7 Ways to Be a Great Aunt or Uncle

Real aunts and uncles (and moms and dads!) share their best tips on how to really earn that "World's Best Uncle/Aunt" mug you've been eyeing.

boy riding on uncle's shoulders
Photo: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

There's nothing stranger—or rather, more surprising—than the moment your sibling becomes a mom or dad. You've seen them through their awkward pre-teen stage all the way through their wedding day, and though you know they're technically an adult, they'll always be the big brother you looked up to or the kid sister you teased.

But once they begin growing their own family, you take on a new title that requires a bit more responsibility than cracking jokes and hoarding embarrassing photos for future torment. That's why you need real, candid and honest tips about what it takes to be a great uncle or aunt to that niece or nephew that you now get the opportunity to watch grow up. Here, real aunts and uncles (and moms and dads!) share their best tips for what to do (and what to avoid like the plague):

1. Don't be too serious.

If you're not a parent yet yourself, handling a teeny-tiny newborn that seems so super-fragile is daunting. And when they begin to grow up and develop personalities, you might try to be a version of yourself that you think is appropriate, instead of giving your niece or nephew the real deal. As an aunt to three, Emily Malloy from Candler, North Carolina, has discovered that she becomes the best 'mentor' when she's just herself: silly and fun and engaging.

"I have discovered to just be myself with my nieces and nephew. I am an active aunt and our weekly and bi-weekly encounters include many fun hands-on activities, but the highlights are: Nerf gun fights against the zombies (aka grandparents), impromptu dancing, and right now the girls are big into makeovers," she shared. When you're spending time with the tots, your mission is to make sure they have a ton of fun and exercise out a lot of their energy—so when you send them back to their parents, they'll go right to sleep. (Your sibling will surely thank you!)

2. Don't just purge.

If you've already been through the baby rodeo (a few times) and now your younger sibling just had a baby of her own, it might be tempting to send all your lighty and lovingly used hand-me-downs her way. While it's a kind gesture that can help her save money, mom-of-two Catherine Baker from Statesville, North Carolina says sometimes it can be a bit too much. "My sister-in-law thought it was helpful to give me all of her daughter's hand-me-downs. Some of it was helpful but then some of it was just overwhelming," she shared. "It would have been better if she would have let me go through and get whatever I wanted or needed. Some things are great, but some I just don't want."

Instead of dropping off a heaping load of forget-me-nots, offer to take care of the baby while she or he sorts through your stash. This will make it easier for her to focus, give her a break, and then on your way home, you can donate what she tossed aside.

3. Clean the freakin' house.

Between the sleepless nights, the changes in hormones, and figuring out the breastfeeding bit, your sister (or sister-in-law) doesn't need a cute onesie for the newborn as much as she needs, ya know, a nap. New mom Kate McGuffin of New York City says the biggest help her siblings offered her was the gift of helping out around the house. "Cooking meals, helping with cleaning, and offering to babysit while Mom and Dad have date night were all greatly appreciated," she said. Though seemingly small, these things take a bullet point off the new parents' checklist, allowing them to actually close their eyes for a hot second while you help put their home back together.

4. Own—and use—the cool aunt/uncle title.

It might make you feel old (we're with you), but now you're the cool aunt or the cool uncle. Remember when you had one? Now you get the chance to do all of the ridiculously fun stuff that your sibling's kids can't imagine their out-of-date parents doing. Take it from mom-of-two Lauren Pena from Elk City, Oklahoma, who quickly realized having an 'awesome aunt' could be helpful with parenting. "When my little man was learning to ride his bike without training wheels, we tried everything to get him not to be afraid of falling off. After weeks of tears and long breaks with us, we finally got him to show his bike riding skills to his cool, young aunt," she said. "She took him out, and to this day I still don't know what she did, but when they came back he was pedaling a two-wheeler without anyone holding onto the back. I told her she'd be getting a phone call when he turned 15 and it was time to teach him to drive!"

5. Think twice before charging your credit card.

Gifting the trendiest toy on the market might make you feel like you'll earn super-cool aunt points, but before you dish out the cash, consider how much work you're also dishing on the parents. And make sure they're appropriate for the stage of life your nieces or nephews are at. "My brother-in-law is really great about buying gifts for my husband's son, but most of the time he gets toys or games that are two to three years over his age range. I think Uncle is trying to compliment his nephew by saying that he's advanced enough for older toys, when in reality he would need considerable help assembling the toys or we have to find a place to store the toy until he's old enough for it," Pena shared.

6. Make time to participate, even if you're far away.

Not everyone is lucky enough to live close to family members, but as a single mom of one Jamie Granero of Philadelphia shared, the best kind of aunts make an effort to be involved with their nieces or nephews, distance be damned. "My sister FaceTimes with my daughter Olivia almost every day even though she is in another state," she shared. "I think FaceTiming may be one of the biggest things because I have an uncle that moved when I was little and honestly the distance really affected the relationship. I no longer felt close to him. My daughter is extremely close with my sister because my sister just makes it a point to involve herself in my daughter's life." Even if your work schedule doesn't allow for a daily FaceTime or Skype sesh, Granero added that seeing her sister put in the extra effort to show she's thinking of Jamie's family in another state has been comforting, too. "She also thinks about [Olivia] constantly. I get calls, texts, and emails weekly with activities happening in Philly that I can take Olivia to. It's almost as if she thinks of my daughter as her own," she said.

7. Offer to keep the noisy toy at your house.

So you can't resist that 'educational toy' you just know will be a ball of fun for your nephew, but will drive your brother mad. Take a page from aunt-of-three, Allison Shaw from Gastonia, North Carolina, who buys that noisemaker, gets the aunt street cred, and doesn't make her siblings upset: "If you are going to get them a noisy toy, offer to keep it at your house! I bought musical instruments for two of my nephews that stay at my house because my sisters would just take the batteries out if they were at their house," she said.

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