The Importance of Extended Family – Aunts and Uncles
Professor Robert Milardo arrived at the University of Maine in Orono in the summer of 1982 after teaching for a couple of years at the University of Southern California. Calling northern Maine a great place to live and his role the perfect job, one with a fair balance of teaching and research responsibilities, Professor Milardo has remained at the flagship campus ever since.
A professor of Family Relations, Milardo is currently editor of the Journal of Family Theory and Review owned by the National Council on Family Relations. He has published extensively in the field of family studies in leading journals and is the author of The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles (2009), The Decade in Review: Understanding Families into the Next Millennium (2001), and Family as Relationships (2000).
Professor Milardo earned his Ph.D. in Human Development & Family Studies from Pennsylvania State University and his M.A. in Social Psychology from Connecticut College. Given his depth of study in the developing science of personal relationships and the ongoing importance of family to raising successful children, we were extremely interested in Professor Milardo’s work, particularly as it relates to aunts, uncles and kinship, and his theory of families as multiple households.
We recently spent some time with the Professor discussing his most recent work, The Forgotten Kin.
What ultimately was the impetus for you looking into the extended family and specifically to then examine the roles of aunts and uncles in families?
I started with an interest in interviewing men in caregiving roles other than parents. Were there men who were acting responsibly and having a positive influence on children? In my own life, uncling has been very important to me. I really enjoyed being around my nieces and nephew as children and now as adults.
And in my own childhood, uncles were important to me and fun to be around. On the other hand, the field of family studies is largely silent about uncles (and aunts) so a research project seemed like it would be interesting and maybe important.
Can you explain a little bit about the people that formed the basis of your research – how did you go about selecting and gathering interview and research candidates to examine the family roles associated with aunts and uncles?
Getting men to participate in research on family issues is not always such an easy task. I began the study in Wellington, New Zealand at Victoria University and spent much of my time calling acquaintances and arranging interviews.
Fortunately, the idea of the study was of interest to several journalists and articles appeared in local papers in NZ and then in Maine where I continued the work. Eventually I completed 104 personal interviews with uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews and accumulated over 80 hours of recorded conversations.
My intention was to get a variety of participants – some with very close relationships and some with modest or distant relationships. And to a certain extent the book represents a diversity of family forms and relationships. This is important because it helps us to understand how relationships with aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews vary in closeness, how they vary over time, and the features of individuals and families that influence closeness.
Reviewers indicate you offer information as to how aunts and uncles contribute to the daily lives of parents as well as to their children. Could you give a brief overview as to some of the basic ways that aunts and uncles contribute to the lives of parents?
This was one of the initial questions I had when I began the project. Are aunts and uncles important to parents? Well the simple answer is yes of course they are, sometimes.
Aunt Denise cared for her nieces especially when they were infants. As she said: “somebody would have to get some sleep in that house. So I would go over for a few hours. It was kind of a changing of the guard.”
But of course there is more to the story. Uncles and aunts were often parents themselves so they could draw on their own experience in counseling their siblings. At other times, aunts and uncles simply provided a listening ear and acted like good friends. On other occasions, parents would enlist an aunt or uncle to directly intervene with a child. And at times, nieces and nephews were more willing to listen to the counsel of an aunt or uncle.
Of course not all aunts and uncles are close to their siblings but when they are close their relationships can merge elements of family obligations and traditions with the strong bonds characteristic of best friendships. They can be some of the longest relationships we have. Brothers and sisters, when they are close, share their entire biographies.
My mother spoke with her sister Lena every day of her life and they both lived long lives, both married, had children and became grandparents. Intimacy is really about knowing things about another person that no one else would even care to know and doing so over a long period of time. For close siblings, intimacy is packaged over lifetimes of shared biography. That’s hard to match.
And to their children?
Not all aunts and uncles have significant relationships with their nieces and nephews, but many do. Aunts and uncles mentor children as well as older nieces and nephews. They provide advice concerning school, work and careers. They counsel their nieces and nephews about relationships with other family members and especially siblings and parents.
