The role of an uncle is a unique and influential part in a child’s life.
On the main branch of the Au Sable River, about ten miles east of Grayling, Michigan, I learned everything I know about fly fishing, most of it from Uncle Bill. These are the “Holy Waters” of trout fishing and for several generations this area has held a special place in my family’s history.
I’ve been blessed with wonderful uncles, and Uncle Bill deserves special mention. As my mother’s older and only brother, Uncle Bill has played an instrumental role in my life. He still does. In addition to flyfishing, he’s taught me a lot about the art being an uncle to my young niece and nephews. Even more, he’s taught me valuable lessons about joy, integrity, hard work, responsibility, doing the right thing, and what it really means to be a good man.
Uncle Bill married later in life and did not have kids of his own during my most formative years. This probably gave him more time and energy (and money as fly fishing can get expensive) to devote to his nephews and nieces. I’m convinced, however, that his influence would have been just as strong had his situation been different. I think my brothers and cousins would agree.
Even more, he’s taught me valuable lessons about joy, integrity, hard work, responsibility, doing the right thing, and what it really means to be a good man.
I’ve had many memorable experiences with Uncle Bill including, delivering pizzas by moped to campers at the Petoskey State Park campground, spending a week together at Clown Camp in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, exploring the forts of old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and climbing the ancient Mayan Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, Mexico. In more mundane (but no less important) moments, Uncle Bill taught me how to shell pistachios, cook the perfect artichoke (dipped in butter), and we shared beer at a Detroit Tigers game in the hot August sun.
The importance of having (and being) an awesome uncle has been under-appreciated. Here are a few things to keep in mind as your consider your own role as an uncle or nephew.
Uncles don’t replace great fathers; they make them even better
You can never have too many positive male role models in life. If you have a great dad (as I do) having an awesome uncle only makes him better. Fathers and uncles play different roles. When they have a good relationship with one another it models for boys how adult men can relate in healthy ways.
An uncle can soothe the emotional wounds of an absent father
As a therapist I’ve known far too many fatherless men. Some of those men have been lucky enough to have had an attentive, caring uncle to help guide them through many of life’s challenges. Women have been raising boys and young men on their own for ages, and I am not questioning their capacity to do so just fine. That said, I think both sons and single mothers appreciate when there is an uncle to serve as a positive male role model.
Uncles are important family historians
An uncle can give you a unique perspective on old family dynamics and history that your parents cannot. This doesn’t mean it is a better perspective, but it can add some texture and nuance to your family story.
Fathers and uncles play different roles. When they have a good relationship with one another it models for boys how adult men can relate in healthy ways.
Uncles teach you how adult brothers can relate.
Uncle Bill has no brothers, just two sisters, my mom and my aunt. My dad has three brothers (and a sister). I’ve learned a great deal from them about how adult brothers can relate to each other in positive and healthy ways. They’ve been excellent examples for me as I learn how to negotiate and enjoy the adult relationships I have with my three brothers.
Great uncles make great Great-Uncles
Great-uncles (e.g., your dad’s uncles) are often the elder statesmen of families. Admittedly, I am not as close with my great-uncles (those that are still around), but their stories have played an important role in how I understand my own history. If you have a great-uncle you haven’t seen in awhile, call him up and invite him to lunch. Share a laugh and listen to his stories.
Being a good uncle can be good for you.
The benefit of uncling goes both ways. In “The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles” Robert M. Milrado states:
“Aunting and Uncling can have a profound affect on children, as well as their parents, and serve to bind families in a web of interdependent relationships, but it can also have a profound affect on aunts and uncles and their own personal development. The relationships aunts and uncles establish can provide personal satisfaction, opportunities for the development of lifelong friendships, a connection to family and community, a sense of place located in a convoy of generations, and an opportunity to enact generative themes.” (p. 190).
Being a good uncle starts with being a good man, and as I have learned that is a lifelong pursuit. I hope this has given you a sense of the pleasures and benefits that both being and having an awesome uncle can provide.
Here’s to Uncles! All of them, mine and yours: Chuck, Kevin, Mike, Pat, Tim, Wally, Paul, Gene, George, Smitty, Fred, Tony, Bill, Greg, Doug …
Previously published on STAND Magazine
Dr. Hanley is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Michigan who works with adults, adolescents, children, and couples. He provides psychotherapy to individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, relationship issues, addictions, trauma, and more. You can learn more about his services or read his blog at www.stevenjhanleyphd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.