On Becoming An Epic Uncle
May 29, 2012 2:38 PM   Subscribe

My brother and his wife are having a baby! How do I become a good best epic uncle? What are some nice or useful things your siblings have done for your children? What are you own favorite memories involving your uncle?

I'm not really a children person so playing or socializing with friends' or relatives' kids can be a bit awkward so any suggestion on how to work on this is appreciated.

I welcome any book suggestions that you might have. Maybe not so much on parenting (that would be a bit odd, no?) but understanding kids better, doing fun stuff or being a supportive adult.
posted by Foci for Analysis to Human Relations (23 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I was in college, my aunt and uncle surprised me with a 529 account. I'm sure they did it in part for their own tax benefits, and the account wasn't huge, but it sure came in handy when I needed to buy books and food.

It wasn't the kind of direct interaction it sounds like you're looking for, but it sure made my life easier, and I'm still grateful to them nearly a decade later.
posted by runningwithscissors at 2:45 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When the kid is really tiny, the best thing you can do is be around a lot. Your brother and his wife will appreciate getting a break, and you will get to know the kid. You don't have to read books about how to interact with kids if you see the kid regularly, because you will get to know each other (and you can pick up cues from the parents). For the first two years or so, you can't really do anything to be an epic uncle except be a familiar, loving and fun presence.

When your niece or nephew is a little older, they will absolutely love you if you're willing to play, play, play with them, in a way that exhausts and bores their parents.

A little older than that, take them out for adventures, just the two of you. Ride the subway to the aquarium, play laser tag, teach them how to swim.

And older than that, don't be a buddy, but don't be a parent either. Keep having one-on-one time, and not only take them to do age-appropriate interesting activities (go to the opera, get really good seats at the big game, go rock climbing) but listen to them and take them seriously.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:51 PM on May 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe I have a low bar, since I have two slacker brothers and a slacker brother-in-law, but I really just like when my siblings take an interest in my 18-month-old son. Asking to see pictures, asking about him on the phone (all my siblings are remote). Sending little gifts is nice, too - one brother sent his favorite childhood book, which was very sweet. Just make an extra effort to be in touch and stay connected - the rest will take care of itself, I think. It is hard at first for infants and toddlers - it will take time for them to be able to interact with you and to have a meaningful relationship.

Hardest thing for me is my slacker bro-in-law - he's great to see in person, but is basically off the face of the earth for months at a time between running into him on a visit home. My son's first birthday came and went without so much as a phone call or a card. That was a bummer. I'd like to think that my son is an important person in his life.
posted by handful of rain at 2:55 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't have a favorite uncle but I had a favorite aunt. Here's what she did that earned her a permanent place in my heart, though she is no longer in touch with my family.

-- Remember EVERY birthday. She never forgot one ... not even the first (boooo to your bro-in-law, handful of rain.) She sent cards when she was out of the country and couldn't call. She always knew the perfect card. Always.

-- She kept secrets for me (except in extreme circumstances when she though my parents needed to know something.) She knew about my first boyfriend (and only told after I spent an hour at her place talking to him on the phone.)

-- She indulged me. I fondly recall a morning of having chocolate chip cookies and milk for breakfast at her house.

-- She let me in on some of the family lore by telling me stories about my mom and some of her other siblings.

-- She introduced me to things she loved ... even if they weren't conventionally age-appropriate. I still love museums, Broadway shows, good lingerie and knit berets because of her.

Most importantly, she listened to me when my parents were too busy with other kids/stressed out/working to make time for me. I will always love her for that reason.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 3:17 PM on May 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: From my experiences as a niece, and my observations of my cousins who have nieces and nephews of their own, it's pretty simple: take your nieces/nephews off their parents' hands for a while every so often, and stay in touch and/or be present in their lives. You don't need to do epic, extravagant things with them. It can be as simple as going out to a kid-appropriate movie (while incidentally giving your sibling and their spouse time for date night), or taking the kid out for some physical, fun activity and getting treats afterwards. Once you get to know your niece or nephew, you'll get a better sense of what sort of person they are, and you can figure out what kinds of things you can do together. Once your niece/nephew is a little older, you can keep an eye on kid-friendly activities in the area that align with their interests and take your niece/nephew out to them. It's not all about adventures though! Some of my fondest memories with my uncles feature them teaching me something or letting me help them with something: learning to swim or skate, assist in gardening or building something, watching them cook. Those quieter memories are just as cherished as the trips out to Disneyland and fancy birthday presents.

