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Aunts and Uncles
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, April 2015

We all know about the importance of moms and dads and grandparents in the lives of our children. Why is it that we often underestimate the unique, valuable and indisputable contribution of aunts and uncles?

Aunts and uncles can be more than an extra set of loving, helping hands when kids are very young, or as baby sitters as the children grow older. To many nieces and nephews, they are trusted confidants, role models and well, loving people who are different from mom and dad but still an integral part of the family. They may live a totally different life style from the rest of the family, thus providing a glimpse at another way to live. Their attitudes, beliefs or values may or may not be the same as their siblings, but they can still offer love and acceptance in ways that children need. Just by their presence, aunts and uncles can enhance and expand family connections.

They are also storytellers. They share memories (even if their remembrances are inconsistent with their brother's or sister's). When they are different, the children get another perspective of a story they may have heard before. A whole family talking about an event, with several perceptions, helps kids understand many facets of their family history. A grandparent's stories are different, and their other parent just does not know those stories.

As storytellers, aunts and uncles assume a unique and valuable role when a child's parent dies. Nobody can share stories of the parent's life like an uncle or an aunt. Although their shared history may not be the same history, it is valuable nonetheless.

Children hunger for stories about their parent's childhood. Who better than a loving uncle or aunt to communicate them? When a child grieves the loss of a parent, hearing about their mom or dad's childhood, teenage secrets or escapades gives that child a fuller picture of their parent. Learning that their dad never slept the night before a big swim meet; or that mom sewed herself into her own Halloween costume and her brother had to cut her out of it; or that dad woke up to a bear sniffing around the campfire while he and his brother slept under the stars at Yellowstone; or that mom wouldn't touch an orange or a banana until she went to college; or that dad was petrified of going to the dentist but held his sister's hand during surgery, gives texture to a life that is otherwise inaccessible. These memories are lifelines for kids.

Children who are young when their parents die do not have the benefit of creating memories and often fear they will forget what their parents looked like or smelled like or felt like. Even with plenty of photo albums, and the familiar scent of Dad's after shave lotion, it is tough to keep "sense" memories alive. But when Aunt Denise recall about how she and your mom repeatedly watched the "The Sound of Music" learning all of the lyrics; or how your dad and Uncle Mark worked as handymen every summer to make money, or when Aunt Barbara recalls the origin of each Christmas tree ornament and when it came into the family, that parent's memory remains alive.

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