Books about parenting flood the market — and for good reason — but parents aren't the only individuals responsible for the well-being of their offspring. As the old adage says, it takes a village to raise a child. Grandparents, teachers, peers, siblings, and friends of parents are likely to play a significant role in a youngster's development. One particularly unique relationship is that of the aunt.
Growing up, my parents' sisters and their brothers' wives were pseudo-moms for me. Like my parents, they were present at life's most significant moments: birthdays, school plays, religious rites of passage, and graduations. Unlike my parents, my aunts didn't see me every single day, and ultimately, they weren't responsible for my character formation, so they could spoil me and be an extra source of fun in my life. They were adult role models for me, offering living examples of how to handle challenges, engage with others, and find purpose in life.
On top of positively impacting nieces and nephews, good aunt-ing also has the potential to strengthen relationships between adult siblings, bring joy to grandparents, and encourage the development of strong cousin relationships. In other words, the benefits of good aunt-ing stretch beyond the children in an extended family. Aunt-ing is important for the health of family relationships at large, and it deserves attention.
Now that I am an aunt myself, I look at it as a wonderful opportunity to play a role in the lives of my nieces and nephews. Here are seven strategies for being a good aunt!
1. Be involved in the little moments, as well as the big ones.
Be in the everyday. Pick her up from school one afternoon a week so that you can hear about her day. Go back-to-school shopping with her and her mom. Be a spectator at her kiddie-soccer tournaments. If you can't be present physically, be present electronically. Use FaceTime and Skype for weekly catch-up dates. With older nieces and nephews, send texts or Snapchats when you see something that reminds you of them. Social media makes everyday connection very easy. Or get old fashioned and write a letter or postcard. For little effort, snail mail brings great excitement!
2. Have a special ritual with them.
Whether attending a baseball game together every Summer, eating banana splits at the same ice cream shop to celebrate his birthday each year, or playing a pre-bedtime round of Go Fish every night of a family visit, a shared ritual can be so important. It will give him something to look forward to, joy in the moment of the activity, and fond memories to look back upon. Repetitious activity establishes a sense of continuity and security, no matter how ordinary the activity may seem to you.
3. Spontaneously spoil them . . . within reason.
Give her treats that you know she isn't receiving from her parents. Obviously some discretion is needed with this strategy, as respecting your siblings' and in-laws' rules is a must for establishing harmony in the home. But treating your niece to a manicure or a fancy milkshake that you know your brother could never bring himself to buy? Do it!
4. Take an interest in the details of their lives.
Ask your nieces and nephews questions about their friends, toys, favorite foods, and hobbies. Your niece wants to tell you the name, family history, and zodiac sign of each of her 46 My Little Ponies? Your nephew wants to explain to you why Charizard will beat Bulbasaur in a round of Pokémon? Make yourself comfortable and pay close attention. Maya Angelou once wrote: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Listening deeply and being interested in their interests will make your nephews and nieces feel important, valuable, and loved.
5. Expose them to events that they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to experience.
Everyone has a limited number of hobbies, interests, and talents, including your niece and nephew's parents. Maybe your sister and brother-in-law love attending sporting events but practically fall over with boredom at the mere mention of world history. Take your niece and nephew to the traveling dinosaur exhibit in your city's natural history museum. If your brother and his wife hate the movie theater, make it a point to bring your nephew to see blockbuster kid flicks. And don't forget to buy popcorn (see tip number three).
6. Demonstrate love and respect for your nieces' and nephews' parents.
It is easy to forget how much children want to feel proud of their parents, and it is equally easy to make negative comments about your siblings and in-laws in their kids' presence. Make every effort to not only curb criticism but to also be generous with praise. Pull out your high school yearbook to show your nephew that his dad was voted "best all around" by his senior class. Tell your niece the story about the time her mom rescued a frightened cat from a neighbor's oak tree. Little eyes and ears are always open, so compliment your sister-in-law's pot roast, laugh at your brother's jokes, and tell your siblings that you love them.
7. Let your nieces and nephews know that you would do anything for them.
No one wants to imagine car accidents, sickness, or acts of violence happening to their loved ones, but these tragedies do occur, and whether children talk about it or not, many of them fear losing a parent. While there is nothing you can do to eradicate this fear or shield your nephews and nieces from grief (real or potential), you can give them the sense of security that comes from knowing that they are deeply loved and cared for broadly. Why wait until tragedy strikes (if it ever does) to let them know that you are there for them through thick and thin? Simple words like "You mean the world to me" or "I will always be here for you" and your presence are all it takes.