The Relational Power of Uncles and Aunts

Conor and Karrie, on the Lochsa, getting into the wine

One of the things you’ll often hear repeated, ad nauseam, is the value of family in raising kids. And make no mistake, good family is basically priceless. Good family cares about the long-term success of you, as well as your kids, and can create a safety net when, not if you have emotional challenges in your life.

But not all of us are born into families that care. In fact, as I’ve stated, some of us have really drawn the short straw when it comes to that kind of thing. Biological family that plays the “if you love us, you’ll let us beat you” game are more common than folks realize.

Such as it was for my situation. And no — I’m not going to discuss the long tapestry of misery that goes in my own background — I’ve alluded to it enough in my other writings. Too many of them are still alive, and would be happy to litigate.

But I have been truly gifted with an extended family of non-biological uncles and aunts, that have been deeply concerned with the well-being of me, and especially my boys. These people have served pivotal roles in my children’s development, in a host of situations. They have taken their roles as functional adults in my children’s lives seriously. And I am truly, eternally grateful for that. We live in a society that preaches that children are a liability — too much money to raise, think of the career possibilities constrained, and other such icks. But the people that have stepped up in my circle are an exemplary group of humans. They haven’t all be there, at all times — they have other lives and responsibilities. No one person in diffuse modern society can be held to that standard. But they all have brought something, selflessly, to the table.

And you would be surprised how the connections have been made.

A quick review — relationships, as we’ve discussed, create the brain wiring that we all live by. These relationships have two primary components. When combined, they create the memetic profile that the child will see and interact with.

The first are called Externally Defined Relationships — these are title-driven relationships that come with a code of conduct that is established by larger society, and are largely belief-based. Rooted deep down in the limbic system that ran our Tribal past, they are instinctual. Mother and father are great examples, and come with elaborate descriptions of what mother and father are supposed to provide. But there are other slots in all our various hierarchies. Doctor, pharmacist, engineer, teacher — these are also important titles, some gained through extensive schooling. If you are sick, you don’t wander around the local shopping mall, yelling “I’m sick, come help!” You go to a doctor’s office. Externally defined relationships help us, and our children quickly navigate large, complex societies. And to the extent that we have our children practice those relationships, ranging from that tribal background (mother, father) to the far more Legalistic and formal (professor) the greater a range of thinking modes we open for our children to seek out authority-driven advice, as well as form the patterns in their brains for other rule-based processing.

This is an important point. Our children need formal relationships in their life so they can process rules in other parts of their life. As we relate, so we think.

But all the externally defined, healthy relationships in the world are not enough in and of themselves in training your children’s brains. Healthy externally defined relationships do provide children with a bedrock of sturdy attachment. No one can create an entire culture on their own. And not every hierarchy a child is exposed to is wrong.

The second category of relationship deals far more with active empathy. I call it an Independently Generated, Data-Driven, Trust-Based relationship, and it derives its legitimacy through interaction with the two participants. These relationships are inherently data-driven. People interact, they read the cues from faces, and calibrate their behavior toward each other based on that information and their own judgment.

This sounds more complicated than it is. You may trust your wife, for example, to remember to pick up your prescription from a pharmacy, but when she offers to make soup, you might want to order take-out. The independently generated relationship here shows how the scaffolding works. A good wife or husband should be deeply concerned with a partner’s health. But we all know that when it comes to being a great cook, the proof is in the pudding!

These relationships are absolutely vital. They evolve your children to be rational human beings. Rational relationships lead to rational humans, and especially humans that have agency — the ability to act, pick and choose for themselves.

Which brings us back to adding family, especially in the case where you don’t have any. I’m a declared orphan, and my boys functionally are as well. You cannot raise a child in isolation — it just doesn’t work, regardless of how good a parent you are. You need other people, and especially other adults, in your child’s life. If we are having a crisis in contemporary society, it is with that destruction of the multiple-generation family in all our kids’ lives. Kids can indeed learn important lessons from playing with other kids. But anyone that has the idea that homogeneous age interactions (think playing soccer) can completely do the trick, — you’re wrong.

Kids can, and do learn important lessons from interacting with other kids. But when everyone looks like you, and runs like you around a soccer field, there’s not much empathy development going on. Rather, what you’re doing is raising a child with a crowd mentality. And that’s not good for popping kids out of their own egocentricity, which is developmentally where they naturally start. Anyone that’s ever attended a seven-year-old’s soccer game can attest. The ball is kicked. The mob follows the ball, until it is kicked again. Rinse and repeat.

That’s why aunts and uncles are so important. And they can be found and cultivated, from all sorts of interesting places. They will come and go — but they are vitally important in your child’s upbringing.

Here is the challenging part of child-rearing. To receive maximum benefit for your child, you have to establish a pattern. First, assess the person and their ability to be alone with that person safely. All the rest of the advice flows from understanding that trust you can give the adult.

