You’re an uncle! Hooray! Here’s the thing: Nothing can prepare you to become an uncle, not because having nieces or nephews is a particularly overwhelming experience but because people and institutions don’t really bother offering any preparation for it. Your local adult school learning annexes won’t have an uncle course. The lobby of your doctor’s office doesn’t have a rack of pamphlets with titles like “So, You’re Going to be an Uncle!” It just happens.
Expectations for uncles vary wildly by family and culture. A fourth generation American relocated to Minnesota by work who has a niece back in Syracuse that he sees maybe three times a year, uncles in a vastly different way than a Yemeni immigrant living among extended family whose nephew works after school at his shop.
Without clear instructions on how to be a good uncle, you’ll likely resort to the last refuge of a lazy researcher: Google. Unfortunately, too much of the advice for uncles-to-be is one-dimensional and about being a cool uncle, where you’re akin to a leveled-up older brother, ready to play Call of Duty, drink beer, and talk girls with your nephew.
Coolness isn’t entirely incompatible with the role, but it’s not a priority like being a good listener and a dependable source of support to a niece or nephew. Good uncles take an active part in their nieces’ and nephews’ lives. They spend time with them, offer valuable perspective on the family, and help resolve conflicts. They’re people with whom kids and parents can both trust with difficult subjects and to advocate for their interests.
So how do we bridge the divide between the raucous “cool” uncle and the one children and families can rely on?
Good Man, Good Uncle
Robert Cserni, a staff member at Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, an uncle himself, suggests that it’s helpful to discern between expectations of real men and good men.
“If you ask most people what is a ‘real man’, you’d get answers that are shaped by culture and the history of our society,” he said, adding that cultural norms dictate the style of masculinity that young men should aspire to. “That would be a lot of times someone who’s very stoic, very unemotional and reserved. Someone who distances themselves from everything that is considered feminine or gay. You know, no sissy stuff. Boys don’t cry and a lot of competitive nature.”
He continued: “If you’d asked what makes a good man, you’d get a very different answers. Someone who takes care of the people that depend on him, whether it’s family, friends, or coworkers. He’s a person who is responsible for other people and is caring.”
Good uncles are good men that nieces, nephews, and their parents can depend on in times of good and bad. Jed Diamond, an author and therapist who’s treated men’s mental health for 40 years, said that while people associate female family members with caregiving, uncles often fulfill that role, too. Diamond learned that lesson early on, when his father was struggling with mental illness.
“My uncle took me and did things that my father was not available to do,” Diamond said. “And when my father was hospitalized he was more active in my life. So I have a particular fondness for uncles because of that.”
The Importance Of Uncles
For his 2009 psychological study and book The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles, University of Maine Professor of Family Relations Emeritus Robert Milardo interviewed hundreds of uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews. “Once I started talking to uncles, I realized how complex this was and how important these relationships could be,” Milardo said.
About a third of his subjects reported tight bonds between uncles and nephews. “People were closer geographically, but that turned out to be not the most important feature,” Milardo said.”What was more important was social distance. If uncles and their nephews found things they had in common then they were more likely to become closer.”
Milardo found that social distance was hard to bridge for college track kids and uncles with no higher education experience. Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and author of parenting books Mom, They’re Teasing Me and Best Friends Worst Enemies, said that when kids are young, uncles can forge connections with them by carving out time for things they both enjoy but parents are too busy for.
“The most important thing is when you’re an uncle is to find a shared interest or shared game, particularly something that you can tell the parents don’t have the time for but you, as an uncle, can have the time for that,” Thompson said. “You don’t have all the responsibilities and worries of the parents.”
When uncles are close to their siblings, Milardo said, the siblings find it easier to bonds with their kids. When kids see that their parents trust an uncle, the uncle seems inherently trustworthy. The parents’ trust also makes you seem like an authority figure who’s independent from their parents. As a result, kids feel comfortable opening about their home life with their uncles and asking them about their family.
“Children, even fairly young kids like five or six-year-olds will often ask uncles about their parents or complain about a rule in their households that they don’t agree with, like having to be in by seven o’clock or whatever,” Milardo said. “And then uncles become the springboard for the child coming to understand the parents.”
Parents sometimes collude with the uncle to gently reinforce house rules and such.
“A nephew might come over to an uncle’s house, complain about his parents, which is a pretty typical thing and the uncle listens but sides with the parents,” Milardo said. “And oftentimes that’s acceptable to nephews because they uncle is seen as a more neutral voice.”
Kids often turn to uncles about subjects they want an adult’s perspective on but aren’t comfortable broaching with their parents—Milardo noted that drugs and sex often top that list.
“It’s important to be responsive to those issues and provide an opportunity for a nephew to talk about what’s important in their life, what issues they have, what their friendships are like and so forth,” Milardo said. “And you might achieve those dialogues by doing activities together that are unrelated. One uncle told me the best time to talk to his nephew was driving around in a car.”
When parents and kids clash, the uncle may have to intervene on the kid’s behalf advocate for their nephew on those difficult issues the nephew wasn’t comfortable talking to their parents about. And when the issue is something as central to a person’s identity as sexuality and gender, the going can be supremely difficult.
Luckily, you may have an edge. Parents sometimes rely on uncles as much as their kids. They won’t want to alienate adults with special insight into their lives.
“When the relationships work really well, the uncles important for the parents as well because oftentimes fathers will talk to uncles about parenting, about what the frustrations might be, what the difficulties are,” Milardo said. “And uncles can provide a supportive ear because they know all the parties.”
And while it sounds challenging, on the bright side, there’s room in the model to take a couple risks and be kind of cool.
“There was an older nephew, in his late teens, early twenties,” Milardo said. “He told me how he used to go on carpentry jobs with his uncle and after work they would smoke pot together.”
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