by Robert Milardo I was raised in a typical Italian-American family. It was large and sociable. Family gatherings were frequent, offered occasions to visit and for children to play, and always centered on food and talk. Our home was near town and within a short drive were the homes of my parent’s seven sisters and five brothers. The sisters talked daily; the brothers played cards every week.
I don’t think I was an especially difficult child, certainly not any more difficult than my brothers or cousins, but I did at the time think my parents were occasionally, and without justification, entirely unreasonable. At these times I visited Aunt Bea with my list of complaints.
Bea listened, acknowledged, encouraged and then would convince me that my parents were wonderful people, kind and generous, and I returned home comforted. I imagine my parents were a bit relieved to have their youngest son out of the house for a day. In the course of growing up my aunts and uncles were teachers and mentors, a source of support and occasional criticism, often fun, and sometimes much like a good friend.
Contemporary families are no different; they share many of the same qualities. And yet aunts and uncles rarely enter the public discourse on family matters. It is as if the work they do were invisible. And to be fair, you won’t find aunt, uncle or cousin in the index of any of the several dozen college popular textbooks on families.
Certainly not all families include close ties with aunts and uncles, but many do and for some the ties of aunts and uncles with siblings and their children are among the closest and most resilient. Relationships with aunts and uncles are similar to those with grandparents, but they include many unique qualities. Aunts and uncles complement the work of parents.
This essential supplemental parenting is a common experience for both aunts and uncles and often serves as the grounding for their future relationships. With young children, they provide child care and parental relief efforts. For instance, Aunt Denise provided additional care for her twin nieces simply because their parents were exhausted. The infants had irregular sleeping hours, and as Denise says, “somebody would have to get some sleep in that house. So I would go over for a few hours. It was kind of a changing of the guard.”
The positions of aunts and uncles sometimes amplify those of parents, and at other times they are distinctly complementary, particularly when they enact a partisan support for nieces and nephews or advocate on their behalf. Aunt Janice spoke about her experiences as a child and her relationship with her own aunt. “I was an early adolescent and wanted nylons. And my father was just not hearing that. And one day my aunt walked in the house and laid down a package on the table and she said: ‘Here are your stockings. I know you’ve been asking for them.’ She gave me three pairs of stockings. I was 11. I was thrilled.”
At other times conflicts between parents and children severely limit their communication, and aunts and uncles become important family confidants. An 11-year-old niece tells her Aunt Francesca things she would not share with her mother because, as Francesca explains, her niece doesn’t “want to disappoint [her mother], or maybe she is a little fearful of her reaction.” Francesca adds that sometimes her niece’s mother “kind of flies of the handle.” For her young niece, Francesca represents a stable, consistent, and trusted adult figure.
In cases in which mothers are raising children as single parents, aunts and uncles can add a measure of balance. “It’s like all my uncles have picked up the job that my dad didn’t do. They are like dads,” says Heath.
Aunts and uncles complement parents by providing experiences that parents cannot provide. John describes being introduced to athletics by his dad, but he describes a different and complementary influence of his uncle. “Getting into outdoors, fishing, four-wheeling, snowmobiling and stuff like that was more my uncle’s influence.”
For many families, aunts and uncles are important to nieces and nephews, and just as importantly they are confidants and advisors of parents.
My brother called the other day. We chatted about work, laughed and he asked: “What do you think of my son’s new girl friend?” I told him she would make a nice addition to the family ensemble. I was reminded how families, when they work well, talk of the ordinary business of life. Siblings are part of that mix like no others.
About the Author:
Robert Milardo is Professor of Family Relations at the University of Maine. He is the author of The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles published by Cambridge University Press. The book is based upon interviews with over 100 aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews in Wellington, New Zealand, and Bangor, Maine, USA.
Purchase from Amazon (US dollars)
Register now to join YourKidsEd for e-updates with new feature articles, links, and inspiring ideas to educate and enrich your kids! It's FREE!!