Eight Ways to Cultivate Relationships with Youth

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!

My Ordeal with Shingles

I’ve had to learn to overcome the shame and pain associated with my bout with Shingles in order to gain insight into the lessons to be found here. For months now I’ve been asking God to release any unnecessary energy, negativity, doubts and fears I have about my life journey and purpose. Like most prayers, mine are often answered in unexpected ways.

The warning signs are now obvious. I clearly had a big problem from the start. Both my arms went completely numb for two nights in a row. This should have worried me, but I dismissed it. The rash started after that. My skin was very red, and itchy. The next day it was beyond itchy to a painful mass that wanted soothing to which I applied hydrocortisone with little result. On the third night I had classic flu symptoms. By the morning, one look in the mirror told me I needed to see my doctor right away; the red mass had developed bumps and felt like someone was rubbing glass shards into my chest. That was when I became alarmed. Apparently, this is the highly contagious stage of the Shingles and Chickenpox virus, Herpes Zoster.

The pain is unreal. Now imagine 100 shards of glass on your delicate skin, moving and burning into your skull through your spine. The agony you feel each time your shirt rubs lightly against your skin is enough to make you see little stars, exhale loudly and hold onto furniture. This is not a fantasy; the pain is real. Some people cannot even think straight when Shingles strikes. While the rash itself is localized to a small area of the body, the sensation is dispersed, owing to the neurological nature of the disease. It emerges from the spinal column and will send pain signals everywhere, including unaffected areas.

At this time, some myth-busting is necessary. Why do we have the crazy idea that Shingles only happens to elderly people? It must be especially bad then, too, but it’s not exclusive to our old age. Talking to friends, I heard from quite a few young women in their late thirties and early forties tell me of their experiences with Shingles. Shingles is the very same Chickenpox virus, which once it strikes, lies dormant in our bodies forever, like all viruses. Therefore, a key trigger is a compromised immune system combined with some sort of high-stress situation, which explains the myth; elderly people tend to experience a compromised immune owing to the natural aging process. The compromised immune system, however, is not enough to cause an outbreak. I’m convinced that stress is really the biggest factor to unleashing this severe pain and possible disfigurement.

In my case, a previous illness, treated with a double dose of antibiotics, followed by worry and stress because I had quit my job and concern about how things would resolve themselves, made me ripe for an attack. As additional factors, I had physical and psychological stress to contend with. I had been attending several dance classes, which exposed me to too many people’s germs and energies at a time when I needed to be more careful about my surroundings. My body just collapsed under the pressure. I had to withdraw from everything to allow my body to heal.

Through this humbling and debilitating illness, I learned that it’s good to have access to healthcare and pain medicine when one needs it. I have a high tolerance for pain, but there is suffering that one need not endure without reason. Shingles will stop you in your tracks. At times the pain medicine works against that reality. It provides a false sense of wellness and vitality, inspiring action over rest, mobility over sedation. Toward the end of my illness, I’ve made a decision to use less Motrin, not because I have to, but in order to sit still with my pain, to withdraw into the place where my body can best heal itself, by stopping the activity that relentlessly drives me. Sitting still has given me time to digest the lessons learned and understand this disease. Here are my recommendations to you if you ever have the unfortunate plight of a Shingles attack:

  • Get a copy of the Balches’ Nutritional Healing and follow as many of their recommendations as you feel comfortable with.
  • Stock up on the highest milligram of Motrin possible to help with the pain. It really is unbearable.
  • Get real pain medicine, an opiate to help soothe the pain.
  • Invest in some Valerian tincture to help you sleep.
  • Sleep, rest and nap as much as possible. If you have sick leave, take it; you will no doubt need it.
  • Find out about the shingles vaccine. It’s available to individuals over 50. If you’re eligible for the vaccine, get it. Though I make this recommendation, I don’t know whether or how it works. Ask your own questions.
  • Get some Reiki or other body work as soon as you are able.
  • Stay away from children or anyone who has never had chickenpox.
  • Surround yourself with beauty, flowers or anything that will nurture your heart and soul. You will need to be uplifted.

As I recover my strength, my body and health, I continue to ask myself about why I felt ashamed to admit to this illness. I was reluctant to mention it to friends; I didn’t want my partner to tell people; I wouldn’t explain why I was out sick. The shame was emotionally crippling. Upon reflection, I see it has always been hard for me to appear weak, to ask for help, to say I can’t. Shingles made me vulnerable to the degree that all those things were true. I am weak. I need help. And, I can’t just keep going like nothing is happening. I’ve had to own all of this.

In the end, shingles seems like an extraordinary gift. I have had to stop and be still. I have had to listen and withdraw. My dreams have been vivid and portentous. I have had time to talk to the people I love. I have found refuge in myself. I know there are several other lessons that will be revealed to me through my healing process. I await these lessons with eagerness and an open heart and mind. This is one lesson I don’t want to repeat.