When I launched Savvy Auntie four years ago, my first mission was to change the way we look at aunts in America today. Often imagined as a relic of a generations past, the term 'aunt' conjured up an image more "Auntique" than that of a modern, cosmopolitan woman. That's not to say I didn't appreciate and honor our Great-Great-Aunts, but where were today's cool, contemporary aunt figures? As I explored this modern segment of American women who are not (yet) moms (The U.S. Census puts us at 47 percent of women through age 44), I realized there are all types of aunts:
Aunties by Relation; Aunties by Choice; Great-Aunties; Godmothers; Cousin Aunties; Long-Distance Aunties; StepAunties; Single Aunties; Married Aunties; ParAunts (aunts who become the parent when one or both parents is no longer able); Straight Aunts, LesbiAunts; Teen Aunties; Child Aunties; Special-Needs Aunties; Teacher or Coach Aunties; Nanny Aunties; Fairy GodAunties and Aunties to the World -- the BenevolAunts who give so much to children they've never met. And there are also the Bon VivAunts, the GourmAunts, the BohemiAunts, the ConfidAunts, the Aunt-Rageous Rocker Aunties, the Crafty Aunties and the eco-loving Auntie Earth, among others. What a diverse group of positive influences for America's children!
Unfortunately, our contributions to the American Family Village often go unnoticed and under-appreciated. My second mission was to change that.
Unlike parenting, there is no legal obligation to 'aunt.' The time we spend with our nieces and nephews is most often always quality time, unencumbered by parental duties like making sure the kids have brushed their teeth, made their beds and done their homework (not to say aunts don't help with that when they can). I've dubbed this time "QualAuntie Time."
When I asked Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, VP of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop, how an Auntie can help develop the minds of our young nieces and nephews, she simply replied: "You're already doing it." By playing with our nieces and nephews, reading to them, even just chatting with them before they can even talk, we are helping them learn, she said. Just by being Auntie, we're helping!
Baking cookies with a niece? That's math and science. Constructing railroad tracks with a nephew? That's helping develop his motor dexterity and his understanding of spatial relations. To that end, Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization that fosters early childhood education, recommends an hour of unstructured play for a young child each day (e.g. tea parties, role-playing, puppet shows). All that pretending actually helps lay the groundwork for developing literacy down the line. And when mom has a newborn to care for, QualAuntie Time with the older sibling(s) is very important, since mom may not have an hour to devote to uninterrupted play with her other kids.
If mom or dad are unable to take all the kids outside (either because it's too hot or cold for baby, someone's sick or they are too busy helping with homework or chores), Auntie can take the others out to play. Kids need more time outside because it helps reduce stress (yes, even little kids have stress) and being in nature -- even the backyard -- helps keep their minds focused (studies show kids with ADHD are more likely to do better in green settings than industrial ones.)
For kids over the age of 2, QualAuntie Time spent co-viewing children's television or a video and sharing lessons learned during and after the show is more productive than mom leaving the child in front of the TV to go about her necessary household duties, and aunties who read a favorite book to their niece or nephew (over and over again) are helping the child learn new words. Pointing out the pictures on the pages helps develop a baby's understanding of shapes, colors, counting and emotions.
Aunthood is a Gift
Aunts by relation or choice give of their discretionary income and time to children-not-their-own in their immediate lives, in their communities and around the world every single day. Every boo boo they kiss, every little hand they hold, every hug they give is a gift. And as far as the other kinds of gifts -- the kind tied up with a bow -- are concerned, an Auntie will often stretch her budget to put a smile on the face of a niece or nephew on birthdays or the holidays. She's also more likely to jump on a plane for Thanksgiving than expect a family of four to travel to her.
Aunts not only give directly; when a co-worker mom leaves work early to tend to a sick child, or when that big assignment is due and working late or over the weekend is necessary, a childless woman is (often expected to be) the one to pick up the extra work so moms can have family time. While this type of help is indirect, aunts deserve to be appreciated for their contributions to the American Family Village in this way, too.
These are just some of the ways aunts give of themselves selflessly.
Sunday, July 22, marks the fourth annual Auntie's Day®. Like the tradition of Mother's Day, Father's Day and Grandparent's Day, it's a day to honor and celebrate the women in the American Family Village who love and give to children not-their-own. On Sunday, give the Auntie in your child's life a call, send her a card, or acknowledge her in whatever way you can to say thank you.
Aunthood is a gift. This day is theirs. And they deserve it.
The 4th Annual Auntie's Day(R) is Sunday, July 22, 2012
Melanie Notkin is the national bestselling author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids (Morrow/HarperCollins)