Research shows that, like grandparents, aunts and uncles play a unique part in a child’s or adolescent’s life.
In an interview with Forbes, Melanie Notkin, bestselling author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids, says that the more aunts and uncles a child has, the more opportunities for positive influences that child gains. Sometimes serving as quasi-parents, other times serving as older siblings or just good friends, aunts and uncles can shower their nieces/nephews with love, attention, gifts, and experiences. And they get to do it all while skipping the difficult parts of parenthood, such as discipline and rule-setting.
Their unique role often means aunts and uncles are more relaxed with the kids, and vice versa. They can see a different side of a child that their own parents cannot. This makes them uniquely positioned to offer a listening ear or compassionate advice for nieces and nephews who may not have the greatest relationship with their parents. Teens struggling through a crisis, such as a mental health issue, substance use problem, broken relationship, or trouble at school, may often feel more comfortable talking to their aunt or uncle about these sensitive topics than their parents.
Formative Experiences, Lasting Memories
People with aunts and uncles typically have special memories they share exclusively with them. For some, it’s when their uncle took them to a sporting event or cool museum. Or when their aunt took them to get their ears pierced or bought them that gift they really wanted. For others, it’s when their aunt or uncle introduced them to a new hobby, sport, or experience. And yet others have fond memories of being doted on as a child. Aunts and uncles might invest time and money on positive educational and cultural experiences, babysitting, and holiday gifts for their young relatives. They may be the ones who tell the best (and funniest) stories about a child’s parents from the time they were young. All these shared interactions help secure the foundation for a strong, trusting relationship to develop between an aunt/uncle and niece/nephew.
Aunts, Especially Mother’s Sisters, Have a Special Role
Here’s one interesting tidbit on the topic: studies show that the maternal aunt has the highest degree of closeness with a niece/nephew. In a two-generational 2008 study published in Human Nature, the researchers found that “the mother’s younger or last-born sister cared intensively for nieces and nephews, regardless of her closeness to the subjects’ mother.”
The authors of the study asked around 200 college students in the U.S. the following questions:
- “When you were a child, how much did your relative invest in you, that is how much resources (gifts, money, as well as time, help/protection, etc.) did you receive, compared to the overall resources the caregiver was able to give?”
- “How close do/did you feel emotionally to your following relatives?”
For both categories – Investment and Emotional Closeness – maternal aunts received the highest scores.
Here’s how other aunts and uncles compared:
- Maternal aunt: most caring and close
- Paternal aunt: second most caring and close
- Maternal uncle: third most caring and close
- Paternal uncle: least caring and close
We’re sure there are plenty of caring and close uncles out there. But the stats say they have some work to do to catch up to the really nice aunties of the world.
As shown above, aunts, in general, invest more time, money, and energy in their nieces and nephews than uncles do. (Interestingly enough, the study showed that this is true even if the two parties don’t live near each other.)
What’s a PANK?
Notkin, an expert on modern aunthood, discovered this on her own years ago. A former marketing executive, this aunt to eight nieces and nephews actually coined the term “PANK” – Professional Aunt, No Kids – after doing research on the emerging demographic of childless, often single, women who doted on their sibling’s kids as if they were her own. In fact, she first founded Savvy Auntie to help these professional women find the right gifts for their nieces and nephews. Through her qualitative work, she discovered that aunts, in particular, love to spoil, spend time with, and support their nieces and nephews in every way possible.
When Aunts and Uncles Become Caregivers
Sometimes, aunts and uncles take on the roles of parents. Hundreds of thousands of aunts and uncles in the U.S. are full-time caregivers for their nieces and nephews. When parents cannot care for their children due to illness, death, substance abuse, or mental health issues, these family members step in. Drug addiction or alcohol abuse are the most common factors leading to foster/kin care. These issues can lead to child neglect or abuse, which is why authorities step in to protect the children.
Since a secure attachment in early childhood influences the rest of the child’s life – up to and including the teenage years and adulthood – it’s vital for children and teenagers to be raised in a healthy, loving, and warm household, even one that doesn’t include their birth parents. That’s where aunts, uncles, and grandparents come in. When parents are absent either physically or emotionally, a loving aunt or uncle can become an alternative parental figure. As relatives, the familial bond already exists between them and the children seeking care. This makes it easier for the child to form the necessary secure attachment that determines so many other aspects of their lives, including mental health, emotional intelligence, scholastic achievements, and relationships.
How Many Kids Live with Aunts and Uncles?
Statistics from 2018 show that four percent of all children in America lived in a home with neither parent. More than half of these 3.1 million children and adolescents lived with grandparents, while 21 percent lived with other relatives such as aunts, uncles, and older siblings. That’s approximately 650,000 kids and teenagers. Evidence shows that living with willing and available relatives is a far better alternative for children than living in foster care with non-relatives. Studies indicate that children raised by family members face fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those in non-relative foster care.
While grandparents are typically the go-to caregivers for children whose parents are not present, aunt/uncle caregiving might have greater advantages. First, grandparents can often be elderly – or at least, older than a typical aunt or uncle. This means they might have less energy and more physical health issues. Aunts and uncles, on the other hand, are usually younger. Whether they’re parents themselves or not, they probably have more energy and resources to handle all the issues that come with child-rearing.
A study published in Children and Youth Services Review shows that grandparents experience more parenting stress when raising grandchildren than other family caregivers, like aunts and uncles. Factors include the generational gap, financial strains, difficulty with service systems, and heavy emotions, such as guilt and concern, over the birth parents.
Shout Out to Aunts and Uncles
Whether you’re the cool aunt or fun-loving uncle, consider this day yours. Recognize the important role you play in your niece or nephew’s life. You know how much you love those kids, and they may realize it, too. Now you have science and research on your side to confirm that yes, it’s true: Aunts and uncles can enrich the lives of their nieces and nephews in a variety of ways.
On Aunt and Uncle Day, reach out to remind them that you’re there for them. Not just on special occasions, but today and every day.