy self-image based mostly upon sharing things, accepting others as main power-holders and thus negotiating, shuttle diplomacy and pleasing others first before oneself. It is thus a life of service. Thus the third child must eventually accept or choose a life of fitting-in, blending, subtle camouflage and a realization that much more can be attained by these techniques than by sheer willpower alone. The unthinkable alternatives are friction, exclusion and hence unhappiness and loneliness
The first child merely clicks their fingers and people come running to heed their call. The second child gets their way through exclusive one-to-one contacts, forming a team of two, excluding all others. But the third child has to get by on the sidelines, by helping everyone first before himself or herself. A very happy and successful identity can thus be built up in this way. There is thus a huge contrast between the selfish, arrogant pushiness and ‘natural authority’ of the first or only child and the adaptive, subtle diplomacy of the third child. They are poles apart and cannot really relate to each other very well. They have a very incomplete grasp of each other’s situations. Problem is how they fare later in life, and it is my hunch that the third child fares much better as he/she is pre-adapted to how the rest of the world actually operates day by day. The world does not come running when you click your fingers; you must get off your ass and do things for yourself. Most people refuse to be treated like slaves and so the first child has a big lesson to learn, mainly about a big ego and how to deal with its shortcomings.
The first or only child is not used to giving way to others or people refusing to do what they say. Such behavior upsets them as they have never dealt with it that often. Challenges to their power position are very upsetting to them. Their whole identity, since birth, has been based upon holding power, getting others to do what they say and of being in charge. Any other type of situation is alien to them, which they avoid and find distinctly uncomfortable. They also like to be the centre of attention soaking up all the praise going. They operate through sheer willpower and coercing or intimidating others to carry out their wishes. Thus they tend to become ‘control freaks’ unwilling to delegate power to anyone else. This creates enormous frictions in their work and personal lives. They are incapable of the subtle give-and-take realities of social interactions. They can thus be expected to give up or throw a tantrum rather than work at a situation and find a compromise. They are thus pre-adapted to falling out with people, to massive disputes with others, to stand-offs and warfare of one form or another, and to marriage and relationship upsets of every description. Frequent divorce, few true friendships and general unhappiness await them in their future life. Maybe that is the true birthright of being born an only or first child?
By comparison, the third child is almost the exact opposite. Pre-adapted for many diverse friendships, a happy family life and with experience in working hard at difficult relationship problems, they come sort-of ready-made to deal with all sorts of diplomatic issues and relationship hassles. Thus they make good parents, counselors, marriage guidance persons, diplomats, social workers, anthropologists and psychologists. They understand how people operate in social groups fairly intuitively because that is pretty well what they have been forced into doing since birth. They have sound intuition, understand clearly how groups operate, fit in well in teams and work well with others. They are also good neutral observers and sensitive and diplomatic in how they handle the problems of others. What we have been saying about the third child also applies to all subsequent children in a family.
Much of what I have written above assumes that the third (and subsequent) child will in general terms be compliant, docile, well-balanced and wishing to live in harmony with the group norms of the elder siblings. This is by no means always the case. It is merely the portrait of an idealized common type. Of course, there do exist ebullient, headstrong and assertive third and fourth children in families and I would be a fool to claim otherwise! But in my opinion they are likely to be far less numerous than ebullient, headstrong and selfish first and only children. And even if some third and fourth children are like that for some of the time, yet they will also be thoroughly familiar with the ‘rules of social engagement’ I have depicted, even if they choose to apply them only some of the time.
We have considered the social advantages of being a third child. Now we must also examine some of the negative aspects. The chief disadvantage of being a third or fourth child is a possible over-willingness to surrender their own needs and identity in order to cater for the needs of others. Developing social camouflage and operating always with group norms are fine social strategies, but this can lead to a slavish mentality and to being too easily duped, put-upon or dominated by others. So the positive, the unique and the beneficial social aspects of being the third child, which we have explored in detail, should also be carefully balanced against a possible tendency to become ambivalent, ambiguous, hesitant, indecisive and easily enslaved by others. But if they are happy with themselves and well-balanced, good-natured and creative people, does this really matter?
Based upon considerations given here I would expect first and only children to excel in the higher echelons of the business world, in the military and police, in medicine and in sports much more than in service professions. I would also expect third and fourth children to excel more in the arts, theatre, social sciences, teaching, research, office work and general unskilled trades. There seems to be a good match between the characteristics of the first child and those careers indicated above, just as the features typical of the third child more closely match the careers in the second category. It is therefore very enriching to know that the subtle dynamics inherent in family life, and how they impinge upon the children, have real and lasting impacts upon the personality, social skills and ultimate career success of people as they grow up and go out into the world. And back to those dynamics can be traced many of the features of personality and disposition which distinguish one person from another.