We all have a family. Even if not all of us are married or have children, many of us have siblings who do have children. We can create relationships with our nieces and nephews to become close to them, and to help our brothers and sisters with family difficulties. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that, "Extended families should lend support when needed." Through the unique relationship that exists between aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews, there are many things that you can do to be a positive influence in your niece or nephew's life.
Why are the aunt and uncle relationships so unique?
For the most part, people can't choose whether or not to have a relationship with their parents. They grow up in the same house, they see each other and talk together daily, and they have an ongoing, hopefully positive relationship. Aunts and uncles have more freedom than parents in choosing to develop a relationship with a niece or nephew, and both must be interested in forming that bond. Aunts and uncles desiring to be close to their nieces and nephews can choose ways to interact with them that will strengthen their relationship (Langer & Ribarich, 2007). This suggests that you can create the kind of relationship that you want to have with your niece or nephew; there is no one pattern that you must follow. Another factor that distinguishes this relationship from other family ties is that it is less structured; there are many different roles that aunts and uncles can have, and to a certain extent they can choose which roles to cultivate.
A variety of roles
Role model. One of the most important roles for aunts and uncles is to be a role model. A role model is someone that influences our behavior just by us observing how they act. Aunts and uncles can influence their nieces and nephews just by what they do, without saying a word. Aunts can also show their nieces an example of what they may want to be. They can give examples of the roles of a career woman, a wife, a mom, and a productive citizen of society. If an aunt leads a different lifestyle than the child's mom, it can give the niece an alternate example of what she wants to do with her life (Ellingson & Sotirin, 2006).
One way that uncles can be a good role model is to show good examples of a masculine role (Milardo, 2010). They can teach their nephews that it is important to be kind to women and to help others. This can be particularly helpful if these children do not have a positive male figure in their home. It will benefit them to have a trusted adult to guide them rather than looking to their friends and the media.
Friend. As aunts and uncles do not have the responsibility of parenting, they can also be more of a friend with their nieces and nephews. An important quality that many nieces and nephews name in their parents' siblings is their ability to have fun. This friendship allows the aunts and nieces (or uncles and nephews) to be involved in common activities they enjoy, such as sports or shopping (Ellingson & Sotirin, 2006). Aunts can help foster enthusiasm in their favorite activities by sharing these interests with their nieces, which will help them to bond over those common interests. One important distinction between acting more like a parent and acting more like a friend is often reciprocity. Friends are more likely to give back to their friends with emotional support, advice, or suggestions. Milardo found that if you have this kind of relationship with your niece or nephew, they may be supporting you as you support them (2010).
Supplemental parents. One role that aunts and uncles often have that is very important is to act as supplemental parents. Aunts and uncles can be complementary to their siblings by providing additional support, to fill the needs that the parents are unable to take care of themselves. This can include providing another supportive adult that kids can go to, to do their hair before a school dance, or by helping to drive them to all the places they need to go. Uncles and aunts can also reinforce the ideas that parents are trying to teach, such as the importance of education or being kind to your siblings. Aunts and moms can collaborate on good parenting ideas for the child, and discuss parenting methods (Milardo, 2010). Through the aunt's unique relationship with her niece, she may have additional ideas for parenting to add to the mom's ideas.
Buffers between parents and children. Aunts and uncles can also act as intergenerational buffers. This means that they can help mediate the relationship between parent and child. Instead of siding with one or the other, uncles and aunts can help each family member to try and see the other's side of the argument (Milardo, 2010). Of course, you do not want to be constantly in the middle of their fights, but you can help soothe tensions that may exist between them.
There are also many other roles that you can take on; being a good listener, giving advice, providing unconditional support, or telling your nieces and nephews of their family history (Ellingson & Sotirin, 2006; Milardo, 2010). It's easy to get overwhelmed and to think that there's no way you can do all of these roles. The nice thing about being an aunt or uncle is that none of these roles are required; you can determine what you want to do. If you don't want to get in the middle of parents and children fighting, don't. If you want to play tennis with your niece, do! You can choose what roles and activities you have time for and are willing to do. Only you can determine what will be good for your relationship.
