Robert M. Milardo, Ph.D.

Robert M. Milardo Ph.D.

Next to Kin

Favoring Fun in Our Relationships

The importance of aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews.

Posted Apr 24, 2012

With my Aunt Julie it was really a relationship where we just played around [and] had fun. She was very playful, and very young. [Aunt Julie and her partner] used to pick me up on Fridays and we would go [to] the Laundromat and they would sit me down on the washing machine and I would sing songs in French the whole time.  (Elena)

Whether we are listening to the voices of aunts, uncles, nieces or nephews, having fun is an important ingredient in their relationships. Aunts and uncles describe their enjoyment in playing with their nieces and nephews, and they easily draw up memories of playing with their own favored elders. Fun is typically associated with play or recreation and aunts and uncles clearly recognize their special privilege in this regard. As Aunt Elena describes “if [my nieces] make a mess it doesn’t matter because they don’t live here. It’s not like you’re building a behavior; you’re just happy to see them. Whereas, if you’re a parent and you are the one always cleaning up the mess and you’re tired of playing servant to your child, that behavior irritates you.” 

Uncles and aunts create experiences that are fun for children, and often they join right in. Uncle Michael comments on a recent visit with his young nephew, “We went to see Monster Trucks. It’s fun. It’s not something you see every day,” he says.  

Nieces and nephews often described being fun or fun loving as personal attributes or qualities they admired in their favored aunts and uncles. In this way, they are viewed as distinct from parents, often unconditional in their love and support, relatively unconcerned with discipline and setting boundaries, and as a result more fun. “I tell my aunt what I am going to do and she says great, or whatever.  She can be more fun than my mom,” says Angela. 

At other times, having fun is cast in the context of being together as a family. Jamie remembers his first communion, an important event in his childhood, and his absolute delight with his uncle’s unexpected attendance. He says: “spending that day with my family was actually a lot of fun because I had lots of cousins that came over and it just kind of turned into a family reunion type day.  It was good seeing the whole family. That is some of my favorite time.” 

Fun can also represent a means rather than an end it itself. Uncle Stephen described the recent death of his teenaged nephew’s mother and his contested relationship with his father. “We just go out and have some fun. Kind of get his mind off things,” Stephen says. Other aunts and uncles understood they provide a playful contrast to routine family life unencumbered by the necessary house rules of parents. 

In the adult relationships of aunts and uncles with older nieces and nephews, fun can be one of the features that helps fuel their friendships. Uncle Chris describes his 43 year old nephew as “a lot of fun,” and “easy to be around.” They share similar interests, visit frequently, and spend occasional vacation time together.

Activities regarded as fun or persons so regarded share a common attribute. They are occasions where attention is transformed from routine events with predictable outcomes, or parents with anticipated demands, to occasions with novel and unexpected qualities. The importance of aunts and uncles as a means of transforming the attention of their nieces and nephews is evidenced through the activities in which they engage their nieces and nephews, in the ways they themselves describe such activities, and in the way nieces and nephews perceive such activities. Their stories are suggestive of how transformations of attention are highly valued and central features of their relationships and more generally of friendship. Transformations of attention are occasions where the obligations, duties, responsibilities, daily hassles and all the worries they bring to bear are momentarily cast away from our conscious attention, replaced with the novelty of new experience and the more playful qualities of a companion. The transformation of attention is a reccurring effect of aunts and uncles on siblings as well as their children, and for this they are unique and highly valued.

© Robert Milardo