08 January, 2016

Our relationships with other people's children

I have a blogging friend who is a fantastic teacher. I wish I'd had a teacher like her. Her students adore her, know that she listens to them and that she sees them, truly and deeply. She acknowledges their existence and treasures their uniqueness. For some of them, this is the first time they actually feel heard, feel really understood, by an adult. Their parents see them primarily as their children, not always as real, unique, human beings. Other teachers might ignore them or let them just slip by.
My friend commented that, in general, “adults don't get to know children, beyond their own children.” You can read her entire post here. It's worth it.

I have addressed this idea previously when I wrote about my relationships with my own aunts, and now with my nieces, in my post on the joy of being an aunt when you don’t have children of your own. I never had an individual, one-on-one relationship with an aunt, though as an adult, when I first moved to this city, I got to know the aunt-from-another-planet more as an individual, and I think she got to know me more too. If only she'd been around when I was younger, she could have been a great mentor. I think I needed one. 

As I've contemplated life as an aunt (in the family, or as an honorary aunt), and a never-to-be mother, and as my relationships with my nieces have grown, I've realised that this relationship is unfortunately not the norm. To have these relationships, parents need to see that there is value in it for their children. I don't always see that, and I don't want to "push in." Perhaps part of society's emphasis on the nuclear family, or the societal isolation of people without children, I find that parents can be quite possessive about their children, holding them too close, and not inviting others in. I can think of several motivations for this, but the outcome, I think, is sad for everyone.  Parents miss out on a wider support network. Children miss out on learning and growing in different ways. We miss out on sharing our experiences and love. The reality is that children have enough love for everyone. They're not going to love their parents less, simply because they love their aunts or uncles. They're going to be happy and open, and their world will expand.

So I feel rather sorry for those children who don't or have never had an aunt (or uncle) who understood them, who could mentor them, who might see the world differently than their parents, or have different experiences that she (he) could share with them. I feel sad that I can't have that relationship with more children/young people, as so many of my nieces and nephews grow up overseas. I think of friends who don't have the chance to have this relationship at all. Not all of us can. Many people will tritely say that we should surround ourselves with children, but it's not always that easy.

I feel sorry too, for the mothers who miss out on playing that role, but simply don't have the time or energy to give. A comment on my previous post noted, " Now I have my own child, I really miss my special time with my nieces and nephews."

I think too, that the relationship is a special one, because mostly, it's a role of love and joy and connection, rather than of duty, responsibility, or stress. 

I have wondered too, if in extolling the virtues of fabulous aunties, I'm just trying to boost myself, to make myself feel better about not being a mother. So I was really glad to see that my friend expressed similar thoughts to mine about adults interacting with young people - or not. Perhaps particularly, I felt pleased to see my view validated by a teacher, someone who is experienced in working with children and their parents.

(Perhaps a little sadly too, the fact that she is also a mother probably contributed to my feelings of validation. It does make me feel a little sad that, in our society today, I feel this need for validation, that I feel exposed by suggesting that an adult without kids might have a different but still close, in ways more intimate, relationship with specific children. It’s true, though - I do feel vulnerable. I choose carefully what I say about children, when I am around adults who are parents, and I choose carefully whether I even make a comment, depending on who I am with. I choose very carefully my words and phrasing, feeling so open to criticism, waiting for the hurtful comments. Yet – as I’ve written elsewhere – shouldn’t my comments be just as valid as those of any other person?)

Back to my point (and my friend’s point). Adults don’t tend to get to know children other than their own. And even then, some of them don’t really get to know their own.

My friend added,
“Can't I approach someone, some underage someone, with love and respect simply because of our shared humanity? Perhaps even more so, because we are called to protect the vulnerable.”
She didn’t say, “as a mother …” and I love her for that. She is wiser than that. I wish everyone was. She emphasised simply our shared humanity. So often, this is forgotten.

But I digress again - apologies! In our relationships with people of younger generations, perhaps as an aunt or uncle (by blood or marriage, or through friendship as an honorary aunt/uncle), I think that we are privileged to be able to hear their thoughts or dreams, their hurts and their hopes. No, it is not the same as having my own, but that's exactly the point. It's different. And it's not all about me. It's about them. If I can give them something they don't get in their relationships with other adults, then that is a privilege.

I feel very grateful to have these relationships, even if I see these special people only once a year (if that often). I’m learning, too, to feel grateful for playing a part in their lives, at a time when they need it. I'm learning not to feel hurt if our relationship alters as they grow and change and become more independent, establishing their own support networks, spreading their wings, hopefully with a little bit more wisdom or self-belief or courage as a result of my relationship with them. 

I see them. I saw them. I see them still even though they may no longer need me as much. In turn, they have seen me, too. And that really is a gift.


  1. Interesting thoughts Mali, in my experience those of us without children have a really close relationship with our siblings, nephews & nieces or they are the hardest to get on with. I'm an only child & I envy one friend in particular who has been a very close aunty for many years.
    My husband's sister has 2 boys & could use a male role model but our relationship isn't like that so my husband misses out too.
    As you say it is a gift.

