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Q. Do you believe in "middle child syndrome," and if so what are some ways to avoid it?

My husband and I have three boys -- 6, 3 and 2. The middle guy seems to be having a tough time these days. I feel like I'm punishing him all day long for all sorts of misbehavior. His big brother is getting attention for starting "big school." His little brother is getting attention for his potty training successes. He's getting attention for being annoying.

Does he need more positive attention from me (make no mistake about it, I give him a lot as it is) or am I buying into a big farce? I tend not to believe in this sort of thing, but my mother, who raised us the old-fashioned way, says it's because he's the middle of three boys and doesn't know any other way to get attention. What do you say?

A. I absolutely believe in "middle child syndrome." It is constituted by anxiety and a predictable set of dysfunctional disciplinary behaviors often characteristic of parents of more than two children.

These self-defeating parenting behaviors -- including hesitancy in responding to bad behavior, inconsistency and a tendency to give positive attention to a misbehaving child -- rest on the belief that any misbehavior on the part of a middle child can be explained in terms of his birth order. This is psychological mythology, pure and simple, which persists despite the fact there is no good science to support it.

In other words, the only "middle child syndrome" I'm aware of affects parents, not children.

Your son might be behaving this way if he were an only child. What, then, would the explanation be? He's trying to tell you he resents not having siblings? The fact is, the many exceptions to any and all of these supposed "birth order syndromes" debunk any supposed "rules."

Here's my theory about why your 3-year-old is escalating out of control: During the latter half of his second year of life, when parents need to begin disciplining in earnest to nip emerging misbehaviors in the bud, you gave birth to your third child. This caused you to "neglect" (and understandably so) your second child's discipline, and you are now paying that price.

For this reason, among others, most child development experts, including Burton White, the author of "The First Three Years of Life," recommend a three-year interval between kids.

You're beginning to think psychologically about your 3-year-old's misbehavior. As a result, instead of responding immediately and effectively when he misbehaves, you're asking "What does it mean?" and getting yourself entangled in theory and speculation. You need to stop theorizing and act!

Using a magnetic clip, secure five "tickets" (rectangular pieces of colored construction paper) to the refrigerator. When he misbehaves, simply identify the misbehavior, such as "You're screaming." Then, say, "That means you lose a ticket," take one of his tickets down and put him in a quiet time out place for five to 10 minutes (set a kitchen timer to let him know when his time is up).

Let him know, however, that even when the bell rings, he can't get up if he is still fussing. When and if he loses all five tickets in a single day, he spends the rest of the day in his room and goes to bed early.

This is an ideal age at which to begin this sort of structured, concrete, powerful (but noncorporal) approach to discipline. A 3-year-old might not understand this method at first, but will figure it out in three days or less, at which point you will notice him making frequent trips to the kitchen to see how many tickets he has left.

As his behavior begins to improve, you can slowly reduce the number of tickets with which he starts the day, but I do not recommend that with a child this age they be reduced past three.

I've seen many cases of so-called "middle child syndrome" cured with variations on this approach. But then, I've also seen it cure "only child syndrome," "adopted child syndrome," "youngest child syndrome," "test tube child syndrome," "strong-willed child syndrome," and "child being raised by grandparent syndrome." Kind of like parenting snake oil, except it's not a rip-off.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site:

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