Being a good uncle is tricky: Uncles can be that cool, fun guy who gets to spoil the kids by bringing them to Six Flags and letting them eat churros as a meal, then lets them stay up late to watch movies deemed too violent by their parents. But there’s got to be some limits to how cool an uncle gets to be, because well, you still want to return the kids in the same condition you received them in. You also don’t want to totally burn the bridge with their parents.
Like all things in life, there’s got to be a balance, so here are some guidelines about when to go wild and when to rein it in a bit so you don’t end up in a pile of kid vomit and nose bleeds.
Think About Your Own Cool Uncle
If you’re new to uncledom, one place that you may want to draw some inspiration from is your own experiences growing up. Think of the memories you have with uncles, godparents and other influential male figures and pick the best of what they had to offer. Bruce, a father of one who had a lot of uncles growing up, says, “When I was little, you might say that I was something of a ‘Momma’s Boy,’ and fortunately, my one uncle helped to toughen me up a bit. In addition to that, he was the fun uncle who liked to party and wasn’t always so ‘adult.’ He also let me roughhouse with my cousin a bit more than my mom would allow.”
From other uncles, Bruce says that he learned to be the guy who would be there when his family needed him; from another uncle, he learned what teams to root for. “It wasn’t easy growing up as a Cowboys fan in New York, but my uncle wouldn’t let me be anything else,” Bruce says.
On the other hand, Bruce adds that he learned to pick and choose which lessons he wanted to pass down. Like he says of that fun uncle, “I never should have seen him beat my cousin the way he did or fill up a coffee cup with beer while he was driving.” For Bruce, he says that when he thinks about his place as an uncle, being a good role model is also a big part of it, so when you’re thinking of what memories you want to draw from, just pick the good stuff.
Be a FUNcle
I apologize for the shitty pun, but more than likely my editor will get rid of that so you’ll probably be spared. [You’re kidding, right? — pun-obsessed editor] Anyway, the main thing most uncles want to be is fun. When kids go to their uncle’s house, it should be a time where the same rules don’t quite apply and they get to experience things that are outside of their routine.
Marty Dundics, who is the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Humorist, says, “I’m an uncle to the kids of my two older sisters, who live in Alexandria, Virginia, while I live in New York City. I get to see them once a month or once every two months.” Being that he’s not always close by, Marty says that he tries to make his experiences with his niece and nephews fun and memorable. “Uncle Marty gets to be the fun uncle,” he says. “I want the time that I’m there to be positive — you want to be the uncle who plays with them more or lets them do the stuff they don’t normally get to do.”
Marty says that when he babysits, the kids don’t have to adhere to the rules and they can stay up past their normal bedtimes. In addition to it being fun, he also finds that the kids tend to naturally be on their best behavior around him. “I don’t have to be there for the parenting part, so I don’t have to deal with any punishments. And because I’m fun, I don’t have to deal with any of the tantrums or meltdowns because they have nothing to gain from that with me. Instead the tactic is, ‘How can I take advantage of this dolt that doesn’t know our typical schedule?’ I know they’re doing it, but I don’t mind.”
But Know Where to Rein It In
Unfortunately, being an uncle isn’t all fun and games: There’ll be times when you have to follow some semblance of the rules, like when you babysit for longer periods of time. “Fun Uncle Marty is good for an afternoon, but if I babysit them for longer stretches, those same tactics don’t work so well,” Marty says. So if he’s watching them for a week, he’ll have to take their rules much more seriously. “Otherwise it will send their lives into disarray afterwards, and my sisters’ will have to clean up the mess.”
When it comes to longer babysitting trips or questionable purchases, it’s important to keep in mind not to cross any really important lines. So while it’s probably cool to spoil a kid with the new Spider-Man PS4 game, you should probably not assume it’s okay to give Grand Theft Auto V to a nine-year-old. “Ultimately you have to respect the values and wishes of the parent,” says family therapist Katie Helpley. So while you can push a bedtime later, you can’t go against the core principles that the parents have put in place, because then that undermines what the parents believe in.
