If you are watching a family member or close friend raise their child or children, you will have seen just how hard they work to balance work, life, and the needs of their little ones. From sleepless nights to childhood illnesses, mums and dads are taking on one of the toughest roles in the universe. So, it’s no surprise that they sometimes need your support in your role of aunt or uncle. As the African proverb states, it takes a village to raise a child. Aunts and uncles have an important, but sometimes unexpected, role in a child’s life.
Almost every parent has had the village proverb repeated to them at some point since becoming a mum or dad. But as an aunt or uncle, you may have escaped hearing this saying. You don’t need to have kids to know that raising them is hard. Harder than any job, vocation or stressful life event. Having a child requires a parent to be available any time of the day or night. A parent must be capable of all practical tasks on minimal sleep, through all illnesses, tantrums and stages of behavioural development. And they will need help with this. Specifically, your help.
Aunts and uncles who are involved in a child’s life can relieve the pressure parents are under, giving them a shoulder to cry on or helping to pick up the pieces of a tough day. But as an aunt or uncle, you should be proud to know that you also offer so much more. To the child you could be the coolest person they know; their best friend, confidant, expert tea party maker, superb milkshake drinker, or fellow sports enthusiast. More than this, you may also become their informal teacher, moulding your niece or nephew based on your own values. Becoming a role model means ensuring you lead by example, shaping their young mind with alternative perspectives and stepping up with advice or constructive criticism when their behaviour falls short.
Unlike a child’s parents, as aunt or uncle you are not obliged to spend time with your niece or nephew. Having a close relationship with them can be optional. So when you do develop a devoted, warm and loving relationship, it makes it feel all the more special. You may find yourself eager to do all the exciting, treat-filled activities. Theme parks, trips to the beach or a day of shopping can quickly catapult you into the realm of cool aunt or fun uncle. The relationship between you and your niece or nephew can be one of pure indulgence; all of the fun, and far fewer of the anxieties than their parents might face.
If you don’t have your own children, being the cool aunt or uncle can feel like the best of both worlds. You can enjoy all the joyful moments, from school plays to sports days, with little of the everyday tedium.
The role of uncle or aunt is an important one. In our modern world, you are needed more than ever to relieve the strain parents feel at being at their child’s beck and call. Whilst the title aunt or uncle officially denotes your mother’s or father’s sister or brother, many parents today bestow this title on their best friends. You may be known as “Aunt Sarah” simply because your friendship with the child’s mother is so strong. This gesture of being made into an aunt or uncle demonstrates just how important you are in a child’s life. And the title, albeit unofficial, is one that many are delighted and honoured to be given.
Unofficial aunts and uncles can fill gaps left by parents, meeting a child’s needs that could otherwise go unmet. In times of uncertainty or tragic situations, you may find yourself providing comfort, solace or even a home. Acting as a parent can lead to a close bond between you and your best friend’s child, resulting in a relationship or friendship that lasts a lifetime.
When we think of the key people in a child’s life, it can be surprising that aunts and uncles are often not at the top of the list. We may think of parents, grandparents, siblings and even close family friends before remembering the joy of aunts and uncles. Aunts and uncles who don’t have children often muster up the energy that the child’s parents are lacking in. If an aunt or uncle have their own children, cousins can become lifelong friends making the bond between families stronger. If your own children arrive in the following years, you may find yourself a more confident and capable parent having benefited from experiencing the hardships of parenthood with your niece or nephew.
Part of the joy of being an aunt or uncle is enjoying the ‘fun’ parts of parenting with fewer responsibilities. There’s no need to wash their sports kit, nag about their homework or argue about keeping their bedroom tidy. The role of aunt or uncle can also include babysitting to give parents a much needed night off. Whether you choose to play a board game, let them stay up a bit later than usual, or read them an extra story or two, having you to do their bedtime can be a real treat. And mum or dad will certainly thank you for giving them a rare night off from parenting duties.
You may remember from your own childhood that it often wasn’t your parents that you confided in when you faced a problem or felt anxious about something. Aunts and uncles provide a safe haven for children to talk without embarrassment or fear of being punished. Children may hence find it easier to confide in their aunt or uncle, than they do their own parents.
This process of disclosing mishaps or mistakes can begin at a very young age (“I drew on my bedroom wall”), to teenagers (“I’m being bullied at school”), right through to adulthood (“I’m having trouble at work”). It is important, however, that your niece or nephew know that you won’t put up with misconduct, and will express your disapproval of poor behaviour.
Being an aunt or uncle is a position of privilege; allowing your niece or nephew to talk to you without worrying too much about repercussions or parental disappointment. Children may also value that the advice you give has a higher level of objectivity, compared to their parents. However, rather than letting them get away with something, your response needs to be rational to ensure a positive influence on future behaviour. Being an aunt or uncle puts you in the position of life teacher or role model. Your reaction and advice should encourage them to want to be the best they can going forward. When you lead by example, it’ll be easier for your niece or nephew to see the standards expected of them.
The role of aunt or uncle can even help to bridge gaps that have formed between teenagers and their parents. In difficult situations, you can step in and help children communicate with their parents, acting as their mediator or counsellor.
Whilst an aunt or uncle used to be thought of as a distant relative who sends money in a birthday card once a year, the role is now much more involved. Aunts and uncles often offer things that parents cannot, and this is most noticeable if your niece/nephew shares similar interests. From visiting art galleries, to travelling, or simply enjoying a similar genre of film, aunts and uncles can play an active part in encouraging a child’s interests that their parents may not have had the time or inclination to nurture.
Being an aunt or uncle with a close bond to your niece or nephew will allow you to enjoy watching them grow and develop from a baby, to a child and into an adult. At every stage, you have something different to offer them; fun, guidance, support and friendship.
That, to us, is why being an aunt or uncle is the best thing. Are you an aunt or uncle? What’s it like having nieces and/or nephews?