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August 11, 2016 7:22 PM EDT

You won’t believe the news! According to a wealth of new studies, being a middle sibling is actually much better than being a first-born or a last-born!

OK, I’m totally making that up. You know all those stories you hear about how lousy it is to be stuck in the middle of a brood of siblings? They’re all true. If you’re a middle sib, you know all those times you’ve looked up at the privileged first-born and down at the pampered last-born in your family and thought that you definitely got a lousy deal? Well, you’re right. You did. And that will never, ever change. So we done here?

Not quite. As with all things that seem generally bad, there is an enormous amount of hidden benefit in the middle sibling position—provided you know where to look for the goodies. I should say that I can speak about this from some hard experience. I grew up in the number two spot in a family of four boys, briefly had two step sisters—one older and one younger, natch—and later acquired two baby half-siblings, courtesy of one parent’s re-marriage. I wrote about a lot of these experiences in my book The Sibling Effect, and devoted an entire chapter to the riddles and rules of birth order.

Across history—and that includes modern history, as in this week—studies show that first-borns are healthier, taller, richer and happier than later-borns. They get more hours of parental attention—even after later-borns come along—more parental money, and better medical attention too, with more visits to doctors and more follow-up visits even after an illness has passed. They are overrepresented in CEO suites, in elective office and on professional sports teams. Twenty-one of America’s first 23 astronauts were first-borns or only-children.

Parents can be faulted for the disparate attention that leads to this disparate success—but they shouldn’t be. They are driven by an unconscious impulse similar to what corporations call “sunk costs.” The first born is the first product off of the reproductive assembly line. Mom and dad have devoted a lot of time, calories and dollars to that model by the time the second one rolls along, and they’re impelled to keep protecting their investment.

Last-borns get a different kind of developmental bump, for a number of reasons. First of all, they are what is technically, scientifically known as “absolutely, irresistibly, scrumptiously adorable”—though the scientists generally keep that term among themselves. Whatever the quality is called, it makes a difference.

Humans and many other species are hardwired to respond protectively to the smallest critter in any litter, and different animals have different ways of signaling that. The youngest chick in the nest of a mama coot—a duck-like water bird—typically has a distinctive red tuft on its head impelling the mother to keep an eye on it and make sure it gets its fair share of food. Much more broadly, across species, babyhood is signaled by such features as big eyes; high, rounded foreheads; small chins and jaws; and generous amounts of fat, lots and lots of fat, ooh, just look at all that scoochy-scoochy fat!

Sorry. The point is, parents look out for the baby, which easily turns to pampering the baby, which also turns to giving extra treats and attention to the baby. The babies also learn to look after themselves. As the smallest and most vulnerable in the brood they tend to be more intuitive and even funnier (comedians tend to be later- or last-borns) than other siblings. Those so-called low-power skills are ways for the physically smallest kids to protect themselves in what can be the free-fire zone of the playroom.

And where does all that leave the middle sibs? Well, nowhere very good. Research shows that middlings (even the term is kind of meh) are at higher risk for self-esteem issues and take longer to settle on their careers than other siblings. They tend to be more loosely connected to their nuclear families too. One study found that when teenagers are involved in car accidents, the first person an oldest or youngest child calls is typically a parent; a middling is likelier to call a friend.

But there are benefits. For one thing, that slightly more tenuous link to family means that middle children generally build deeper and wider social networks than other siblings do. They also have a range of developmental opportunities in the home that their older and younger siblings don’t get. They have both the caregiving experience of being babysitters to their little sib and the cozy, looked-after feeling of being babysat by the older. They are both mentors and mentored, advice-givers and advice-seekers.

That matters. The late Wendy Wasserstein, a middle child and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, once said, “My talent was to accommodate larger personalities and observe; solid early training for a playwright.”

Wasserstein had a very particular career, but the skill she described is an important one in all fields. Managing up and managing down are very different skills, and it’s a valuable—and too-often rare—person who excels at both. The same flexibility is important in friendships and romantic relationships, in which there are times to be the dominant party and times to cede that role to someone else.

Then too, for all siblings in all positions, it’s important to remember that birth order rules prevail only until they don’t. Smart parents can take a hand in making sure their children receive more-equalized attention. Children themselves, at least as they get into grade school, learn their own strengths and talents and find ways to assert themselves in the family. And as adults, we can practice putting away the challenges of our childhood and making the most of the good we got. For middle sibs, that job may be harder, but the rewards may be greater.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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