Psychologists tell us that one of the most, if not the most important factor in our happiness is the number of quality relationships in our lives. Decades ago, such relationships were easy to come by. You were very likely to be surrounded by extended family who all got together often for loud and boisterous celebrations. As you grew up, you got to know your cousins, and your aunts and uncles as well.
These days, many families live far apart, and family reunions are few and far between — often non-existent, it seems. But everybody still wants to feel part of a clan, and family ties are just as important as they ever were.
In the role of uncle, you have a chance to forge those ties in positive ways with your nieces and nephews.
Uncles have a unique and important role to play in families. They’re older than their nieces and nephews, and so can be positive male mentors. But they’re younger than Gramps, and can be up for goofy fun. They’re also different than their siblings, providing nieces and nephews a look at life through the eyes of someone who branched off the same family tree, but may have a very different lifestyle than their parents. Siblings can have widely varying personalities and interests, and the best kind of uncle is often one who can share a different world with his nieces and nephews than the one they’re growing up in at home.
For example, Kate’s uncle Buzz  lives in Vermont, and when she would visit him while she was a kid (and still today), he showed her things foreign to her suburban upbringing — going for hikes in the mountains, taking canoe trips, and shooting the BB gun in the backyard. Kate grew up fairly idolizing Buzz, and he sparked in her an interest in the outdoors and a love for all things Vermont.
The uncle role is especially important for men who are unmarried and don’t have kids of their own. Not only do bachelor uncles have more time to spend with their nieces and nephews, they also bring another varied influence into kids’ lives. It’s hard to describe, but “undomesticated masculine energy” is the closest I’ve got. Kids naturally gravitate to bachelor uncles, and see them as seriously cool dudes.
Whether he was married or single, most of us can remember that cool uncle in our lives that we looked up to. As you get older, and your siblings have kids, it’s time to become that cool uncle yourself. I have admittedly not always taken on the mantle as fully as I should have, but below are the things I’ve done, and am trying to do better, in my pursuit of awesome uncle-dom.
How to Be an Awesome Uncle
Interact with them. At a family gathering, it’s tempting to stick with the adults and let the kids do their thing. But take the time to talk and goof around with your nieces and nephews. Ask them about what’s been going on in their lives. Have trouble talking to kids? Ask what their favorite subject is in school, what they’re going to be for Halloween, what they’re hoping to get for Christmas, etc. It doesn’t have to be much, but I know I always felt important when an uncle or aunt seemed sincerely interested in me. Plus, kids want to play more than talk, so just get down there and play along with them.
Offer to babysit if you live nearby. If you live close to your nieces and nephews, offer to take the rugrats off their parents’ hands for a couple hours or an entire evening. Your siblings (or sibling-in-laws) will appreciate it, it gives you a chance to bond with the kiddos, and it’s practice for when you have kids of your own. Babysitting will be a bit more involved when your nieces and nephews are actually babies. I offered to watch my sister’s two kids when I was in college — my niece was four and my nephew was just a few months old. The niece was easy to watch. The nephew, not so much. I had to change my first diaper during that babysitting experience and he screamed the entire time his parents were away. I was a little shell-shocked, but little did I know that that two-hour babysitting experience would prepare me for those first days home with Gus when all he did was scream and poop his diaper.
As the kids get older, watching them becomes less of a hassle and actually enjoyable. Show them how to do and make neat things, introduce them to your favorite childhood cartoons and movies, and amaze them with magic tricks (see below).
Bone-up on the jokes, riddles, and magic tricks you knew as a kid. Will Murray, author of the Definitive Guide for Becoming the World’s Greatest Aunt or Uncle, says one of the most important jobs of an uncle is to teach kids how to be children. I think he’s on to something. My favorite uncles were the ones who went out of their way to teach me all the cool stuff kids are supposed to know. Many of the silly jokes, riddles, and magic tricks that I know, I picked up from uncles. One uncle taught me how to make a trumpet noise that I used to annoy my family with; another taught me how to do the famous “pull your thumb apart” magic trick; and my cowboy uncle imparted lots of great jokes that I still use today and get laughs from.
Last time I was with my nephew I showed him how to “levitate” and make it sound and appear like he was breaking his nose. He thought that was pretty awesome. My brother and I passed the time with both my niece and nephew telling riddles. I even learned some new ones myself.
One of these days we’re going to do a post showcasing how to do a bunch of great uncle tricks. So if you have one in your repertoire that you think should be included, leave a comment!
Do fun (and slightly dangerous) stuff with them. This bit of advice is related to the above one. Besides jokes, riddles, and magic tricks, make it your duty to teach your nieces and nephews all the fun and slightly dangerous stuff their parents won’t let them do at home. When my extended family would get together for Thanksgiving at my grandpa’s place in New Mexico, my cowboy uncle would make me and my cousins hay forts in my grandpa’s barn. He’d also make a big pile of hay for us to jump into from the barn’s loft. We didn’t tell our moms about that stunt. This same uncle would let me ride a horse by myself instead of being guided around the corral by a leader rope. As an eight-year-old suburban kid, that made my week.
My brother and I have tried to continue the timeless uncle tradition of making moms worry. I’ve shown my nieces and nephews how to shoot a sling shot and my brother has taught them the finer points of Fourth of July firecrackers . Besides the dangerous stuff, we just try to teach them the fun things we did as kids. For example, when my brother and I were in elementary and middle school, we made obstacle courses in our backyard and we’d pretend we were training for the Navy SEALs. A few summers ago my sister and her family were visiting my folks’ place and the kids were bored. My brother and I put on our uncle hats and saved the day by building one of our old obstacle courses. The kids loved it and we all had a blast racing each other through it.
