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The Unique Role of Aunts and Uncles

7 ways you can make a positive impact on your neices and nephews

En español | In the realm of family relationships, I've always wondered why aunts and uncles don't get more attention. Admittedly, I am perhaps more aware of this because I don't have kids of my own but am totally dedicated to my three nieces and two nephews, as well as honorary auntie to several close friends' children. This is one of the most important roles I play. And I know that my own aunts and uncles were enormous influences on my life.

See also: Be a Great Grandparent

If you've got children of your own, you provide your nieces and nephews with cousins, those family members who are like brothers and sisters, only nowhere near as annoying.

A mature man swirls a three-year-old girl around in the backyard.

Rodrigo Alvarez-Icaza/Getty Images

Aunts and uncles can foster a special family bond with nieces and nephews.

But regardless of whether you've got kids, these are the kinds of roles that aunts and uncles can play:

• The "Cool" Adult. You have different life experiences than your nieces and nephews' parents, which makes you cool right off the bat. Free of the responsibility of the parenting role, you allow the kid in you to come out. When adults reflect back on their aunts and uncles, having fun with them is often among the top memories.

Confidant and Trusted Adviser. Kids often say they can talk to aunts and uncles about things they are uncomfortable talking to their parents about. You can add a different perspective, and they may be open to telling you things and listening to your advice when they really need it but don't want to talk to parents — if they can trust you.

• Extra Provider. I hear a lot about aunts and uncles who provide "extras" for their nieces and nephews, such as an aunt who made doll clothes or provided spending money for a special trip; an uncle who paid for rock climbing lessons or bought a wedding dress. These extras can make nieces/nephews feel so special and can even shape their life experiences. You may also provide the extra finances to cover education, housing or important purchases for them.

• Role Model. These days, more than ever, children are influenced by media and friends — not always positive role models. You give your nieces and nephews alternative examples of family, career, relationships, hobbies and values. You will teach them more by how you live than you ever could by talking to them.

• Family Compadre. Because you have the same family — and you've known their parents all or most of your life — you might share their frustrations or understand their viewpoint more than anyone else does. Being familiar but somewhat outside the situation when conflicts with parents arise can be a plus. Kids may listen to you in a way they won't listen to their parents, and you may even be able to play a mediator or peacemaker role in the family.

• Surrogate Parent. When mom and dad are busy or away, aunts and uncles can help fill the gap with extra attention, interest and affection, as well as practical help such as making meals, taking kids to appointments or helping with homework.

• Cheerleader. You keep up with their activities and goals; triumphs and failures. You don't assume — you ask how you can support them and are prepared to follow through. When they are experiencing disapproval from others, you find something to love about them. You are their fan, and they know it.

How to Bond With Nieces and Nephews

1. Be open. Listen more than you talk and be empathetic; don't push and be as neutral as possible.

2. Be trustworthy. Be clear that you will keep their confidences to yourself — unless they are in danger. Let their parents know that is your plan.

3. Be in contact. Text, call, Facebook, Skype — do whatever it takes to touch base frequently.

4. Be responsive. Offer to help, and actively respond when asked to do something.

5. Be available. Go to their school and sports or other extracurricular events, shopping trips, prom night, births and birthdays, weddings, firsts and other life milestones.

6. Be fun. You have the opportunity to be the fun aunt or uncle — take it!

7. Be interested. Meet them at their level about their interests. Learn about their hobbies and activities. Cheer them on!

8. Be yourself. Just be who you are. Nix the preaching and instructing — it won't work. You'll influence them most by how you live.

9. Be the bonus. If you can, help out with those little "extras" that can make big differences in their lives.

10. Be the receiver. Let them have the confidence booster and fun of helping you with things, too. Listen to their advice — it's a reciprocal relationship.