12/11/2012 07:25 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

The Importance of Aunties and Uncles

I never had children and was excited when my siblings became parents. But as my nieces and nephews become teenagers, they seem busy with their own lives. I don't know what to do to get closer, other than friending them on Facebook. Do you think having relationships with their aunts and uncles matters to kids?

I absolutely love this question, because it speaks to one of the most fundamental beliefs I have about parenting: Children are meant to be raised in a village or tribe.

It's not easy being a kid in today's world. While it's true that growing children have always had to deal with peer pressure, family challenges and complex social lives, today's youngsters are also having to navigate exposure to alcohol and drugs at ever younger ages, highly sexualized media messages and the influence of a digital world that none of us quite know how to manage.

As youngsters grow up, they may be unwilling to turn to their parents as they navigate the minefield of adolescence, especially if they think Mom or Dad will react angrily if they reveal something upsetting. So who do children look to for advice? Their friends. And while there are certainly times that it's great to have a buddy to vent to about your latest heartbreak or the stress of finals, youngsters need the counsel of wise adults when the going gets tough.

Here are some suggestions for deepening the connection you have with your nieces and nephews, both as a cheerleader who celebrates their successes and as a trusted confidante they can turn to when they need the sound advice of a caring adult.

Spend time with your nieces and nephews. Even if they seem busy, most kids (heck, most adults!) find it enormously flattering when someone shows interest in getting to know them better. Whether it's asking your outdoorsy niece to go for a hike or inviting your nephew to join you for some live music, if you extend an invitation to do something they enjoy, you'll probably get a "Sure, I'd love to!"

Stay in touch. Skype, Facebook, texting and emails are all ways to let your nieces and nephews know that you're thinking of them. It can make a world of difference to a youngster to know that a beloved aunt or uncle cares enough to send a "Hi, how ya doing?" text message. You'll never know if your thoughts of kindness might arrive just as they're dealing with something difficult.

Offer to help with school work. If you have an area of expertise that one of your nieces or nephews needs help with, let them know you'd love to give them a hand. Better yet, combine an afternoon of tutoring with a meal that the two of you cook up together and you will have created a memorable experience that will nourish them physically, emotionally and intellectually.

If you're a parent and don't have dependable relatives who can take your kids under their wing now and then, make a point of expanding your tribe to include trustworthy adults who can become unofficial aunties and uncles to your children.

The operative word, of course, being trustworthy. We're all sadly aware of instances where a relative, coach or friendly neighbor has fostered a connection with a youngster in order to establish an inappropriate, harmful relationship. Listen to your instincts and do your homework before giving any adult access to your children. But don't let fear keep your kids from having relationships with genuinely upstanding, responsible adults.

When I was growing up, I was fortunate to have a beloved family friend, Lillie, who offered me priceless wisdom and guidance when I was reluctant to turn to my parents. Her influence remains an integral part of what has been best about my life. And I have to admit, as much as I love it when my son confides in me, I take great comfort in the fact that he has close relationships with his uncles, aunts and adult family friends.

I hope you find a way to be the loving Auntie you imagined you would be when your siblings had children. You will no doubt be enriching the lives of your nieces and nephews, and they will surely enrich yours, as well.

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to and you could be featured in an upcoming column!