What are the duties of an uncle?
February 16, 2010 1:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to become an uncle. What are my duties?

My younger sister and her husband are having a baby in March. No one knows if it's a boy or a girl. They're about 30.

I know I'm supposed to give them a present. I've got that covered.

Aside from that are there any rituals, gifts, speeches, observances, expected sayings, modes of expression, actions, do's or don'ts, that I should be aware of?

Am I supposed to make a speech?

I guess I should visit her in the hospital, right? Or maybe not. What do people do?
posted by eeby to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
if you don't have any children of your own, this is your chance to be *that* uncle. the cool one. the one who takes them to their first rated R movie (in a few years, of course), who buys them the music their parents won't, who swaps crazy youtube videos with them, who beats the pants off them at GTA (or whatever's hot and transgressive in video games these days).

this shit pays off, you see. because in about 20 years you'll be the uncle they take out for beers, and they'll buy yours. well, the first one, anyway.

congrats, and cigars all around!
posted by toodleydoodley at 1:06 PM on February 16, 2010 [15 favorites]

You are contractually and morally obligated to be avuncular.

What that looks like is going to depend mostly on 1) how well you get along with the parents, and 2) how this has worked in your family in the past.

Sticking with precedent is always a safe move, but if there isn't any precedent--or you're feeling adventurous--make something up. I'd say that anything which both marks the joyousness of the occasion while not being overly intrusive--the new parents appreciate your congratulations but also need some damned sleep!--will probably go over well. If it's crazy enough, you may start a family tradition, which is no bad thing.
posted by valkyryn at 1:06 PM on February 16, 2010

expected sayings: Congratulations!

Some of this depends on how close you are to your sister and if your parents are around. They would do any speeches or toasts to the new parents.

If you should visit her in the hospital depends on how close you are with her.
posted by royalsong at 1:09 PM on February 16, 2010

Where would you make this speech you think might be needed?

Uncle's an easy job. Just offer support and buy the kid cool stuff as needed to make them cool. Don't sweat it. That's mom and dad's job.
posted by inturnaround at 1:11 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess I should visit her in the hospital, right?

Of course you should (unless there are tension issues there, but it doesn't seem like it given your wording). The memory of seeing someone as a newborn and comparing it to when they are older is pretty priceless stuff. As for being an uncle when they are older, just be their pal but don't let them stray too far from normal boundaries but don't be parental about keeping them there. You'll be able to feel that out when you're interacting with them.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:13 PM on February 16, 2010

Step 0: Be someone that is viewed as being a responsible adult. I'm sure you've got that covered, but don't trip over the "viewed as" part. That's important.

Step 1: Learn how to care for an infant for short, fixed periods of time. Feeding, diapering, etc. If you don't know, ask the mother, as she will have her own way of doing things.

Step 2: Offer to babysit.

Step 3: Babysit.

Step 4: When the kid is old enough to recognize you, always bring the kid a small, inexpensive gift. A small gift. Like, a lollipop or a matchbox car.

That's it. Step 5 is basking in the child's appreciation of you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:17 PM on February 16, 2010 [10 favorites]

This is not a duty, but will make you an awesome brother: Sleep and time alone together are about to become precious, precious commodities for your sister and her husband. If you live nearby and can offer to come over and watch the kid for the evening every once in a while so they can leave the house for a few hours, it'll be appreciated more than just about anything you can do. In the weeks immediately following the birth, a little babysitting during the day so your sister can have a few hours of uninterrupted sleep may be very welcome, too, if you can manage that kind of thing.
posted by EarBucket at 1:17 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess I should visit her in the hospital, right?

Of course you should
IF the parents of the baby want you there. Giving birth is hard work; not everyone is ready to entertain shortly after.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:17 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mother of a 14 month old here.

As an uncle, your duties are to be AWESOME. You are to give airplane rides and rough house (even with a girl). You are to teach le bebe the high five, and if you are like my brother, when you are watching the baby upstairs while your sister is watching tv for half an hour by herself, you will bring the baby down at arm's length saying, "This is a mommy job," while crinkling your nose. Or, if you're less of a pain in the butt than my brother, you'll just change the damn poopy diaper yourself.

But much of that will be later on (especially the airplane rides. Those really shouldn't be done at least until the baby can sort of move around on his or her own a little bit).

