My brother-in-law and I have taken turns watching each others' kids almost every weekend for the past year.
Whether it's me keeping my nephews or my daughters going to his place, we've done a pretty great job at keeping the cousins very close.
And it's always elegant ruckus when the kids are together. Yes, at the end of the week with them, my house looks like a disaster area. Deserted pizza boxes decorate my kitchen floor, and my laundry loads have increased twofold.
But I get to bond with them, especially with my oldest nephew, in a special way that I don't get to experience with my own children. He confides in me his worries with academics, broken friendship and other touchy topics he may not want to share with others. For instance, he was not performing well in his English class and was too aghast to tell his parents right away so he laid his vexation on my shoulders over Chinese takeout.
And all with a conviction of a very real trust he sees in me. Not like I was his "Aunt Moni," as they so lovingly call me. But like I was his good friend; a friend that listens without the immediate judgment and lambasting parents deliver when they receive unappealing news about their kids.
The beautiful thing is the roles as aunt (the maternal authority figure who is to be respected) and nephew (the developing young man with his own ideals and outlook on life) are still acknowledged and abided by.
The role of a loving aunt or uncle in a child's life should be a cherished one and, more important, a necessary one. So why does it feel like they are kind of underrated when it comes to building that village of support to raise a family?
Melanie Notkin, founder of SavvyAuntie.com, told Forbes it is because "there's no obligation of the aunt or uncle, unlike parenting; once you parent a child you have a legal obligation." Aunts and uncles don't have to be involved so much as they choose to be involved. But there's never such a thing as too much love to give to a child. In fact, Notkin argues the more aunts and uncles a child has in their lives, the more positive influences they could have later in life.
Aunts and uncles can also be the adult friend a child needs. For example, a child could be too nervous to talk about their crush in math class or the bully on the playground with their parents. They certainly want to address these issues with someone but may feel their parents will be dismissive or explosive about what's bothering them.
Cue in the "cool uncle" who listens without the judgmental and presumptive attitudes parents could show when addressing touchy topics with their kids. Aunts and uncles may have a more relaxed approach with their nieces and nephews, offering different and more encouraging solutions to a child's problems. They are more likely to tell their nieces and nephews embarrassing stories about their parents. These and other entertaining exchanges could help solidify a powerful and trusting relationship between aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews for many years.
Aunts and uncles don't necessarily have to be related to be influential. Over many years, I've taken on the role of "aunt" to several children I'm not related to. When I do chat with them, these beautiful little girls recall the fun times they had with "Miss Monica." For example, I took my good friend's daughter to the beach for her first time when she was eight. She's 14 now and still asks me to take her swimming before she asks her mother.
So how can aunts and uncles who want to be more involved in their nieces' and nephews' lives be positive role models? According to Amy Goyer, a family expert with AARP, being open, listening more, and being free of judgement helps build a foundation of comfort and trust with a child. Routine contact with the child via text or social media helps them recognize that you care about them and are genuinely interested in what they are up to.
Goyer recommends that aunts and uncles be available for a niece or nephew's track meet or choir concert, or to babysit them for the weekend. This can help the child identify you as a reliable figure in their lives who will always be there for support.
Playing the role of the authoritative but cool, fun-loving aunt or uncle can install more liberated and inventive inspirations in a child alongside the more expected structured and habituated genes from their actual parents.
Most importantly, aunts and uncles are capable of providing a child a unique kind of love and influence that will stick with them for years to come.