As a childless adult, I get a lot of looks from people with kids. Some pity me, some envy me, and some just think I must be blissfully ignorant about real adulthood. But when I see their looks of doubt, I’m quick to remind them, “I have fourteen nieces and nephews—and two more on the way. I’m not a mom, but I’m the cool aunt.”
I feel surrounded by children, even though they’re not in my house. Between my family and my friends, I witness a lot of brave parenting. How else can you describe the act of loving so many other needy human beings day after day? My eyes are open to the struggles, the endless days, and the messes. I’m also keenly aware of the joy of seeing those kids grow, learn to read, use their imaginations, and become, like, real people.
As the sister, best friend, cousin, or aunt, like me, we have a unique vantage point that makes us fun, helpful, and refreshing for the larger families that surround us. So when I’m home—especially over the holidays—I bring my A game, whether I’m tending to kids or the parents. Ten years in, here are my tips for being the world’s best “aunt.”
01. Bring Your Energy
The Kids: Whenever you’re tempted to feel exhausted or overwhelmed by these kids, remember that you only see them for a day, a weekend, or a week at a time. You have to get everything you can out of those moments! Even if you’d rather stay under the covers during the morning hours when you hear their little feet run down the hall, get your butt out of bed. If you don’t want to wrestle because 7 a.m. is early, especially when you’re on vacation, take them outside for a walk, and enjoy the morning sun (or snow!). The chill in the air will wake you up and distract them while you steal sips of coffee or tea. But bring it in a travel mug so that you can set it down to play tag or climb trees.
The Parents: Meanwhile, their parents, who do this every morning, get a chance to trade places with you, drinking their coffee slowly by the glow of the Christmas tree. Honor their everyday endurance by digging into your reserves. Early morning playtime is an obvious entry point, but don’t forget the other times of day when Mom or Dad may be trying to accomplish something, and you could step in and help out. Think meal prep or the time when they’re putting little ones down for a nap, and big kids get to keep playing.
If it’s obvious that Mom or Dad neither needs a break nor wants one, relish the opportunity to play with them and their kids. Parents can feel torn between enjoying their children and entertaining adult friends. By enjoying their kids alongside them, you can breathe new life into their time with the whole group.
02. Get on Their Level
The Kids: It’s a common tip for someone interacting with kids: Pop a squat, take a knee, or just sit down so that you can talk to them while looking them in the eye. Listen to them go on about the toys they got for Christmas or the friends they met at school. This also means letting them run the show. Play what they want to play (though, I draw the line at playing pretend without an action figure or stuffed animal). During a visit a couple years ago, my nephew wanted to play Candy Land, but he was just learning the rules. About three moves in to the game, he started telling a story with the pieces instead of drawing a card and hopping to the gingerbread house. I was tempted to be the Candy Land police because I’m competitive, and I love Candy Land. But I stopped because he was telling a story about going on an adventure. The game board was our map. I mean, come on! Adorable.
The Parents: Likewise, you can “get on their level” with Mom and Dad. Be ready to listen to your friends or siblings talk incessantly about their kids. In a lot of ways, they can’t help it, and they need to do it. It’s a glimpse into their world where sometimes the kids are the boss, and a day feels like a success if no one peed their pants. It’s maybe not what your life looks like, but my sisters tell me that they appreciate that I love their whole person even when it includes all their kids’ extracurricular accomplishments. Let them brag! Let them complain! This is their life, and, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done a fine job by just showing up.
Here’s a caveat, though. I also urge you to recognize that “our kids” is often a default setting for parents in conversation. If you sense that’s what’s going on, draw the discussion or activity to something centered on the adult: books, movies, politics, or religion or suggest an activity—a game of basketball or an adults-only Mario Kart tournament. Pick something that gets their blood pumping and their eyes sparkling.
03. Gifts Are Not Optional—Even If They Aren‘t Tangible
The Kids: I’m not a great gift-giver—at least I don’t think I am. My sisters are much more thoughtful and crafty, and they shop more than I do. However, that doesn’t stop me from spoiling the kids in my life with gifts of the experiential kind. When we’re home for the holidays, we’re up for anything. We build forts, go sledding and skiing, throw snow, ride bikes—whatever. I want to make the kinds of memories they’ll hold on to when they look back on their childhood when they’re 20.
The Parents: Memories apply here, too. Some of our favorites include snow tubing, cruising down a hill and screaming our heads off while making sure the little ones don’t get too much snow in their faces so that we can do it again. We also plan our share of shenanigans when the kids go to bed or when we can get out of the house as a group or without the children. Late-night snacks, tours of our favorite coffee shops, post-Christmas shopping, and building the biggest snowman ever are all creative gifts of quality time. I’m also partial to gifts of service. That may be babysitting so that the parents can have a date night. Or it could mean washing the dishes while your siblings put their kids to bed, checking off the work they usually do once everyone is sleeping. Little things can demonstrate that you’ve thought of them as an individual and not just a member of a family unit.
04. Pay Attention to Detail
The Kids: You don’t have to be a mom to have mom reflexes. It’s called love! Wipe a nose, or put on socks and shoes—help with the details that make going out a hassle when they don’t have you around. If you host families for a party or dinner, think about having toys, puzzles, or coloring books available so that children have something to do at the table or before the food is ready. Plan ahead to include food you know the kids will eat. You don’t have to plan a whole separate meal (some parents deliberately feed their kids the same food they’re eating). But it doesn’t hurt to include homemade mac and cheese as a side dish or pigs in a blanket as an appetizer, giving first helpings to the kids. When it comes to vegetables, keep in mind that it might not be the best time to introduce them to Brussels sprouts if all they’ve ever had is broccoli and carrots.
The Parents: While the kids are distracted, hand their parents a cocktail. My sister-in-law said all she wants for Christmas is someone to hold her baby so that she can eat meals while the food is hot. That’s so easy! Keep an eye out for small ways that you can help remove the stress and franticness of the holidays. If you’re hosting, kidproof your space as much as you can before they arrive, so the parents don’t have to panic that their little angels will destroy your home or stick their fingers into a socket. If you’re visiting, make yourself at home, if that suits your host. Don’t make them wait on you or give you permission to do things (within reason). And pay attention to the rules they’re teaching their kids, so they don’t have to confront you about letting the dog on the couch or watching your language.
05. Play Favorites
The Kids: Favorite outing, favorite book, favorite color, favorite food—aunts have a lot of favorites to memorize. But doesn’t it make them feel special when you remember that your 8-year-old niece prefers green to pink? Or that your teenage nephew is saving money for a car? Don’t swoop in like a stranger year after year. These kids are as unique as snowflakes, after all.
The Parents: For that matter, remember that your sister-in-law adores hot chocolate from that specific coffee shop or that your brother is planning a canoe trip and could use some high-powered bug spray. If you can manage to keep track of the new and old favorites, you’ll really be the best aunt this year. Don’t be afraid to ask others for help to “refresh” your memory, and write it down.
This isn’t a list to add to your life to make you more impressive. That’s not what celebrating the holidays is about in my family. Rather, it has provided opportunities to simply care for my close friends, siblings, and their kids. If you don’t have kids of your own, but you’re still surrounded by smiling faces and sticky fingers, be aware of the challenges and adventures to be navigated over the holidays. Everyone around you will appreciate the way you can fit in with kids or adults at a moment’s notice. If the greatest thing in life is to love and be loved, your effort will ensure a loving and unforgettable holiday.
Photo Credit: Manchik Photography