Not long ago, on a visit to Pennsylvania, I went along on a visit to one of “the uncles.” We were having a grand time telling old stories, when I noticed that one of the uncles hadn’t said anything for the past hour or so. When there was a lull in the conversation, I asked him, “What was the greatest lesson you learned growing up with so many brothers and sisters in a very small house?” He took a minute and then replied, “Learning when not to speak”. Everybody roared.
Let me give you a little background. My father grew up during the Depression in a family with nine children. They lived in a two bedroom, one bathroom, 1,000 sq. ft. house in Mary-D, Pennsylvania where his father worked as a coal miner. (That’s near Tamaqua, for you folks from back East). The girls slept in one of the bedrooms, the parents and babies slept in the other. The boys shifted sleeping in the living room during the winter and on the front porch during the summers. Everyone worked to put food on the table, whether it was foraging for dandelions for salads or shooting rabbits and birds. Hand me downs were the norm and toys were handmade.
Even with such depravations and tight living quarters, everyone grew up “normal” and balanced. Every time I visit “the family”, I’m amazed by their cooperation and closeness. I am also amazed by their acceptance of me, being a person who is their polar opposite. They are Catholic and I am Jewish. They are Irish and I am Korean. They are Republicans and I am a Democrat. And yet none of this gets in the way of their complete love and acceptance of me.
Okay, so back to my funny uncle. We all laughed so hard, but that got me thinking. This uncle is one of the “middles.” I have always heard that middle children are the peacemakers and the negotiators. Then I started reading more middle children and learned that they are also independent thinkers. They have had to forge their own identity without causing conflict. They know how to conform, but also to choose for themselves. They also tend to be experienced in reading situations, having grown up negotiating power struggles within the family.
Don’t these skills sound like ones that would be helpful today; in bridging the polarized nature of our community? And when you come right down to it, isn’t listening the first step to successful negotiation and compromise? We love to talk, but do we know when not to talk? Do we know when to wait to enter the conversation? And when we do enter, do we have the patience to only say what is necessary?
In my opinion, we have lost a lot by not having enough middle children. I know there are really good reasons for not having more than two children: economics, work schedules, over population, our sanity.
This is one of those times where I say, “If I were queen of the world”. So, if I were queen of the world, I would wave my magic wand and support programs that would foster middle children skills. Of course that would include better support for adoption and foster parenting so that families could have middle children without increasing the world’s population. But then I would include programs, such as summer camps, that focus on communication and negotiation skills. And most importantly, I would provide support to programs that encourage the middle child skill of learning when not to talk.