Also, I think how often you see your niece/nephew plays a role in this. Do you live close by enough that you can see them fairly frequently, like at least once a month? Are you likely to be tapped for baby sitting duty? Or are you only going to be able to see them a few times a year? If you see your niece/nephew less often, then you can just be the "cool uncle" who takes them out for adventures every once in a while. If you're around more often, then you're in something of a parental support role, and you should make sure you're on the same page as your brother and his wife in terms of the kind of role you're going to have, stuff like is it okay if you discipline your niece/nephew or should you leave that up to them, etc.
posted by yasaman at 3:24 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everything nubianinthedesert says X100. And what this really comes down to for me is: just be cool. Like, be young and fun and cool and nice. Seem interesting. Have interesting stuff to say about things. I have 17 aunts and uncles, and they are all wonderful people (really!). My favorite aunt is the youngest in the family, and I think she's glamorous and funny and, well, just really cool. I'm in my thirties now, and I still get excited to hang out with her. And, actually, same goes for my favorite uncle. They didn't really do anything special, but always treated me like a person, not like a kid, and I always worshiped them for it. I was--and still am--really interested in their personal lives. Getting to hang out with them has always kind of been like getting invited to sit at the cool person lunch table. (It also helps if you look really cool in old family photos and are wearing awesome clothes from the 70s and have a cigarette dangling out of your mouth in every picture:)

So: be the kind of person your nephew would want to hang out with even if you weren't related.

Also, I'm a newish aunt. My nephew is still pretty young (2ish). I am awkward with other people's kids (and just not really that interested in other people's kids), but I surprised myself with how cuddly and playful I could be with him. It's weird, but it happens. So don't worry too much about that part.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 3:42 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: My brother is an epic uncle.

- Always takes an active interest in what the kids are telling him.

- invites them over 1-2 times a week for some low key uncle time.

- He's an amazing doodler. So he always sits down to color and draw with the little ones.

- plays video games with my son.

- does girl things with my daughter.

The most important part: he just always makes sure to be around them. He moved to our town shortly after my second was born. He lived in another city with his gf and hated the hour distance between him and the kids. Since he's been back he has really been an awesome uncle.

Oh and it doesn't hurt that he always has a piece of candy in his pocket for them.
posted by Sweetmag at 3:49 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Be the cool, rock-solid, steady uncle. The guy who takes you out on adventures - or introduces you to music (mine played instruments and liked all sorts of different music - I guess it was easier to influence kids when you could pull out a nifty artistic record sleeve...)

Do not buy annoying, incredibly loud toys.

Make your thing about "shared activities/hobbies".

It will be easy with the parents - just having some alone/quiet time from the kids will make them love you more than anything ;-)
posted by jkaczor at 3:51 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: my uncle was epic, and the best thing he did was play with us. Baseball, monkey in the middle, golf, any outside activity. He was always fun to be around, and seemed to like playing with us more than he liked talking to the grownups. He also made fun of us a lot, and was sarcastic, and swore, and talked to us like we weren't stupid.
posted by katypickle at 3:58 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Strangely enough, my favorite uncle was the one I saw the least. He lived several states away and was illiterate, but every five or six years he somehow managed to drive all the way to California to visit us and always arrived with his pockets full of our (my siblings and my) favorite treats (mine were candy corns) and silver dollars. He made sure to give all of us kids equal time doing something we loved: he laughed at our dumb stories, played legos with us, drew pictures with chalk in the front of our house, and ran through the sprinklers with us fully clothed. He basically just played with us -- no matter what we wanted to do -- and talked to us like we were just as important as the adults in the room. I remember him quite fondly because of this; he was the only grown-up I knew who would shush another grown up for interrupting when one of us kids were talking. Uncle Fletcher. Total BAMF. He lived to 102. (I still miss him).