How to achieve a positive relationship with your nieces and nephews
Invest in the relationship. If you want to be close to your nieces and nephews, you need to take the first step and initiate contact. Children may feel too intimidated to talk to an adult, so you may need to make the first move if you want to become close to them (Milardo, 2010). Pashos and McBurney found that by proactively initiating a relationship with your niece or nephew, you are more likely to become close than if you wait for them to talk to you (2008). If you do choose to initiate a relationship, be committed to it. This will be a long relationship; you will always be their aunt or uncle (Milardo, 2010).
Keep in touch. According to the research by Milardo, social distance is more important than physical distance in relationships (2010). This means that living close to relatives does not guarantee closeness, and living far apart doesn't have to equal distance. Telephone calls, e-mail, webcams, and social networking sites can all be helpful in keeping touch with kin (Georgas et. al, 2001; Milardo, 2010). Some nieces and nephews may create blogs, or websites where they detail what is going on in their life|some families may find these helpful in keeping up-to-date on their family member's activities.
Provide emotional support. There are many ways to show emotional support. Many kids just need encouragement; you can encourage them to try out for the school play or the soccer team if they are nervous, or to try new things, or to be more positive (Ellingson & Sotirin, 2006). Milardo states in his research that you can also give advice through encouragement (2010). Knowing someone wants them to do well can motivate them. Continuity is an important part of this|being there when they need you is important (2010). It is more important that they know that they can depend on you if something happens, even if they don't actually need your support (Langer & Ribarich, 2007). Try to be understanding to what they are going through|you were a child once too (Milardo, 2010).
Enjoy common interests. When you find something in common that you both like, enjoy it together. If you both like rollerblading, take them to a rink and skate together. If they like movies, take them to the theater, just the two of you. When you enjoy spending time together, you are more likely to want to spend time together in the future. Your nieces and nephews should think of time with you as being fun, so try to think of fun things to do with them when they are around (2010). However, be careful not to interfere in their relationships with their parents. You don't want to replace the relationships of your nieces and nephews with their parents; you want to have your own unique relationship with them.
Strengthen family relationships. By keeping the extended family strong as a whole, you can become closer to your nieces and nephews. Family members become close if other family members are close. For instance, you will probably be closer to your nieces if you are closer to your sister, their mother. Your relationships with your siblings will have a big influence on your relationships with their children (2010). Parents can encourage their siblings and children to become close, if they want their sibling and child to have a good relationship. Aunts can support moms by reinforcing the teachings of the parents (2010). Don't encourage your nieces and nephews to disobey their parents; you want to teach them to respect their parents. If you don't respect your siblings, your nieces and nephews will learn not to respect them either. Aunts and uncles can also encourage extended family traditions to bring the whole family together (2010). Holidays, cultural events, or even a monthly movie night can give family members the opportunity to become close to one another.
Some of you may not be very emotionally close to your nieces and nephews, particularly if they live far away. It is important to remember that even if you aren't very close to your nieces and nephews, you can still be important to them and be an influence on their life. Whether you connect with them a lot or a little, you want to make every moment with them strengthen your relationship.
Written by Kaitlin M. Miller, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Ellingson, L. L., & Sotirin, P. J. (2006). Exploring young adults' perspectives on communication with aunts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 483-501.
Georgas, J., Mylonas, K., Bafiti, T., Poortinga, Y. H., Christakopoulou, S., & Kabitcibasi, C. et al. (2001). Functional relationships in the nuclear and extended family: A 16 culture study. International Journal of Psychology, 36, 289-300.
Langer, N. & Ribarich, M. (2007). Aunts, uncles|nieces, nephews: Kinship relations over the lifespan. Educational Gerontology, 33, 75-83.
Milardo, R. M. (2010). The forgotten kin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pashos, A., & McBurney, D. H. (2008). Kin relationships and the caregiving biases of grandparents, aunts and uncles. Human Nature, 19, 311-330.