In ’95 when my first nephew Shayne was born, I challenged myself to be the “World’s Greatest Uncle”… although I never actually got around to defining what that meant.
I was vehemently motivated by the fact that as a child, my parents would make me call all their friends “Uncle” and “Auntie” as part of our cultural code of respect for one’s elders, yet none of them would send me birthday gifts like my friends’ Uncles and Aunties. I felt like I was getting the shaft.
As Shayne grew, it became apparent that success was simply defined by recognition – not as the greatest anything, but being someone he could look up to and confide in.
Since Shayne, my role as “Uncle Carl” has been expanded by the arrival of Xavier, Sahara, Taylor, Marcus and TJ. With the six of them being spread over three states, I’ve had to be more strategic in my quest for Uncle supremacy…
Birthdays: When I’m able to send gifts I try not to send ones that I think are more parent-friendly, like clothes (I know technically it’s for the child, but what toddler really cares what her or his outfit looks like?). Selfishly, I try to give them things that they’ll most likely keep with them and that I can refer to whenever I communicate with them. A couple birthdays ago I gave my niece Sahara a doll which she named Yvonne. Whenever I spoke to her I would ask her how Yvonne was doing and what activities she had done with Yvonne – sadly after a 12-month run, Yvonne has been replaced by a toy train.
Holidays: My wife and I have committed to alternating the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays between Atlanta and Maryland. This means that at the very least I am surrounded by all my nieces and nephews once a year. I try and make sure this time is filled with lots of hugs, kisses and face-time. At the end of a holiday my arms are usually sore from carrying the kids around, although most of them can walk just fine. I like to believe that there’s some kinetic transfer of energy that occurs when I hold them that will help them remember who I am.
Phone Calls: Every once in a while I just pick up the phone and call the kids. This is almost always a strange exchange as most of the kids just babble and string together random words and thoughts. I try not to interrupt, rather interject strategically to keep them going with things like “…and what did you think about that?” and “Then what happened?” The idea is to keep them talking as much as possible and hopefully come out at the other end with stories that I can refer to later to help build our relationship.
Business Trips: Lucky for me, one of our largest customers is headquarted near NYC so whenever we’re up there for a meeting, I try and stay with my brother so I can have face-time with Xavier and Sahara. And I always make it a point to spoil them during the 24-48 hrs. that I have with them. Fortunately, “spoiling” doesn’t mean buying them stuff, my favorite tactic is to allow them to stay up late. That way, I become the cool Uncle that lets them stay up when Daddy won’t – take that little bro!
My wife and I spent last Christmas in Maryland with my family and I could not help but recognize the disparity in energy I felt from the kids I had spent a lot of time around compared to the kids I had only seen a few times. It was like they had seen me somewhere before but couldn’t quite figure out who I was. A severe sadness came over me at the thought that I would just be a distant Uncle to these kids and not “Uncle Carl” – a familiar face. Nevertheless, I know there will be many more opportunities to lay the foundation for a lasting relationship and I plan to make the most of each and every moment – I love you guys.
What techniques allow you to remain an integral part of your nieces’ and nephews’ lives when you’re hundreds of miles away?