In more immediate needs, oh my gosh --- buy your sister food. I'm serious. Send her a Foodler giftcard or something because you know what she won't have? Time to cook and her husband will likely be equally as exhausted at least for the first few weeks. So, you know --- make sure they eat. The best thing someone did for me after Baby Zizzle was born was when he was about 8 weeks old some friends came over and met him for the first time and after visiting for 15 minutes asked, "Zizzle, what can we do?" And you know what I said, "CLEAN MY BATHROOM AND KITCHEN!" And you know what they did? They totally cleaned my really gross kitchen and even grosser bathroom that I did not get a chance to clean before going into labor. My mother and sisters came down frequently and did our laundry. That was also a help.

I really think etiquette should dictate that if people going to the home of new parents should leave after 15 minutes or make themselves useful. I really do.

As for the hospital visit, that's your sister's call. She may or may not want visitors. I wanted visitors, but other women don't. Does she have any pets or plants? If she does, one big help while they're still in the hospital would be for you to take on pet and plant care. For a variety of reasons, we didn't have someone who could do this for us, so my husband had to go and feed the rabbits every day and come back to the hospital. It caused me a lot anxiety (for no good reason other than I was a hormonal mess and wanted my husband with me EVERY SECOND) that he was gone, and I worried about the buns being left alone. Taking that on could prove immensely helpful to them, too.
posted by zizzle at 1:18 PM on February 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

In addition to avuncular, you can be a little nuts as well. Be the guy who always has firecrackers and bubble gum.
posted by jquinby at 1:24 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Each and every year, you have to remember their birthday's and get them the gift you knew you'd want if you where their age. Bonus points for finger paints and play dough at an early age.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 1:29 PM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you can do funny voices, do that!

A big thing I'd recommend is to always keep in touch with your niece or nephew, no matter what happens with the parents. Even if you totally hate your sister some day, remember that it has nothing to do with her kid!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:30 PM on February 16, 2010

Some of my kids' most precious and prized pictures are of my brother holding them when they were just hours old-so definitely make it to the hospital if you can. My brother has remained the most awesome uncle ever by doing all the semi dangerous things that I, as their mother, refused to allow them to do. He has also always been available to them whether they were 2 or 22 years old. Now that they're adults, they go to him for advice and comfort because they know they can trust him with secrets and to give good solid advice that isn't colored by parental judgment.

Basically, just be there as much as possible. The relationship you'll have with this baby is unlike any you've ever had before.
posted by hollygoheavy at 1:35 PM on February 16, 2010

Sounds like everyone is looking for you to embody some sort of cosmic archetype absorbed from a lifetime of sitcom viewing.

I think your job as an uncle is less about becoming some sort of nutty doodle in the margin and more about developing a specific relationship with your specific niece/nephew. You can do this without becoming a Roald Dahl character, and also without annoying the shit out of your sister and her husband.

Be present and attentive, but more importantly, be observant and listen. Instead of treating him/her how YOU'D have liked to be treated, try tending to the child who's actually in the room -- paying attention to actual wants and needs instead of fantastic ones. Your niece or nephew will teach you how to be his/her perfect uncle, if you watch, listen, and follow through.
posted by hermitosis at 1:35 PM on February 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm going to be the annoying contrarian in the thread. Yes, you are obliged to be a nice guy to your sister and to her child, and that means doing all the stuff you already know to do like buy a gift for their birthdays and play with them and do whatever you can to help your sister out during a stressful time. Just like being any other person, it's great if you remember the things your own uncles did for you that you did or didn't like and apply those lessons appropriately. Beyond that, you're under no obligation to be a person different than the person you are. If you're a quiet person, you don't have to be the loud boisterous guy who buys the booze and plays the video games. The best person to be is yourself.

That's not just happy BS either. Think about all the people whose first exposure to someone "different" is their aunts and uncles, whether that difference is their sexual orientation, their hobbies, their whatever. It's knowing that all sorts of people are in the family that often allows a kid to know that they can be whoever they are and still be loved.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:36 PM on February 16, 2010 [11 favorites]

Teach them to whistle.
posted by Big_B at 1:37 PM on February 16, 2010

I'm not an uncle, but I have 3 of them. Collectively, they:

-congratulate me on every little thing, as if I were a prodigy in everything I do, which is flattering and infrequent enough not to go to my head
-take me out to do Fun and Dangerous Things (one uncle let me drive his sports car, one taught me to sail and bodysurf, one taught me to ski)
-send me goofy birthday cards and, once in a while, $15 checks (you don't need to spend a lot of money, it's the thought that counts)
-go running or biking with me
-act goofy, kind of like another kid, one that has an "in" with the adults (that was relevant when I was younger, now I'm 24)

One uncle made me a set of blocks out of 2x4s that was far and away the best toy I ever had as a kid. One sent me roses when I graduated from college One took long rides with me and we chatted about our lives. Nothing particularly serious, just fun. I think my uncles did a great job.