I know it sounds corny, but the best way to be an epic uncle or aunt is to just show an interest in what your niece(s) or nephew(s) are interested in and when you visit them, let them know that they matter to you and you think about them all the time, even when you're not there. I always appreciated the fact that I could call my Uncle Fletcher when things seemed particularly shitty at home and he was a safe haven that I could spill all of my teenaged angst out to; he didn't judge me or my friends, but he would try to steer me in the right direction when he felt I was mixing with the wrong crowd. And he also told some pretty awesome stories about my mom (when she was younger) that made me look at her in a whole new light; she wasn't just some evil ogre determined to ruin my all my fun -- she actually had a life before I was born and had been through many of the same things I was struggling with... his guidance really strengthened my bond with my mother and made me stop seeing her as an adversary. I learned through him that she was someone who really only wanted me to reach my full potential and not suffer through the same mistakes she had made. For some reason, when she talked to me, her lectures just went out the other ear, but when Uncle Fletcher talked to me, I got it! His words stuck.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 3:59 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing x 1000 presence. It means more than you know to both the parents and the kid. The only mother's day card I ever really burst into tears over was the one my BIL sent me for my first mother's day--basically thanking me for making him an uncle. Gah. Typing that makes me weepy all over again.

The most epic thing other than presence is that my kid's uncle is the only immediate family who has 100% accepted my kid exactly as he comes. Other immediate family make all these claims on my son--look, he's tall like X, he's going to be a baller! his red hair must have come from Y, so he'll obviously be funny! he's handsome like your ____! etc etc etc barf

BUT, his uncle has taken every moment with my kid to find out who my kid really is and accepted my kid for who he is. He validates everything important about my kid without any judgement whatsoever. My kid's kind of a strange (in the best, most awesome way) little guy with a physical limitation and some obsessive interests--all things that the rest of the family are uncomfortable with, especially as my kid gets older. His uncle honors everything my kid brings to the table, and when he facebook brags (for example), it's always about my kid's durable strengths and interests. He went into the uncle thing with no expectations except love and being accessible. He gives him what no other immediate family has, in that respect. It's perfectly unconditional.

I remember once that my partner joked (a joke because my BIL is the ultimate bachelor) that when my BIL took my kid out somewhere that everyone probably assumed that my kid was my BIL's child (they share some physical traits). My BIL stopped, looked at his nephew, and said "I'd never be that lucky."
posted by rumposinc at 4:09 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have many aunts and uncles, but my Uncle Wes gave me a piece of Wrigley's spearmint gum every time I saw him. Even though he died many years ago, I still think of him fondly and often -- every time I see that gum.
posted by MelissaSimon at 4:21 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: agree with lots of the above, including "keep secrets". I have an aunt and uncle that I went to about everything - including my parents. In hindsight, I'm sure this was awful for them because they happen to be my parents' best friends, but I could ride my bike to their house and they always had time to listen and I was never afraid to tell them things.

I had another uncle who always had peperminits in his pocket. fond memories of that.

Another thing an awesome uncle did was take me shopping to the bookstore on my birthdays - lunch and a book, every year. It was great.

Have some toys of the right age level at your house, and invite them over, often. Let them get dirty and stay up late and eat ice cream for breakfast. :)
posted by dpx.mfx at 4:22 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: Be the uncle that doesn't force them to kiss and hug you "hello" and "goodbye".
Ugh, those uncles (and aunts) creeped me out.

As others have mentioned, spend your time, not your money. Just hang out with them, everything doesn't have to be an event. Some of my favorite times with my niece and nephew are when we're just laying around watching cartoons.

Oh and tell them stories about you and their father when you were little, especially the ones that make him look bad. :-)
posted by NoraCharles at 4:41 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: Growing up, I had (still have!) the most amazing Aunt. My siblings & I were lucky to be very close to my aunt and she was like a second mom. We spent a lot of time with her, but the time we spent with her wasn't always doing big things. Sure, she took us to the water park, the circus, etc, but she was also someone we just enjoyed hanging out with. She was willing to listen to our problems, things that we didn't necessarily want to tell our parents about yet. If we had a problem that we weren't sure how our parents would react to, we'd talk to her. If it was something we knew we'd get in trouble for, she'd help us figure out a solution or a way to talk to our parents. She was just a voice of calm & reason.