The second part? You have to get out from in between the child and the adult. With all the aunts and uncles in my kids’ lives, I’m very clear at the outset. “I’ve raised this child to this point. I think he/she is a pretty good kid. But if you spoil the child, or create some other imbalance in the relationship, I’m not going to worry about it. You’re going to have to fix it. I’ll always be happy to talk to the child, and potentially discipline after the fact. But I consider you a partner in raising this young mind.”

In the picture at the top is an old girlfriend, Karrie, who definitely fell into the “aunt” category. Karrie and I had a relationship that only lasted formally about three or four months, though we still remain friends to this day. We took a number of camping trips with the boys — Karrie would drive up for the weekend to Pullman, and we would take off with the kids from there. Since we drove two cars, it was imperative that Karrie had a companion to talk to as well. No isolating the kids from their responsibilities as good hosts. So the boys would take turns riding with her.

On one car ride, Conor, who was nine at the time, engaged Karrie in a conversation on her stock portfolio. Of course, I realize how much a nine-year-old can actually know about stocks — not much. But for half the ride, he asked questions regarding Karrie’s choice of stocks, why she thought those particular companies were good investments, and so forth.

At about the halfway mark, though, Conor got out his Yu-gi-oh card collection. While not trying to terribly distract Karrie from her driving, he turned the discussion toward which was his favorite card, and so on. Of course, Karrie found this deeply endearing. As best as a nine-year-old could do, Conor was attempting to balance the conversation, mixing topics he thought she might be interested in, with others that he cared about.

The picture at the top of this post is also a great example. I had taught Conor how to open a bottle of wine and serve, so he was getting a little help from Karrie in setting the table for dinner. Conor had the title on our trips of a “nine-year-old sommelier” so he would always taste the bottle to make sure the wine wasn’t bad (of course, he didn’t really drink himself) and then serve. Karrie was also famous for her chocolate-chip cookies, and she would bring the boys small gifts. A perfect auntie!

Every aunt and uncle is different, and that is part of the joy. Every different one will bring a different set of talents into the child’s life. We spent much of our weekends post-divorce with Uncle Ronnie, who has a son Conor’s age. Ronnie is an amazing skier and lifetime friend of mine. It was through his tutelage that Conor also became an amazing, expert skier. Conor and Ronnie would always be the first up the mountain on powder days, for the first run (called Rope Drop, for the moment that ski patrol would remove the rope blocking the run. )

Other uncles have served other roles. One of the most memorable Uncle moments happened when Conor was five years old. We were on a river trip down the Lower Salmon, and Conor was riding in the raft. We have a standard adventure rule that is enforced by all the uncles — “talk the talk, gotta walk the walk.” One of the things I noticed with young men especially, is in a crowd, they would talk themselves up into doing really stupid things. But this was a ratcheting effect — back and forth, daring each other and then stopping realistic assessment of the actual threat an activity might pose to life and limb.

So we implemented a rule — there was never any pressure to do something risky. But if you say you’re going to do something, then if the uncles present decided it was fundamentally safe, you could not back out. And if something was truly out there, you were called out for that bad decision as well. But you learned to think before you opened your mouth. There was never a shame in deciding a priori to NOT do something. Risk is relative, and rests with the individual. But your word? That’s a different story.

We were drifting down to a very modest rapids, one that is very swimmable. Conor started jumping up and down. “I want to swim the rapids,” he exclaimed. I was rowing — “are you sure?” I asked. He said “yep.”

We drifted down another 100 yards. “OK, get ready,” I said. Conor was looking over the edge, now not nearly as certain about his boast. “You gonna go?” I asked? Conor said “I don’t want to. I’m scared.” Sharing the front of the raft with him was my long-time traveling companion, Uncle George. George looked Conor square in the eye. “You know the rules.” Conor took one look at Uncle George’s face, and immediately bailed off the raft into the whitewater.

Conor rowing Chris and Ivy’s raft, Desolation Canyon, Green River

If you raise your children right, with a diverse community, they will internalize far more from these relationships than you might realize. On an expedition to West Papua, only a couple of years ago, my older son Braden and I were with a very poor trip organizer, in one of the most remote circumstances I’d ever been in. We crowded into an overloaded boat in the dark, because the trip organizer had failed to account for a shift in ferry schedule. The boat had no lights, and the boat driver had positioned a young boy up in the front with a cellphone, to theoretically spot any obstacles on what would be a 20 mile boat traverse of a finger of a bay.

Halfway out, Braden turned to me and said “you realize that you’re violating every rule that you and our uncles have taught us.” “Huh?” I said. “You beat into our heads, ‘Never get on a traverse without some plan on how to get off of it if something goes wrong.’ Always figure out how to bail off the traverse before you start.” He was right, of course. We immediately started guessing distances to shore in the darkness, and deciding which direction we would swim if the boat hit a lost shipping container. These are lessons that stick.

Uncles can be older. One of my mentors, Al Espinosa and his wife Mindy, helped me profoundly raising my boys after my divorce. They are the boys’ only real grandparents. Mindy took Conor to church, and as a consequence, Conor has a far deeper grounding than most of us with a secular background on how other people think. They communicate regularly with both boys, even though they have other grandchildren with their own kids.