Generally, I think all you have to do is take an interest in the child, keep relatively current with what he or she is in to, and have as much fun as possible. The kid will probably think you are AWESOME.

And I think this goes without saying, but don't be the dreaded "creepy uncle" - I think far too many people have experienced a relative who drinks too much, or is lewd, or makes his younger female relatives nervous and uncomfortable, or badmouths other people in the family when he's had a few too many, and generally causes discord. Your job is to have fun, not go behind the backs of the parents and cause trouble.
posted by Cygnet at 1:39 PM on February 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm a newish uncle (my nephew turns one today), and I basically just love and spoil the crap out of the kid, I put money into a college fund whenever I can, and generally just pick up clothes and little toys whenever I'm out an about. I try and visit every few weeks, because I live out of town and it's important to me that he knows and remembers me. And when I go visit, I can take care of him so his parents can get some errands done or just relax a bit.

No speech or toasts will be necessary until there's a real party (earliest would be a homecoming) but parents and grandparents tend to take that duty, if it happens at all.
posted by dnesan at 1:42 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

When he's old enough, be the one to teach him how to do something. Some skill - tying his shoelaces, whistling, lifting one eyebrow up.

I felt bad because I hadn't seen my niece in over 6 months and haven't spoken with her on the phone/skyped all that much, but when I saw her last month I taught her how to braid. I will forever be known as the aunt that taught her how to braid, which makes me happy, and seeing her face light up when she got the hang of it herself was just so cute. Thinking of someone asking her: "nice braid! who taught you?" "my aunt raztaj taught me!" makes me fill with great heaps of auntie pride.
posted by raztaj at 1:43 PM on February 16, 2010

Play with your niece or nephew and share cool stuff with them! One of my favorite memories is of my Uncle Dave, an architect, playing blocks with me as a kid and telling me about his job.
posted by k8lin at 1:52 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

A cool thing my sister did when my kids were born is opened a scholarshare account for them. Every state has a version, but in California it's called a 529 Plan. You can open one with $50, I think, and add to it in any increments you want. When they cash it out for college (or whatever--it doesn't have to be used for school neccessarily) it's tax free.
posted by greensalsa at 2:19 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an uncle to 3 wonderful kids( 4, 6 and 8 years old). My immediate family has always been very close and so it wasn't any surprise that I was close to all of them. I'm not the closest uncle by distance but I've managed to be the favorite uncle. First of all, I have time for them. I talk to them on the phone at least once a week and I let them lead the conversation wherever they want. The 8 year old is very into science right now so that's a lot of fun. I get him to think things through and come up with his own questions. I create codes and we talk in email and letters that way. If something is bothering them I'm always available to talk things through.

When I visit and I'm spending time with them then the time I spend is really about them. I play hide and seek, we go to parks. I taught 2 of them so far how to swim. I build things with them. I build things the way they want to build them knowing it will fail but then help them work out a better way.

Every kid will be able to give you a list of things they want for gifts that will bankrupt at least second world countries. Forget that, know what they'll want better than they know. I love being home for Christmas and having them open up my gifts and seeing something that amazes them that they didn't even think of asking for.
posted by substrate at 3:01 PM on February 16, 2010

Seconding the "teach one skill" thing. Among other things, my uncle taught me to ride a bike by running alongside me. One of my most cherished memories is when I finally took off on my own, as if someone had waved a magic wand that said "balance" on the side, and he was running after me, yelling congratulations. Later, he set up the triumphant "look at me" demo ride for my parents.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2010

I'm not an uncle yet (though I will be in March!), but I'm a father and a nephew. My take is that in the long term, if you can, be there to offer experiences the kids might be interested in but that the parents can't. For example, I don't hunt, but my wife's brother does. If my son or daughter ever wanted to learn to hunt, I'd hope that my brother-in-law would be willing to teach them.

Short term, at least call to offer congratulations.
posted by drezdn at 4:27 PM on February 16, 2010

Step 4: When the kid is old enough to recognize you, always bring the kid a small, inexpensive gift. A small gift. Like, a lollipop or a matchbox car.

