Aunts and uncles provide enrichment experiences that supplement the activities, interests, and skills of parents, or at times complement them.  This complementarity is demonstrated in the ways aunts and uncles provide enrichment opportunities including visits to libraries, concerts, museums, sporting events, outdoor activities, or in short any activity that complements what parents ordinarily provide.  Aunts and uncles can offer technical information or advice in areas where their knowledge and experience exceeds that of parents.  Michele describes learning about photography from her aunt who is a professional photographer and artist.  "I just like seeing her in action," she says, and "I've watched her have a passion for something she loves and not be afraid to try something new and different." 

Michael's nephew elected to complete a project on the ecology of a local river and enlisted the help of his uncle.  Being a university librarian, Michael was all too happy to send along a package of educational material and then arrange for him and his nephew to visit the local expert on water quality in a state environmental protection agency.  In a similar fashion, Carla Lyn invited her niece to visit her office and then shared the initial page proofs of her latest publication, something her niece had not seen before.  Of course it is difficult to say whether the experience had any lasting impression on her niece.  The interests of adolescents can sometimes be mercurial.  Carla Lyn's niece was initially interested in engineering, then medicine, but lately a career in business seems to be winning out as she "wants to make money without working so hard," which at some level is rather a universal sentiment. 

This kind of enrichment opportunity derivative of the professional expertise and contacts of aunts and uncles extends the range of experiences parents can provide for children.  More demonstrative are the longer enrichment opportunities that occasionally develop.   Rosemary is currently planning a trip to eastern Canada with her young niece.   In this way they will continue a tradition of spending significant time with one another, a tradition that began when her niece was 11 and Rosemary took her on a trip to London.  I asked Rosemary how she came to take her niece on extended vacations, she replied: "Well because I love her to pieces.  She is the crown jewel of my life.  So I just do a lot of things with [my niece], and just help her grow up."  

A brother encouraged the relationship between his sister and his daughter by suggesting they take a two-week holiday in Europe.   Aunt Carla Lyn, a mother of two grown children, was thrilled and dutifully planned the tour of great European cities, which her brother financed.   The young teen-age niece was apparently less thrilled, by the aunt's account, particularly with an early morning walking tour of the égouts of Paris, otherwise known as sewers.   Perhaps she was wearing sandals, although fetching in most Parisian venues, they would have been insecure on this particular walk.  I neglected to ask.  

In other circumstance, aunts and uncles complement parents because of their distance from the hot zones of adolescence.  Lena arranged for her niece's summer job because in her words: "My sister has been backing off [the issue of a summer job] because it would be the kiss of death to have your parent recommend something to you when you're sixteen."   In this instance, Lena's knowledge derived from the positive experiences her son had working in a similar position the previous summer.  

Common themes in the family work of aunts and uncles include providing support and companionship, acting as confidants, and modeling alternative family or career choices.   Aunts and uncles supplement the work of parents in virtually all areas of the lives of their nieces and nephews, and this can be especially important for single parents. 

The relationships of aunts and uncles change and adapt with the development of children and the needs of parents.  During the labor intensive years of infancy and early childhood, they provide parents with direct child care relief.    During adolescence when issues of identity development are primary, they can ease or mediate conflicts between parents and teens, serve as testing grounds for the identity development of nieces and nephews, and just as importantly provide support for parents and act as their confidants.   Aunts and uncles often become critical sources of support in times of special needs such as with the death of a family member or in cases of separation and divorce, a topic we'll explore in a later post.   

© Robert Milardo

About the Author

Robert M. Milardo, Ph.D.

Robert M. Milardo, Ph.D., is Professor of Family Relations at the University of Maine.

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