Raymond, age 26, described a unique relationship with his uncle. Raymond’s parents divorced when he was 2, and he speaks of his current relationship with his dad “as like two adults sitting in a bar talking about the weather.” Throughout Raymond’s life, his uncle has been an important source of support and companionship. Raymond consults his uncle about his career, his friendships, and nearly all of what he does. He describes frequent occasions of support and advice. They visited often during his adolescence when Uncle Les was the only important male figure in his life. In his words, his uncle “provided direction.” A highlight of their relationship is their mutual interest in music and playing guitars together. The contributions of his uncle are likely lifelong. At one point in the interview Raymond spoke of this influence:
One of the things we do is sort of a philosophy. We call it the Lost Chord…. In [learning a new] song you’re missing a chord and trying to find it, but then once you find that missing chord it puts the whole song in harmony and we realized we could apply that to life. So one of biggest things he taught me about life is always searching for that something to put in my life to make it a little bit smoother sounding. Eventually when you get 80 or 90 years old you can look back and find that you’ve had a lot of good music.
Throughout my interviews I was continually struck by the depth of relationships. I can’t emphasize enough that not all nieces and nephews are close with uncles and aunts, but for some, their relationships are truly extraordinary—they fuse elements of parent-like obligations with friendship.
Likewise, you suggest that aunts and uncles serve as mentors to their nieces and nephews, yet the adults themselves are also mentored by the children for whom they are responsible. Can you give a couple of concrete examples about this back and forth mentoring process?
This mentoring of aunts and uncles by nieces and nephews was a complete surprise. It occurred often among aunts and nieces as well as uncles and nephews.
In an ordinary but significant way, Aunt Rebecca recounted how her niece worked at a large department store and on occasion would purchase clothes for her because as Rebecca recounts “she thinks I need little skirts and stuff.” Although when her niece suggested a tattoo, Rebecca declined. It’s good to know one’s limits, I guess. These instances of reverse mentoring, however superficial at the outset, can serve as ways for nieces to express their affection and concern for their aunts. They are very much instances of care giving functioning to confirm, enrich and sometimes deepen their relationships.
Prior to your research, you must have had some specific items, a few informal postulates at least, as to what you thought you might find. After conducting the research, where there any major contradictions to some of those initial speculations?
I went into this project with an interest in documenting the relationships of a small array of family members. I assumed some aunts and uncles had active relationships, but I really didn’t expect the sheer number and depth of close relationships. In the big picture, we are not “bowling alone.”
Among the very best of friendships are relationships between family members, between siblings or between siblings and nieces and nephews. Towards the end of my interviews and after I had spoken with a passel of aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, I began asking aunts and uncles how they thought about the future of their relationships. When I asked Aunt Michelle if she expects her relationship with her 7-year –old niece to develop into a friendship in the future, she replied: “I really have a hard time picturing it any other way.”
When conducting the research, were there some real surprises for you, things that you did not expect to find?
Another unanticipated finding was the importance of aunts and uncles in mediating adjustments to divorce. Aunts and uncles often spoke of helping nieces and nephews in adjusting to the divorce of parents. This is a source of support that has not really been acknowledged but proves to be important.
While the book is no doubt extremely valuable to other experts in the field, are there some specific things that a family can take away from the book that could help them extend their current family relationships? Or specific suggestions as to how parents can utilize aunts and uncles to help them with the challenging process of raising a child in today’s complex world?
I hope everyone will read this book. I hope it changes the way we talk about families and how we come to understand what makes them successful.
Over the years if there is one clear lesson I’ve encountered it is that families successfully arrange themselves in many ways. It would be a serious error to assume a single prescription for resilient well functioning families. There are many successful configurations, but at their best families are ensembles built across households. They include a variety of forms—some with children in the home, some single-parenting, and some with close ties to siblings. When adult siblings have reasonably close relationships, without question everyone can benefit.