Helpley says, though, that it’s okay to defend your role as the fun guy, and if the kid’s parents give you a hard time over everything, it’s fine to stand up for yourself. “Do it in a respectful way, and explain that you don’t see them all the time and that you want to make things special. Let them know that you’re not trying to undermine them, but that you want to have a positive role in the child’s life,” Helpley says. She does add, however, that ultimately, the parents should get to decide.
If the Kid Confides in You
“You have to maintain open communication with the parents,” Helpley says, but that doesn’t mean you need to give a detailed status report of everything the kid says to you. If you become close enough to the child that they trust you with information that they may not tell their parents, you’re going to have to make a judgement call about what to share and what not to share. Anything that’s going to put the kid in danger or on the wrong path, however, needs to be told to the parents. While it may not go over well, if this kid trusts you to that level, understand that you may someday be put in a position where you’ll have to tell them, ‘Hey, sorry, but I have to tell your parents about this.’”
While We’re Talking About Secrets
Oh, and by the way, Dundics says that if you’re breaking the rules, don’t bother with saying things like, “Don’t tell your mom that I let you watch TV until 8 p.m.” He says, “They will, without fail, tell their parents. It will come out somehow. So if you think those kids are on your side, they are not. They will sell you out in a second.”
Teach Them What You Have to Offer
In addition to being that fun guy, an uncle can help to broaden the horizons of their nieces and nephews. For Dundics, who does art and design as a part of his comedy magazine, he will oftentimes take the kids to art classes or teach them how to draw. For Bruce, he plays softball with his niece because her father isn’t all that athletic. By exposing the child to new experiences and teaching them new things, an uncle can help to make a child a more well-rounded person.
As for Godparents…
The role of a godparent is going to be different for everyone and will likely come down to the family’s dynamics and belief systems. Generally, though, the role of a godparent is indistinguishable from that of an uncle — in fact, sometimes the godparent is an uncle.
To further confuse the issue, “godparent” has often become shorthand for the person who’s going to get the kid if the parent dies. For Bruce, his daughter was christened as a Catholic, and as part of their religion, the godparent is tasked with guiding that child spiritually. However, them being named godparents doesn’t legally obligate them to care for the child in the event of a tragedy, as that stuff is covered in a will or by the state.
If, God Forbid, Something Unforeseen Does Happen, What Next?
Sometimes the uncle can be that fun guy where the rules don’t apply quite so much, or the cool guy with an interesting profession, or he may be the guy who helped to toughen you up a little bit, but he also could end up being much more. For myself, my father died of cancer when I was three and my brother was just two months old; from there on out, it was just me, my mom and my little brother. We only ever had one family picture with all four of us, taken about a month before my dad died.
My mother was one of eight children, so we had a large family to rely on and many people stepped up as my brother and I were growing up, but no one filled that role of “father figure” more so than my Uncle Gene. In ways I didn’t realize at the time, my uncle taught me how to be a good man: He always expected honesty from me and being honest is still one of my core values. He taught me the value of hard work by having me do yard work (which I hated at the time). He would take me, my brother and my cousin to Yankees games and on speed boat rides and to visit weird local holiday traditions.
For a few years, I even got to reach that coveted point in a boy’s life where you can just sit down and have a beer with your old man, and be a peer instead of a kid. My Uncle Gene was always generous with his time, his money and his spirit, and he provided a model for me that I try my damndest to live up to now, with my daughter and my niece.
Fortunately, I got the chance to tell him all that he meant to me just a few years before he passed. I sent him a card thanking him for being the dad I didn’t get to have, which was one of the smartest things I ever did. So, when I think for myself what it is to be an uncle, now that my little brother has a daughter of his own, sure — I think about how an uncle can spoil a kid or let them break the rules a little. But I also can’t help but think that you never really know what kind of role an uncle is going to play in a kid’s life.
After all, it could end up being everything.