I’m a great believer that the job of parenting need not fall solely on parents. Parenting is full-time job; they need a vacation once in a while. That’s where aunts and uncles come into the picture, because in a community, we can all play a vital role in the outcome of our youth.
As a couple, we have lots of young people in our lives: biological and unrelated nieces and nephews, special students, godchildren and little friends who we adore. We are committed to them even if we’re not their parents. This has led me to consider my role and responsibility to them. We have to be invested, monetarily and otherwise. We have to make time for them and share their interests. I’ve also observed that when we hold young people accountable and responsible, we show them love and respect. We’re basically telling them we see them as capable and reliable people. High expectations are never bad things, especially when they are combined with love, guidance and support.
The pastor at my previous church always said that Faith is a verb, an action that we do on the spiritual path. After an amazing two weeks with my partner’s nephew, we’ve decided that “Uncle” and “Aunt” are also verbs. With the first wave of nieces, nephews and family friends graduating high school, going to college and finding out who they are, we’re uncling and aunting every chance we get. There’s another group of young people, some of whom I’ve had the great pleasure to know since birth, coming down the pipeline. I want to be there to see all the children in our community grow up and thrive. Therefore, I’ve decided, it’s time for this aunt to step up her game.
This past Christmas we had our nephew, a first-year college, visiting us from the Midwest. We got to play uncle and aunt full time to a teenager. We did some tourist activities, but mostly, we lived together as a family, cooking meals, working in the garden, making puzzles and talking. Over the years we’ve managed to expose our various young friends to our love of nature, much to the chagrin of their tender feet. This visit was no exception. For New Year’s Day the three of us walked 12 miles around beautiful Lake Chabot in Oakland, a special place for us because we had our first date there. To my surprise, our nephew had never hiked that far. And, just like that it was a major moment that we shared—a first. The long stretches in silence were opportunities to reflect on the strengths we bring into our community. Seeing him jumping from great redwood stumps and roll down the hillside gave me enormous pleasure and pride. I have little doubt that he felt some of his own gratification at having achieved these amazing feats and for beating me back to the car in a sprint born from a competitive burst of energetic youth. Well, someone had to get there last. At home, he tried exotic food, and made choices based on personal conviction. We observed Sabbath with him in order to be in community with him and respect his faith.
Whether it’s asking about successes and triumphs, scolding over a failing, or instructing in our particular areas of strengths, most young people want to know that the adults in their lives care about them enough to make a fuss. I think I’m learning to be a better communicator because I’ve found that I’ve accepted that I don’t have to be a chum to my friend’s 18-year-old son; I can be a mentor and elder, and that’s enough. It’s never too late to get better at that. They need to learn things from us and teach us what they know. We can lovingly support our youth and their parents or primary caregivers by engaging them in various ways.
First, Ask them hard questions about important things that maybe parents aren’t able to ask. Teach them some skills: share expertise and talents and create opportunities for connection. Reward and encourage them for doing those things that reflect personal growth and tenacity in the face challenges. Even acknowledging a hardship can mean a lot. Model good communication for them, and talk to them about the things that matter by engaging them in difficult conversation (you’ll both grow). Engage them in storytelling: Face time is critical; tell them about your mistakes, too! Occasionally, give unsolicited advice; what they do with it is up to them. Watch their favorite program with them, listen to their music and find out what they care about.
Last, show that you care by making time for them; hug them even if it’s awkward the first ten times—we all need physical connection; and don’t forget to tell them that you love them whenever you can. You might find they love you, too!