I can't hear Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" without immediately remembering driving around town in her un-air conditioned car (in PHOENIX! during the SUMMER!), chewing Trident cinnamon gum, wind blowing my little side-ponytail all over the place.

Yes, she did some pretty major things for us kids, and those things we'll NEVER forget - The tennis lessons for birthdays, the new tetherball pole in our back yard for Christmas, awesome gifts, driving lessons, etc. She is also the keeper of many secrets, things my parents are just now finding out, 20 or so years later.

When I became an Auntie for the first time 6 years ago, I determined that I'd be the kind of Auntie my Aunt had been for me. I spend a LOT of time with my nephews, playing, talking, reading, shopping, hanging out with, etc. I tell them all the time that they can always talk to me and tell me about ANYTHING. They're 6, 4 & 3, but I like to think they know that no matter what, this Auntie will always love them & always be there for them no matter what. Sure I buy them LOTS of toys and clothes & things, but I also do mundane, boring, everyday things with them. Also, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I tell them I love them.

Basically, I'm saying that you just being yourself, spending time, doing mundane things with your niece/nephew can make you the best Uncle.
posted by TurquoiseZebra at 4:45 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: When I was 13 or 14, my uncle was the first person who stopped giving me hugs when we saw them (we lived a thousand miles away from the rest of the family) and started shaking my hand. It was a big thing to me, because it was the first time someone in the family was acknowledging my progression into adulthood, and it meant a lot to me, even though I wasn't fully aware of it at the time.

I've tried to give my nieces and nephew the same kind of thought - parents and grandparents can tend towards wanting to see them as kids for as long as possible, and I've taken it upon myself to treat them at least a little more like an adult than the people around them do.
posted by Golfhaus at 4:49 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: My kid's epic uncle doesn't do anything particularly epic, but she thinks he is the best thing ever. He pays attention to her when she talks, asks questions, generally treats her stuff as important and interesting as anyone's (they do have some common interests, comic/anime/gaming kinds of things). He doesn't see her terribly often because of distance, but he always gives her a small gift, or a one dollar bill, every time. It's never a big thing, never extravagant, sometimes it's flowers he picked on his way over, or a cupcake, or it's a buck. She loves this little gesture. He always remembers her birthday, always calls and sings to her, though usually he isn't HERE for her birthday. When we visit his house, he includes her in his chores, helping feed the dog, water the garden, walk the dog, make lunch. It's very relaxed, just doing shit together that needs to be done. Something about making lunch with her uncle is waaaay cooler than making lunch with me. I love the easy relationship my daughter has with my brother. He is not a parent and it seems like he won't ever but, but the two of them together is golden.
posted by upatree at 4:56 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The aunt that I thought was an awesome aunt as a kid, sent medium size boxes full of random stuff, used books, toys, lots of candy, etc, for Xmas and birthdays.

The aunt that remains the most awesome aunt ever gave me a (cheap, accessible) laptop when I was in college when a laptop was invaluable and entirely out of my reach financially but not a significantly large amount of money for her.

Both extremely cool in different periods of my life.
posted by arnicae at 6:10 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: I have a 6 month old niece and the things I've noticed my brother and s-i-l appreciate are:

-I took a baby CPR course so that they felt safe having another person alone with her.

-I take an interest in my niece which isn't really hard. She is super cute.

-The time I spend with my niece is qualitatively different than the time she spends with them or her grandparents. Maybe it's 'cause I'm a teacher...my niece is pretty verbal and I "conversate" with her. They get a kick out of watching me with her because they end up learning new things about her.

- tell them how awesome they are. Parenthood is no joke. This is their first child and doing really great but sometimes I can see they need a cheerleader so I "rah, rah" the shot out of them.

-I am loving, patient and kind to my niece. Even when she's cranky and crying. Believe you me, a baby's cry will pierce you soul...I never know what I'm gonna get when I see her: cranky baby, pukey baby, baby who can't stop smiling...etc. I make sure I wear old clothes (for the puke), gear up on positive energy, and let them and her know that she can do her worst and I will still keep coming back for more.

What I plan to do:
-I plan to be a shoulder she can rest her head on regardless of her age.

-I plan to introduce her to interesting music (well, I'm already doing that), podcasts, books and the wonders of life. It's so awesome to see her discover new things. The light in her eyes get super bright.