Also, don’t forget to roughhouse ! It’s not just for dads. Do Superman, play horsey, and hang them upside down. Playful noogies are okay occasionally; wedgies never.
Send a birthday card stuffed with a little moola on your nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays. You were a kid once. How did you feel when you got a birthday card from an aunt and uncle, eagerly ripped it open, and found nothing inside? Probably pretty crestfallen. Conversely, how did it feel to open the card and find a little green? Like Scrooge McDuck swimming in his pool of coins and cash? Okay, maybe that was just me. But you probably felt awesome. Make your nieces and nephews feel awesome, too, by remembering to send a card with a bit of lettuce tucked inside. If you’re the kid’s godfather , send a little extra as a reminder of your special bond. It doesn’t have to be much. Just the fact that you remembered it was their birthday will mean a lot.
I’m admittedly pretty bad when it comes to sending cards to my nieces and nephews. I usually remember on the day of their birthday, so I have to send a belated birthday card like a chump uncle. But I’m working on getting better. I finally got all my nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays in my Google Calendar, and I try to send a card at least a day or two in advance.
Remember important events. Besides birthdays, keep tabs on other important life events in your nieces’ and nephews’ lives. Religious rites of passage like First Communions, bar and bat mitzvahs, or baptisms deserve a card. Better yet, try to be there to witness it if you can. As the kids get older, graduations, college acceptances, first jobs, marriages, and first kids (Congrats! You’re a great-uncle, a Grunkle !) will deserve recognition as well. Don’t hesitate to give kudos to your nieces and nephews for seemingly smaller achievements. My family has a private Facebook group that we use to keep up with each other. If my sister reports that one of her kids did well at a dance recital or pinewood derby, we send our digital high-five their way.
Bring a small gift whenever you see them. I’m terrible about this, but I’m trying to get better about it. Kids love getting surprises. They don’t have to be anything fancy, either. Something they can play with straightaway is always a hit. (See the Christmas gift section below for suggestions.) If there’s a snack that can only be found in your region, pick some up and bring it to the kiddos. (Uncle Buzz once brought a bag of these special, freshly made, apple cider donuts that you can only get at this apple cider mill in VT, on the plane with him to give to us when he came for a visit. Scored some major uncle points there.) Old fashioned candy always goes over well, too – especially when it’s bubble gum cigarettes that blow “smoke.” Corporate swag that you have piling up in your junk drawer can provide lots of small gifts as well. Little ones are surprisingly impressed with seemingly banal knickknacks.
Dispense advice when appropriate. When you’re not teaching them how to shoot a BB gun, don’t be afraid to offer uncle-y advice to your nieces and nephews. Kids usually don’t see uncles as just another annoying adult, so they’ll sometimes take your advice more seriously than if it came from their lame-o parents. If you know your niece or nephew is having trouble with something in their life, reach out and dispense some friendly suggestions. You’d be surprised how much it could help.
Get them cool Christmas presents. And by cool, I don’t mean expensive. Think back to when you were a kid. Remember the neat, but inexpensive toys and games you loved playing with? Get your nieces and nephews those. Things they never knew they wanted until they started playing with them.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Spy reflector sunglasses
- Horseshoe puzzle (I got one of these from an uncle one year and loved showing off to the kids at school how I could solve it)
- Rubik’s Cube
- Balsa wood planes
- Plastic parachute men
- Silly Putty
- Shrinky Dinks
- Magic 8 Ball
- Those capsules you put in water to reveal a giant sponge dinosaur
- Whoopee cushions
- Homemade slingshot 
- Prank gum that snaps its victim
- Magnet Space Wheel
- Disappearing ink
- ‘How to Draw Cartoons’ book, or something similar
- Dinosaur Discovery Kit
Let them rummage through your treasure box. Give them an item from it. If you haven’t started yet, begin your box of manly treasures . Kids love rummaging through them and hearing the stories about all the items in it. Just letting your nieces and nephews look through your treasure box will make you a cool uncle. To upgrade to coolest uncle of all time, give them an item from your box. Just make sure it’s something that doesn’t mean that much to you, but will mean the world to them. If necessary, plant stuff in your box to give the kiddos. Bullet pencils, crappy baseball cards, or old, worthless, but cool-looking coins are good freebies.
Keep the relationship going as your nieces and nephews get older. Most of this advice is geared towards when your nieces and nephews are young. That’s because in my experience it seems you see your nieces and nephews more when they’re younger, but as they get older and get busy with other activities, the visits become less and less frequent. It will take a bit more work, but you can definitely keep the relationship going even as they get older; you’ll know you were successful in achieving awesome uncle status if your adult nieces and nephews want to visit and keep in touch with you of their own volition.
In their tween and teen years, let a niece or nephew that you really like stay with you for a week away from their parents. Once they’re college age, make an effort to keep in touch. My uncles and aunts check in with me on Facebook. Kate’s Uncle Buzz has kept the uncle/niece relationship going by writing her real letters and sending her a good book he’s read.
Something that I appreciate about Buzz’s uncle-dom is that once Kate and I married, he really incorporated me into the family. He shoots me emails and sends me interesting manly knickknacks that he’s found at garage sales in VT.
Be a good example. Your nieces and nephews probably think you’re one of the coolest dudes alive. Whether you like it or not, they’re looking up to you. Do your best to provide a positive male role model for them. Show them how a good man behaves and comports himself. Don’t do anything that would let them down. As uncles, we have great power in the molding of our nieces and nephews, but as Spiderman’s wise Uncle Ben noted, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Use your uncle power for good.
What are your tips on being an awesome uncle? Have any uncle memories? Share them with us in the comments!