My nephew has just become an uncle. He is now Uncle Ben and I am sure he will rice to the occasion. Terrible puns, by the way, are a staple diet for an uncle.
My sister begat Ben’s brother, who has just begotten his first son. So here I am – an uncle to an uncle, in fact for the second time. For my other sister begat a daughter who begat her own daughter last year. And she has an uncle of whom I am an uncle. You have my permission to sketch a small family tree at this stage.
I messaged Ben on facebook “Uncle Ben” I typed, with a rice smile. And laughed, as uncles do, at my own irresistible joke.
Ben told me excitedly that he had been introduced to his nephew within a few hours of the birth and was looking forward to being a fully-fledged uncle. Moreover, he would welcome my advice on how to be a good uncle. I decided to take this as a complement. “There must be a blog in that somewhere” I replied, as he signed out to go to a party. So here it is.
HOW TO BE A GREAT UNCLE
For my nephew Ben, without whom, I would have just dedicated it to another niece or nephew. Probably to Jonny who became an uncle before him anyway.
It is great fun being an uncle, especially if you don’t yet have kids of your own.
Before you became an uncle, you were going about your own business with negligible interest in any humans significantly smaller than yourself. You would rarely notice those tiny little people down there buzzing around your knees. If you did, it was probably because they were being annoying, crying unnecessarily loudly or touching something of yours. Then you would treat them with deserved disdain and contempt.
You had even less interest in small babies. You were amused to witness allegedly intelligent adults smiling inanely at them in their prams. You were bemused to hear them spill out flowery nonsense in high pitched baby voices. Clearly the kid would have no idea what they are jabbering on about as they had not yet developed the power of language recognition. You sighed; “Who’s talking nonsense to a little lumpy sprog who can’t understand you, then?”
CHAPTER ONE – THE CHANGE
All this changes when you become an uncle. For the first time, you will recognise this particular baby as a person – with some of your genes and therefore a degree of significance. Suddenly, through zero effort or merit on your part, you will refer to him as possessively as “my nephew”. You will find yourself taking great delight and pride in this little individual, smiling at him inanely and uttering flowery nonsense in a high pitched baby voice.
You will cuddle him, play with him and marvel at his cute little fingers and engaging little gurgles. You will draw up all sorts of future plans for your joint activities and life experiences. You will talk about him proudly to your disinterested friends. And be warned – you may even become a little gushy and emotional.
CHAPTER TWO – MODEST EXPECTATIONS
The great thing about being an uncle is that it is a very intermittent role, with absolutely no responsibility or accountability. Unlike a godparent, the position confers no official obligations. Unlike a grandparent, it comes with no particular expectations. The job will not require babysitting, nappy changing, financial support or present giving. You can get away without sending a Christmas card, in a way which would be unforgivable for any other relative.
It certainly entails no requirement to be a “good example” or to demonstrate moral leadership. On the contrary, there is complete licence to mislead your niece or nephew into mischief and to encourage rebellion and defiance, particularly against its unfortunate parents.
There are plenty of examples of benevolent, caring aunts in literature. Fortunately, there are no such fictional examples of virtuous uncles for you to live up to. In fact, Uncle Tom Cobley of Widecombe Fair fame disapproved of his nephew and kept him out of his will.
So you may entertain your nephew as you like, teach him bad habits and lead him astray. As an uncle you will get all the enjoyment of playing games and doing daft things with your brother’s child, before saying it is time to leave because you have a party to go to, or whatever.
Then you can disappear for an indeterminate length of time, whilst forgetting his birthday and excluding him from your inheritance. And nobody will seem to mind. In fact it’s almost expected.
CHAPTER THREE – AN OPTIONAL EXTRA
Having said all of that, there is one generous act of condescension which you may choose to grant to your nephews and nieces, if you have the time and inclination. This is listed in the dictionary under a secondary definition beyond the obvious one.
2. A kindly counsellor, a source of help and advice and encouragement.
I modestly use myself as an example of this. Only last week I advised my niece, your cousin, on how to strip vinyl wallpaper which had been painted over. I helpfully suggested a wallpaper removal party with lots of beer. I have encouraged my various other nieces and nephews in aspects of cycling and stand-up comedy, of which I have limited experience – and of life in general, of which I have more. I like to think I have taught one or two of them how to see the mysterious experience of living from a different angle. But there will be no comeback either way. And these days, most of this requires little effort, as it can be done in a few minutes through a rapid facebook chat, or even with just a random “like”.
CHAPTER FOUR – SUMMARY
So this is my advice, new Uncle Ben, and to you, more experience Uncle Jonny. Play daft games. Make bad jokes. Encourage him or her into mischief. Dispense random (and contradictory) advice and encouragement – whether he or she wants it or not. And then leave the tricky stuff to the parents and grandparents whilst you go party.
POSTCRIPT – GREAT UNCLE-SHIP
As for me, I am now a great uncle, twice over. Unlike you, I do have a fictional role model to live up to.
Great Uncle Bulgaria, the head of the Wimbledon Womble furrow is so old that his fur has turned snow white. His great age and status have brought about some eccentricities. He needs two pairs of spectacles because his eyes are getting so worn out.
But he has a very kind heart and he is very wise. The young Wombles believe that he knows everything. Great Uncle Bulgaria sometimes thinks he does too. He is venerated for his wisdom and experience.
I am pleased to live up to that role model. One day, you too might be an uncle of an uncle. A truly Great Uncle.