Are Aunts and Uncles the Forgotten Kin?

Leading family textbooks have mostly ignored aunts and uncles

Posted Jul 23, 2010

The newsletters of professional organizations rarely offer up riveting reading. This once, this one sentence in an article published by the National Council on Family Relations had me hooked:

"In a review of ten leading introductory family textbooks, I found no reference to aunts, uncles, nieces, or nephews."

The article was written by the influential relationships scholar Robert M. Milardo. The experience he described was part of his story of how he went on to write the book, The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles. It resonated for me because I had the same experience before I wrote Singled Out. I checked out the most esteemed handbooks in social psychology, one after another, starting with the most recent and tracing back in time. There was no mention of the topic of people who are single.

If aunts and uncles are missing from the premier family textbooks, then the role of singles as aunts and uncles is missing, too. Is there anything special about aunts and uncles who are single, compared to any other aunts or uncles?

Are you a single person who feels unusual in a bad way when you are among some of your relatives? Maybe, Milardo suggests, the relationship between an aunt or an uncle and a niece or a nephew is a place where appraisals are less judgmental. In this excerpt from his book, Milardo is not referring specifically to marital status but the context (p. 203) includes it:

"Parents and nonparents, homosexuals, and heterosexuals are valued as aunts and uncles in part because the social conventions that define aunting and uncling simply permit, and sometimes even encourage, unconventionality."

Now I'll confess that I haven't read the entire book yet. (It is in my "save for later" list, later being as soon as I can afford it.) So what I know is what I read in the newsletter article and what I've been able to read from the book online. I mention this in case my next point is already in the book and I just don't know it.

What seems special to me about these relationships is not just that they are welcoming of adults who do not look or act like everyone else, but also that they are voluntary. The fact of being an aunt or uncle, of course, is a given. But acting as an aunt or uncle, creating and nurturing a relationship, is not. (Or at least it is not in every family.) When aunts and uncles develop a special relationship with a niece or a nephew, often it is because there is some affection there that surpasses any obligatory bond of family ties. Maybe that makes the relationship all the more valuable.

Not all single aunts and uncles have an interest in becoming close to their nieces and nephews, and for them, it is good that a personal relationship is not compulsory. Yet even they can open the minds and broaden the outlooks of their nieces and nephews just by being who they are. Think of all of those children of married parents who have aunts and uncles who are single and leading full and fulfilling lives. Those kids know something that much of the rest of the culture is trying to hide from them.

Ah, you say, but what about the miserable and unfulfilled singles? Yes, true. But they are the exceptions.

Longtime readers have probably noticed the argument I did NOT make for why single aunts and uncles may have a special relationship with their nieces and nephews. I didn't say that singles don't have a life, so they may as well use their siblings' kids to fill the void. My point is that they do have a life. They have a life that may be different from the lives of the other adults the kids see. That adds its own dimension.

Here's a question I'd love to see asked of a representative sample of adults: "Growing up, who were your role models?" I wonder if a disproportionate number of them would be people who were single.