I’m lucky: As a kid, I had excellent examples of how to be a fun aunt, and even as a teen, I knew it was a role I wanted to play in adulthood. And because my younger brother has autism—severe enough so that having his own family is not in the cards—that meant I needed to marry someone who had siblings who wanted kids.
When I met Jeff, he had two nieces. No. 3 came along a year or two after we met. Nos. 4 and 5 showed up after we got hitched. I dig those little girls so hard, and it’s important to me that they know they can count on me and that I love the snot out of them.
Here’s how I try to show them that, and it’s my best advice for achieving Favorite Aunt or Favorite Uncle status:
Get ‘em while they’re young …
This is a trick I honed as a teenager, when my older cousins started having kids. I adore babies, but if you bring a baby to, say, Christmas Eve at an Italian family’s house, that kid is gonna disappear in a bustle of exclaiming relatives.
When that would happen, I hung back. The hustle inevitably ebbed right around dinner time, which is when I’d swoop in and offer to chill with that nugget while everyone else, including mom and dad, ate. And thus, I got some coveted one-on-one time with baby and started building our bond early on.
… but don’t force it
My love language is physical touch. I’m a cuddler. Come and sit in my lap or give me a hug or hang off my back or let me smooch your fabulous face. No matter how much I want to snuggle them, though, I’m not gonna grab a kid who doesn’t want to be cuddled. That’s just not okay.
Instead, I greet them when they come in, and if they have no need for Aunt Jaclyn, I back off and pop up occasionally throughout the day to see if they’ve warmed up. I’ll insert myself into blocks or dolls and wait until they approach me, even if it takes, like, years.
One of my nieces in particular was an incredibly shy toddler. She didn’t like to have everyone look at her, ever, even during the “Happy Birthday” song. (One year, we all just stared off into space while we sang. Seriously, it helped.)
Then, toward the end of one summer, when she was about 5, my husband and I showed up at our in-laws. As we rounded the corner into the backyard, she shouted, “Aunt Jaclyn, come sit by me!” I about tripped over my feet running over to the bench.
She’s solidly on Team Aunt Jaclyn now, but if I’d forced an interaction each time I previously saw her, I suspect she’d have stayed scared of me.
Play with them
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you can’t overvalue the time you spend crawling around on the floor with a baby or playing Old Maid around a kitchen table.
Last summer, I spent a few days with my bestie and her whole clan at her parents’ lake house. Her kids, plus nephews, ranged from ages 2 to 8, and Stephanie made a special point to bring something she could do with the kids: One afternoon, for example, she and the kids made elephant toothpaste, which amounts to foam exploding (completely non-dangerously) from a glass beaker.
Don’t have dry yeast or hydrogen peroxide around the house? Pull out a board game or start up a round hide-and-seek. My in-laws have a finished basement with a bunch of different rooms off the main living space. It is a spectacular hide-and-seek playground, and during this past Thanksgiving, it seemed there was always a round going on.
Find ways to connect over long distances
It can be hard or even impossible to show up regularly when your niece or nephew live far away, but there are certainly ways to show, “Hey, I’m thinking about you.”
Four of my five nieces live about two and a half hours away, and I’m all about care packages. I typically time them around Valentine’s Day or Halloween and fill them with some combo of candy, stuffed animals, silly socks and the like. The year I sent them mustaches that resulted in a particularly delightful photo opp.
My oldest niece recently got a cell phone, and texting her is fun, whether it’s a happy birthday message or nothing more than a GIF-off. And plenty of sources sing the praises of Skype or Facetime, too. If you can plan an event around the chat, even better: The Irish lifestyle site EVOKE.ie suggests breakfast Skype dates. A long-distance dad writes on Parents.com about how his son would video call to chat each time he worked on a jigsaw puzzle Dad had gifted.
This isn’t always easy, especially if you have more than one or two nieces and nephews. But bonding one-on-one makes each kiddo feel extra special.
For example, one of my nieces straight-up loves back scratches. I know, we all do, but trust me, her love of them is more than yours and mine combined, times about a hundred. She knows that, at least once per visit, I’m good for a pretty extended back-scratch session. She waits until everyone is around the kitchen table, chatting, and she’ll walk up to me and smile. Sometimes even mid-sentence, I scoot back to let her hop on my lap, and it’s scratchin’ time.
While she’s nowhere near as shy as she used to be, the first niece I mentioned can still occasionally feel overwhelmed, especially when there are extra people around she doesn’t know well. During one holiday with some extended family, after dinner when everyone was spread out and relaxing, I whispered to her, “Want to watch a movie?” We curled up on the couch upstairs and popped in a movie. We didn’t even watch the whole thing, but we got in a one-on-one visit, and it’s one of my favorite memories from the whole day.
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