-I plan to tell her some real and tall tales about me, her brother, uncle, grandparents...etc.
Good luck with your new niece or nephew. They're gonna love you!
posted by Hydrofiend at 6:13 PM on May 29, 2012

Best answer: One of the best things a wonderful great-aunt did for my sister and me was to send the customary $10 distant-aunt holiday check at Easter instead of Christmas. We already were getting Christmas money/presents from other relatives, so we were extra appreciative to get a gift at another time of year, too. (Me especially, with my unfortunate birthday timing - I was delighted to get some cash after my gift-bonanza-month haul had run out!)

For kids, the Holidays can be the only time all year they have the chance to acquire things they want. Choosing another time of year to give presents, separate from Xmas and the kid's birthday (by a space of a few months if possible) will set you apart and make the kid feel like you are super smart and that you used your genius brain to come up with a new way to show you love them.
posted by hyperfascinated at 8:46 PM on May 29, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you for sharing such beautiful memories of your uncles and aunts.

It seems like just spending time, treating your nephew/niece more like an individual than a child and the occasional small gift (todo: get chewing gum for epic uncle toolkit) will take you pretty far.

Also, I love how so many of your uncles/aunts taught you or shared some aspect of their passion or hobby. Maybe I will teach the tyke coding...
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:23 AM on May 30, 2012

Best answer: My husband and I live eight hundred milrs from my nieces and don't get to see them as much as we'd like. My BIL's family is closr by, and see them quite a bit. So we try to be the "cool" aunt and uncle, the ones who travel to exotic places and send weird, intrresting things and give them experiences that pique their curiosity, encourage their interests, and challenge them. Niece #1 thanked me recently for "making her smarter," so I THINK we're doing it right (I worry constantly that we might somehow turn them off by pushing too much, so it's a relief to hear.)

Whenever we travel, we always send postcards to our nieces. And we bring them something interesting. For instance, we went to Germany, France, and Switzerland this past month. For niece #1 (older, girlier, a budding Francophile) I bought a beautiful scarf of the sort that I saw girls her age as well as older women wearing everywhere on the streets of Paris. For niece #2, who is younger and a tomboy, I bought an "official" Munich FC metal water bottle that she can take to soccer practice.

When I was a child my favorite gifts were "grown-up" ones that I often received from my parents' close friends, who were my surrogate aunts and uncles, many of which I have and use to this day, like the pearl earrings and alabaster jewelry box given me by my mother's best friend from nursing school, which delighted me because they were an acknowledgement that I was growing up. I try to do the same for the girls, giving them "real" things that they will enjoy and remember for a long time. Niece #2 said last time I came to visit, "You give us the most AWESOME presents!"

We also video Skype with them regularly, especially Niece #2, who is a real gadget freak. There's a book ("The Underneath") that we've been reading together over Skype, and Dr. Tully Monster plays violin duets with her that way, too. And when I come to visit, we aleays go "exploring" -- walking up the road or through the woods, spotting birds, recording the sound of running water and wind birdsong on her iPod touch. For her sister's birthday I gave her some (inexpensive) French language software and a French dictionary, which made her very excited. As I may be spending an extended period there next year, I also plan to learn French and hope we can speak it together and correspond in it.

In the future, say, when they graduate from high school, I'd love to be able to take them to Europe as a graduation gift. I always wished I'd made it to France when I was younger, instead of in my thirties, but my mother hated travelling, and my sister and brother-in-law are kind of homebody-ish themselves, so we'll see.
posted by tully_monster at 6:45 AM on May 30, 2012

Best answer: I had an epic uncle growing up. He brought cool gifts (like stickers instead of sweaters) and did things with me my parents would never do (he once took me to an arcade, handed me a huge pile of quarters, and told me to go nuts. Another time he took me out for ice cream and let me order whatever I wanted – and I mean whatever…3 scoops with every single topping imaginable). So there’s that.

Another thing nice that you can do for your brother/sister-in-law: take pictures of whoever is the main photographer in the family. In my family, I take almost all the pictures. That means there are lots of beautiful shots of my husband and kids, but hardly any of me with the kids. If this imbalance exists in your brother’s house, you could try to make up for it.
posted by yawper at 10:09 AM on May 30, 2012

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