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An Aunt’s Family Role

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: An Aunt’s Family Role

In many families, aunts and uncles often play critical roles in the lives of their nieces and nephews and their offspring. Dr. Gramma Karen tapped into her own family to get an accounting of the important roles these two “Favorite Aunties” play. Guest columnists Jan Logozzo (left) and Mary O’Connor share their perspectives.
two aunts wearing t-shirts that say "Favorite Aunties"
All photos courtesy Karen Rancourt.


Some of our favorite and most worn apparel is what we call our “Favorite Aunties” t-shirts. In a variety of colors, sometimes with silkscreened images of the latest niece or nephew to arrive, but always with the simple label of “Favorite Auntie” printed in bold black letters, they are in fact, very treasured possessions.

Having assumed the role of auntie for one nephew and five nieces, now all adults, plus another second-generation group comprising eight grand-nieces and nephews, the collection of shirts serves to remind us of the many activities and responsibilities that have earned us this designation.

back in the 1980s

young people

The Benefits of Being an Aunt

Being an “Auntie” versus a “Gramma,” a “Peps” or an “Oma,” may, of course, have its distinct advantages. Perhaps because as aunties our presence and involvement are more removed from the more daily living, up-close-and-personal responsibilities of the “grands,” our visits tend to be relatively less frequent and often center around inherently festive holidays as well as milestone happenings.

We recall, for example, the annual Christmas holidays when we would take young Jeannie and Kevin downtown to see the magical world of an elaborately decorated 11-story department store, giving them each some money to spend on gifts of their choice for their parents. Memories of these annual excursions are still brought up with fondness and laughs by all generations.

Our visits with the young nieces/nephews most often included a special “alone time with the aunties”—something most likely engineered by their parents to give them some much-needed parenting relief. Going “out on a date” might mean a trip to the bookstore or the ice cream shop. Other times, it could be cheering on budding ballplayers at Saturday baseball games, crabbing at low tide on the rocks by the jetty, or visits to the local apple cider mill, where we would spoil our charges (as well as ourselves!) with hot cider donuts.

But over the years we have seen that true and lasting bonds are built on far deeper connections than such niceties as cider donuts or ice cream cones.

The Role of an Aunt in a Family 

Our roles, quite simply, have always been to love them, to spoil them, to be there for them. To be there for them—it is this that we have found to be both helpful to our kids and gratifying for us as they build and shape their lives in this new and ever-changing world of new technologies, challenges, and world issues.

Ironically, beyond being there as an impartial ear and voice when someone inevitably found him or herself in a vexing situation, much of the business of being there for them has meant simply to be role models and mentors as we share both the knowledge and avocations that have shaped our own lives. Jan, for example, has used her skill with the camera to photographically record holidays and milestones in each child and family’s life.

Of course, her inevitable announcement that it is time to gather for family photos was generally met in younger ages with groans and contests of who could make the worst faces. However, each passing year has brought increased willingness to participate as the results were appreciated in holiday greeting cards and mantlepiece portraits. Now she no longer has to search for the best settings, as unprompted suggestions come from those being photographed.

More important, however, is the satisfaction that comes with observing and working with individual nieces or nephews as they find ways to develop their own version of similar pastimes or practices. Watching young Andrew polish his personal creativity through his own eye and the camera’s lens is particularly rewarding. Similarly, earlier in his creative growth, he found inspiration in the watercolor paintings and portraits that Mary often created, and he would ask to spend time drawing and painting with her in her studio.

The function of informal mentoring or guidance begins to take on more importance with each child as they reach their college and professional development years. Here, though, the word “informal” (or “wait until asked”) is key as we think of our roles as favorite aunties. Advice on resumes, job interviews, professional contacts, career choices, etc., are all potential topics of discussion and interest.

“…they’re watching out for us, offering to do needed household chores, giving us advice on the latest technology innovation, reminding us, in their own loving ways, “to look both ways before crossing the street!”

It is here, however, that we need to keep in mind how much the technologically oriented business world has changed, a reminder of how important it is for us in our roles as Favorite Aunties to also stay up with the times and not fall back on outdated “In my day…” advice.

Perhaps this is a good place to recognize an inevitable growing shift in the “favorite aunties/nephews/nieces” relationship—one where now we see, sneaking in, they’re watching out for us, offering to do needed household chores, giving us advice on the latest technology innovation, reminding us, in their own loving ways, “to look both ways before crossing the street!”

It’s nice to see that bond which began so many years ago has stuck like glue.

So, what does all this say? What does a good Favorite Auntie, or Gramma, a Peps, or an Oma want to be sure to do?

Love them. That goes without saying!

Spoil them. We like to think Favorite Aunties have special liberty to do so!

Be there for them. Inspiration and impartiality are key!

Stay up to date. Our kids’ world moves in a new and different pace!

Smile to ourselves when they tell us to look both ways before crossing the street!

Mary O’Connor is a blogger and author. Her most recent book, Passing Shadows, Images and Words of Inspiration, combines poignant three-line haiku poems with surprising photos as well as some of her watercolor paintings as reflective moments of calm.

Jan Logozzo, Passing Shadows Photography Contributor, is particularly known for her candid photos of her family members as well as unexpected images of birds and scenes of everyday life. Her work appears regularly on the Life Is Full of Sweet Spots blog.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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