How to Be a Great Aunt

Growing up, I never felt compelled to be a mom like many of my friends. Instead, I felt called to be an aunt. I love this quote by Irish poet Robert Lynd: “There is something in the relationship between aunts and their nephews and nieces that is quite unlike any other. In the company of their aunts, nephews and nieces know that they are privileged persons. The bonds of duty are somehow relaxed: they have no obligations but to be happy.” That’s what I wanted growing up — to be the person in kids’ lives whose sole job is to make them feel loved and safe. So, we asked nine aunts what it’s like to play this role. Here are their funny, thoughtful answers…

On building a close relationship:

“One of the best ways I’ve found to foster a rapport with kids is to ask them for their opinions. Say you’re out for ice-cream and can’t decide between strawberry and chocolate. Ask Ms. Five-Year-Old and then go with what she recommends. Her face will light up. Kids are often underestimated, so when you value their opinion, it’s esteem-building.” — Tracey

“I visit my nieces every other Sunday, and sometimes we do crafts. I’m also teaching one of my nieces how to cook, and she likes everything garlic, so we make the garlickiest garlic dinner and go around breathing garlic on people and being aggravating.” — Sheila

“My niece Laila is reading the Harry Potter books, and every time she finishes one, she spends the night at my house and we’ll watch the movie and make pumpkin hand pies. Of course, her mom could do that, but it’s an adventure to go to Aunt Sam’s house. She tells all her friends at school about it.” — Samantha

“Once, I brought my nephews some candy, and even though it was before dinner, I said, ‘You can eat it now, because I’m your aunt, and this is an aunt treat.’ They were so excited. And when I go to movies with them, it’s like, who wants a Slurpee? The funny thing is that I would never do that with my own daughter, unless it’s a special occasion. But maybe that’s it — it is a special occasion to see them, because I don’t get to see them all the time.” — Lucy

“I try to really pay attention to what my nieces and nephews are reading, watching, and listening to so I can lean into their interests. My niece and I first went to Comic-Con a few years ago, and she had so much fun that it’s become our thing. This last Comic-Con, we met the actor who plays Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. My niece was dressed as Hermione. She barely spoke to him, she was so nervous, and on the way home she was quiet in the backseat. I said, ‘You okay back there?’ And then she said, ‘Did that really happen? That was the best day ever. You’re the coolest aunt.’” — Annette

On keeping up with long-distance nieces and nephews:

“Starting when they were little, my sister would say, ‘I’m going to clean the kitchen, you can Skype with your aunt.’ And they would sit and chat with me. They loved typing in emojis and sending dancing hamster videos. Now my older niece texts me about stuff she is doing, like playing the Wicked Witch of the West in a school play or attending a local Pride parade. I love our conversations.” — Eve

“Instead of beating yourself up for not being there physically, be there in another way. A sheet of stickers in an envelope will take five minutes from your day, but those kids will be SO EXCITED to receive a letter addressed to them. (And only them! No addressing the envelope to multiple siblings.)” — Tracey

“Toby has a really good memory for events and he’s into travel itineraries. He’ll be like, ‘Auntie Lucy, remember you visited last year on May 17?’ So, one way I keep up with him is by showing him I value that expertise. I’ll send Joanna emails addressed to him: ‘Question for Toby: when do you guys leave New York and when do you arrive in California?’ Toby gets to be the one to say the exact arrival time. One time Joanna actually had the date wrong until Toby corrected her!” — Lucy

“You know how in Disney movies, many of the children are orphans? Because that is the most horrifying thing for a child, to envision a life in which they’ve lost their parents or family. Every child has that little dread in the back of their mind. But if you have aunts and uncles that you believe care about you, it eases that basic primal fear of being alone. Even if the relationship isn’t that strong, if you feel like that person is there for you, it eases that fear.” — Bevan

On being an in-between person:

“At Christmas, I didn’t hear my mom announce that kids could visit the buffet before the adults. So, here I am, plate in hand, serving myself along with the kids when one of the fathers says, ‘Hey! You aren’t allowed yet!’ His nine-year-old replies, ‘Yes, she is! She’s one of us! Well, not a kid, but in-between.’ It still makes me laugh. That’s the role of an aunt: not a kid, not a parent. In-between.” — Tracey

“I remember having wonderful aunties to talk to about things that I couldn’t talk to my mother about. They were always there, these people who were deeply invested in my wellbeing. When I was an adolescent, I wanted to use tampons, not pads, but couldn’t turn to my mother. I asked my Aunty Marcy, ‘Tell me about tampons.’ She gave me a couple, explained things, and encouraged me, ‘Go practice. It’ll be fine.’” — Sheila

“I have a close relationship with my nieces and nephews because I believe in the importance of ‘that person’ in everyone’s life — someone other than a mom or dad. As an aunt, I am a mentor, an advisor, a playmate, a shoulder to cry on and a giver of hugs. I am an encourager, a listener, a guide, and a friend.” — Shayda

On changing relationships:

“My niece and nephew both have phones now, so I try to text them about things they’re interested in, nothing earth-shattering: ‘Driving back to the office, stopped to see the seals,’ that kind of thing. I think it’ll be harder to get their attention as they get older, so maybe I’ll treat them like cats, ignore them and they will come to me.” — Sharon

“My adult nephews are old enough to tell me that I was a positive influence in their life and that they learned from me. I get texts from my nephew out of nowhere: ‘Love you, Aunty, thinking about you today.’ He made guacamole for a barbecue he was having a couple months ago and he sent me a picture and said, ‘How does it look? I tried to leave some chunky parts the way that you taught me.’” — Sheila

On creating the family you want:

“I wanted kids, but it didn’t work out. There was a time when that was super painful for me, and everyone else seemed to be getting pregnant. But my sister understood what I went through with infertility. So, when she got pregnant, I decided to make a point of being in my niece’s life a lot, and now being an aunt is a huge, joyful part of my life and identity.” — Eve

“Because my parents had split up, my mother surrounded herself with other women. All of my mom’s close friends became ‘aunties’ to me. I had a million aunties! In fact, I still call their kids my ‘cousins.’ We build our own families, don’t we?” — Sheila

“My advice for parents is to choose your village and make it known. Invite friends in by calling them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.’ Try to foster the connection: if your kid likes bugs, have him send a photo to his bug-loving aunt or invite her along for a museum day. Let them have secrets and break the rules. It really does take a team.” — Tracey

On the best gig:

“My eight-year-old niece says that when she grows up she doesn’t want to have kids. I told her, you can be both a mum and an aunty, and she said, ‘I know, but I don’t want to. My sister is going to have kids, and I’ll be their aunty.’ And I said, ‘I gotta tell you, it’s a pretty sweet gig.’” — Sheila

Are you an aunt, or would you like to be? What special things do you do with your nieces or nephews? What advice do you have for others?

P.S. 8 women on choosing not to have kids, and do your eyes light up when you see a child in your life?

(Illustration by Leah Reena Goren for Cup of Jo.)