The people who leave the most profound traces on your life are not always your parents and the role of aunt or uncle is more valuable than you might first think, writes Amy Gray.
As a little girl, my two favourite people were my uncles. We called them Dudley and Cave Thing. Dudley, nicknamed after Dudley Moore in deference perhaps to the fact he didn't look a thing like him, resembled Richard Harris, were he of a mind to become a bohemian bikie. Cave Thing? Well, bless him, but Cave Thing was a colossus who, with his long auburn hair and beard, looked like he was five seconds from giving it all away to go swat at salmon spawning upstream.
Dudley, when not snuggling with me in his degenerate sharehouse, would spend many stimulating hours penning me intricate letters, filled with manically cross-hatched characters, little lessons about nuclear bombs and telling me why Ducati Morinis were to be admired. He was a grand storyteller who treated his audience as equals with a bounty of tales and tidbits and - god only knows - appeared to have enjoyed my awkward attempts to sound interesting and funny.
Cave Thing, on the other hand, seemed to embody an irascible trickster. Long, scrawled letters would arrive entitled "Uncle Cave Thing's School of Music". Ostensibly they were about music but would soon devolve into a stream of conscious that would confuse Joyce himself, referencing esoteric mathematics and, quite frankly, a disturbing obsession with Beatrix Potter. Cave Thing would instruct me to always ask questions, to memorise the works of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and how to politely ignore your uncle's voluminous collection of motorbike magazines occupying a bathroom so dirty it would scare off a hanta virus.
I was rich in adult friends. I have an amazing godmother and another wonderful uncle I meet for steak, bourbon and no-nonsense banter. They transformed my lives, which is perhaps distinctly unfair towards my parents who did all the work and graft to raise me. However, these people left indelible traces, I can see these people's effect on my personality and outlook.
While we're all quick to dissect the importance of the nuclear family, we don't always give proper credit to the influence these extended family members have on our lives. You don't even need to be family to be an amazing influence. Here's how:
Don't be a backup parent
It's not that kids often need extra parenting. In fact, the offer of more parents to a child would be accepted with the same enthusiasm I hold for exercise. It's not about the posturing or sharing life lessons, either. Perhaps, in an age of over-parenting, the best uncles and aunts give only acceptance. No structured life lessons or active mentoring to save them. Kids' don't need a second classroom or extra parents: kids just need friends.
Bonus tip: the parents don't want you to be a backup parent either. Spare them your theories on parenting.
Good parents help
Hand in hand with this is parental involvement. My very bohemian uncles were aided by the fact my parents gave them free range to be themselves. Admittedly, I was born in the 70s, a time when every newborn child was given a wolf pack as wet nurse, so the fact I got unsupervised access to such colourful characters was not revolutionary, though it would be seen as such now. The fact my parents and uncles chose to hide nothing helped me understand their personal complexity and, to a degree, the world around me.
It seems like such a basic thing but, alongside butter, the ability to listen is one of the most wondrous things in the world. Kids' voices are buffeted by competing siblings, busy parents and a schedule that makes a time efficiency expert look like a slacker. Listening to them, giving their thoughts validity and remembering what they say are THE superpowers any uncle or aunt should wield.
In attempting to show our best side, we actually hide the most revealing and helpful aspects of ourselves. Kids don't need perfection, in fact, most probably haven't begun to understand what perfection even means. Given childhood is often about trying to - and fail in the process of - acquire skills, the presence of a perfect person is not as useful as someone who is also muddling their way through life. Kids need someone who will talk with them as equals and open enough to show their frailties and struggles with life.
Did I just tell you to be open? Yes. Am I also telling you to be a lying scabbard? Oh you bet I am. Cave Thing would come over to babysit us as kids, share chocolate and tell me how Dracula was a real person who drove around Fitzroy in his Kingswood stationwagon (the same car as my parents). Another had me convinced a grandmother was really Darth Vader in disguise. Lie your heart out, tell ridiculous stories and invent family rumours. It's hilarious.
It takes time to build relationships and kids are smart. The more time you spend with them one-on-one or in groups, the more you will forge a strong bond. It sounds so simple and yet so often we wonder why those teen nieces and nephews don't want to talk and it's generally because we haven't put in the time to really build a relationship with them.
I became an aunt towards the tail-end of my teens and what I didn't have in skills, I made up for with enthusiasm. Changing nappies, sleepovers, sitting up late at night with my toddler-aged nephew and introducing him to kung fu films and learning when to shut up on my views on parenting (hint: it's before you even open your mouth).
I don't think I'll be as good as the hilarious and flamboyant people I grew up watching, but it's okay: awards aren't given for best family member. The best aunts and uncles aren't in it to become known as the best family member, either. They're hanging around because they realise how hilarious and wonderful your children are and watching them grow is awesome.
- Essential Kids