Great advice. In the same vein, I’ve been amazed at the success I’ve had with this ridiculous little iPhone app. It’s “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” but there are tons of others, all designed for kids from 3-5 or so. I bought it after an app store reviewer described it as “crack for preschoolers,” and it hasn’t let me down once. I’m like a friggin’ celebrity. It might seem distasteful to purchase a child’s affection, but you can’t argue with success. :)
posted by Garak at 4:41 PM on February 16, 2010

Of course you should IF the parents of the baby want you there. Giving birth is hard work; not everyone is ready to entertain shortly after.

Heh, I fell asleep right in my brother's face when he came to visit me in the hospital, while he was in the middle of a sentence. He didn't even mention it, just sat quietly until I woke up, then kept talking to me.

Do visit her in the hospital, and in case she falls asleep in your face, bring a book. Congratulations!
posted by palliser at 5:19 PM on February 16, 2010

Do as much or as little as you are comfortable with. I've never been particularly close to an uncle and really, I only have one that I like sitting down and talking to, but I've never felt there was anything lacking with my other uncles or anything. I hardly know some of them. FWIW, the one uncle that I enjoy talking to acts the same around me as he does everyone else really, maybe a little more complimentary in a paternal sort of way, but mostly he's just kind of like a friend. He's just a funny and talented guy, and though I probably wouldn't know him if he weren't my uncle just because of the age difference, he's basically the kind of person I would like even if we weren't related.

Just be yourself, and if your personality meshes with the future personality of your niece/nephew, then awesome! If it doesn't so much, it's not like it's going to be harmful to the kid -- unless, I mean, you're like the crazy uncle with all the drama and drunken tirades who constantly criticizes everyone. I'm guessing you're not going to be that kind of uncle since you care enough to ask this question, so what I'm saying is don't stress. :-)
posted by Nattie at 5:26 PM on February 16, 2010

I think quite a few people have nailed it, especially Cygnet. I thought I might just chime in about my boyfriend. He has a three nieces and three nephews. The niece and 2 nephews he sees regularly are 1, 3, and 10 respectively. Boyfriend is 24.

With the 10 year old and 3 year old, he has introduced them to video gaming. The 3 y.o. is understandably not too into it yet.

For the 10 y.o., my boyfriend has set up a spare computer so the kid can play Starcraft while he's at grandma's. The computer is completely off the network, so grandma and mom don't have to worry too much about what he's doing and he's still at an age where endlessly playing solo is still interesting. Once in a while my boyfriend will allow him to play on a laptop connected to our network so they can play a LAN game together, which the kid thinks is VERY cool.

He dotes a lot more on his 1 y.o. niece. He absolutely adores her, and whenever they are in the same house, he will make an extra effort to go play with her/pick her up and cuddle. I'm sure when the time comes he will introduce her to his favorite hobbies and interests.

He's given both boys lots of his childhood toys (various action figures/models and LEGO mostly). He also watches all three of them whenever his sisters or his mom -- the kids' usual babysitter -- request it.

Short version: my boyfriend makes an effort to be like an older brother. He's expressed interest in doing the other things described in this thread to be a good uncle as they grow older, like helping them learn to drive and being an open ear when they want to talk. At 10 and under, the kids don't have much in the way of "secrets from parents" just yet.
posted by asciident at 10:16 PM on February 16, 2010

1. Be excited about the baby - and even though it will probably look a little weird at first (newborns don't look like babies yet, they look like winzened old men with smooshy faces), you must say something nice about the baby, maybe about who s/he looks like in the family, or how s/he looks happy, or what a good little wiggler s/he is, etc.

2. You get to come up with a nickname for the baby, and if you use it regularly, s/he will come to know that it's your special name for him/her.

3. Be willing to help out with baby care, if you live nearby.

4. Games to play with baby and toddler: lots of variations of "I'm gonna get you" with very gentle pinching of baby's nose, or chasing a crawler/toddler around and around. Variations on airplane rides, lifting the kid up and swooping around, that sort of thing. Variations on horsey knee rides. Singing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:21 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like everyone else has covered this pretty well - I'll just add my own experience. I became an uncle last year and wasn't sure how I'd handle it, since I'm the youngest in my family and have zero experience around little kids. Surprisingly, I'm really enjoying it so far!

For me, the experience is more like being an older brother than a parental figure - you play with them, give them someone to talk to when they're older, and just try to be a decent role model. Remember their birthdays, stay in touch with them as they get older, and just be a part of their life - that's your responsibility as an uncle.
posted by photo guy at 9:05 AM on February 19, 2010

Thanks for the advice, everyone. That's a big help.
posted by eeby at 10:45 AM on February 22, 2010

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