Reading a book with Uncle Al

It’s also important that if you expect others to be good aunts and uncles to your kids, you stand ready to serve as well. One trip I had organized brought along Peter, an expert backcountry skiing friend of mine, and his two girls, Willow and Sophie. Sophie was a classic easy keeper for an eight-year-old. But Willow, age six, had the devil in her. She was sitting naked save for a lifejacket in the front of the raft, taking one of the water guns and spraying the other adult, who was a bit less forceful than me, in the face. I told her to stop — and said if she didn’t stop, I was gonna pick her up by one leg and drop her overboard. She looked at me, filled the water gun again, and did it to my passenger.

So I grabbed her leg, and held her out over the edge of the raft. “You wouldn’t dare drop me! I’ll tell my dad!” Of course, I knew her dad, and we both shared that understanding of the value of a child forming her own relationship with adults in the party. I rolled my eyes, said “Oh brother!” and let go. She came up sputtering (she did have a lifejacket on.) “I want my daddy!” she hollered. He was about 1/2 mile down in his own raft. “Start swimming,” I said. In about 30 seconds we had her back in our boat.

At camp that night, she was still sulking, finding very little succor from her father for her behavior. I was seated in my camp chair, smoking a cigar. I reached into my snack bag, and pulled out a jumbo-sized chocolate bar, and started peeling back the wrapper. The rest of the kids started swarming me for their share. Willow cried out, “I want some too!” I replied “I only give chocolate to little girls that can make up and give me a hug.” She had been sitting on her father’s lap. Instantly, she vaulted off the stool of safety and into my arms. We had no other issues the rest of the trip, and of course, became fast friends. And yes — six-year-olds make great friends.

Sophie, Conor, Yours Truly and Braden

What you’ll find if you open your mind is that there are lots of elders who are willing to be involved with your kids. I came at mine through my outdoor activities, and often with my dating life. Your path may be different. But the secret is still the same. Once safety is established, get out of the way. Let the child learn to manage their own relationships. It is the foundation of appropriate agency and rationality.

2 thoughts on “The Relational Power of Uncles and Aunts

  1. I want to second this point, though my experience is a slight variation.

    We also found that other adults could do a lot of meaningful parenting for us, though we thought of them as “mentors” rather than aunts or uncles. Part of this, I suppose, is because we paid them for their time.

    We’ve always believed that it’s important for a kid to have a passion: something they’re excited about doing and in which they take pride and feel accomplishment. For that to be the case, it pretty much has to be something THEY chose for themselves, not something mom or dad picked out. For our son that was sports, primarily baseball but also soccer.

    Like me, he was slightly built (at 63, I’m still 5’10” and 152lbs) and a late bloomer. He’s 28 now, but I still remember how frustrated he was the summer he turned 12. He played in a late-season league for the month of August. He hit for one of the two or three highest averages on the team, but I’m not sure he got a single ball into the outfield in the air. It frustrated him no end that much less skilled hitters could hit it over the fence.

    That winter he was old enough we got him started strength training with a co-worker of mine whose passion was strength coaching. This guy was also a competitive power lifter who had bench-pressed 405lbs for multiple reps in training. So he looked the part in addition to knowing his stuff. He talked to our son like a serious person, not a child, and expected serious, responsible behavior in response. My son saw this as an opportunity to change something about himself he had despaired of ever affecting, and he went after it. And it worked. The next summer he hit a home run over a much deeper fence. Granted, it was against a pitcher throwing hard, which helped. But still, nobody in the park was more surprised than he was.

    Needless to say, the strength training continued. And my son would have died before he would have done anything to appear childish in that strength coach’s eyes.

    Fast forward a couple years, and we also landed him lessons with a guy who was in his 5th year of professional baseball, his second year of AAA (one step below the majors). This guy was not a great athlete, but rather a very good athlete who was also very smart and very disciplined. So he had worked hard to understand the game and make the most of his talents. So he could talk to our son in great detail about the nuances of the game, and how to build the skills. And then he could DO exactly what he had just talked through. (To warm up for throwing batting practice to Tony, our son, he would have Tony hold his bat out. Then he would throw 5 or so pitches from 50′ or so, trying to hit the stationary bat. One time he did it 3 out of 5 pitches. Try that sometime.)

    Again, Tony learned things that took him places he couldn’t seriously picture before. And he would have died before looking childish in front of this guy. So he learned a lot about discipline and preparation. We still see those lessons in his behavior today.

    We paid both of these guys for their time. So I wouldn’t say they really fall in the “aunt/uncle” category. We knew them well enough to be comfortable with the values they would impart to our son. But we didn’t pressure him at all into either relationship; we merely made it available. He was free to pursue it or stop, as he saw fit. Our only requirement was that, if we were spending money on these lessons/training, then he had to be willing to follow through on the homework. That was a deal he was delighted to make.

    Beyond that, we let them define the relationships. And as I say, there were a lot of lessons that really stuck because they came from an adult that our son decided for himself was worthy of respect and attention. We feel like this is a great way to get parenting done in those teenage years when anything mom or dad says is suspect.


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