  2. I have a post brewing about the relationship my landlady is developing with the Beats that touches on all of this. I'll send you the link soon.

    But for now, I absolutely agree with you and Sally. There's still this divide between children and adults, stemming from a period where children were considered property. Hence there's a reluctance to get to close as it is both seem as creepy and as infringing. Which is terrible as there are SO many young people who are starved for any emotional connection.

    Great and thoughtful post, Mali.

    1. I hadn't considered that as a reason for the divide. It makes sense. Takes a long time to let those traditions fall away.

  3. So wonderfully stated. Thank you!

  4. I'm totally with you on the need for aunts and uncles, and really, other adults in a child's life beyond the parents. My kids get to enjoy a lot of relationships like that, and I think it enriches their lives. And I enjoy being that person to a lot of other people's kids.

    But there is a huge cultural assumption (meaning, that the culture of the majority must be the way things are done everywhere) in this statement:

    My friend commented that, in general, “adults don't get to know children, beyond their own children.”

    In my culture, it couldn't be farther from the truth -- kids don't even live with their parents on kibbutz, they live together with the other children and there is a group mentality of raising kids. The point is that within my cultural group, I wouldn't think twice about interacting and getting to know another person's kid, hence why we always seem to have someone else's child in our house joining us for activities or meals. My kids refer to these kids as fictive kin, and call the parents "aunt" or "uncle." And that is beyond the fluidity that exists within my extended family. Outside of my cultural group, when I'm interacting with other cultures, I am much more aware of my perception of that line -- whether it really exists for insiders or not.

    Still, I can't believe we're the only culture that blurs that family line, where the "it takes a village" mentality really has the village stepping in and shaping the lives of the next generation. Based on reading and discussions with other people, I'm going to assume that there are many other family-fluid cultures. So I think it needs to be qualified.

  5. Found a great article on Israeli parenting: http://forward.com/sisterhood/174940/a-better-kind-of-parenting-israeli-style/. And I would guess a lot of other cultures would read that and say, "oh, that's how it is over here, too."

    1. As usual, you have made me think. The first thing you've made me think about is that I wonder if the US is different from NZ? In New Zealand, or certainly within my family and peer group, I don't think NZers worry too much about disciplining someone else's child, or are too upset if someone else disciplined our children - within reason. It's common for children to spend a lot of time in other people's homes. I assumed that would largely be the case in the US, but your comments and the article imply that it might not. Of course, I've written from the perspective of a New Zealander, but took my inspiration from the blog of an American. Globalisation!

      You're right of course about other cultures. In NZ, the Maori culture (and those of the Pacific Islands too) is very much one of an inclusive extended family, the marae, the tribe. The "whanau" aspect of their culture has increasingly become part of NZ culture, and I think that's a good thing. (Incidentally, I understand that this is one of the reasons adoption in NZ is now so rare.) I have become part of a Malaysian Chinese family in Malaysia (two of my sisters-in-law are from the same family), and over the last 30+ years have observed them as children have been raised and had their own children. They also very much follow the extended family "it takes a village" principle. Much the same in Thailand too. And perhaps it reminds me too of my childhood in New Zealand in the 60s and 70s. I wonder if the need for the "it takes a village" idea - once so common in all our cultures - has stemmed from the fact we are now highly mobile, moving away from the traditional extended family groupings and having to find their "village" in a different context (eg. in Sally's street, or in your house).

      What I have observed in these cultures, and my own, is that the parenting is often shared, and children might be as comfortable in a friend's or cousin's home as they are in their own. But the focus of the relationships between the adults and children is still one of raising children, of parenting.

      Whereas I guess what I'm talking about is a slightly different type of relationship. A relationship that isn't parenting, but perhaps more of a close confidante and mentor. Very much a one-on-one relationship, getting to know the children as an individual, in a different way from a parent, without the expectations of a parent. In my experience at least, I don't see that a lot. In fact, the examples I can think of just now are only of other childless women and their nieces.

      Which makes me think too - Poor nephews. I wonder if they miss out?

  6. On my own block, there are 7 or 8 families with children the same age. We are similar enough in child-rearing philosophies that it is nothing to discipline another person's child (verbally I mean, correct behavior) or have kids in your house that don't belong to you. There are, in fact, two childless older couples who are our block grandparents. The relationships are pretty deep. But when I talk about it with other people, I can tell this is a rare situation. I wish that it were not.

  7. dear Mali,
    I have to first comment your flag counter. I have noticed the Slovenian flag there for the first time. Lovely!

    I read Sally's post. I wish I had a teacher like that.

    I enjoyed reading your post. So very true. I loved your sentence: "They're not going to love their parents less, simply because they love their aunts or uncles." Exactly this is the thing that my sister-in-law doesn't understand.
    I recently blogged about it: http://thenext15000days.blogspot.si/2015/12/who-won.html

    wishing you a lovely weekend.

  8. I think your friend is right, and so are you. I agree that families have become a lot more insular these days. I'm not sure why that is -- because many people live further from their families and they don't trust "outsiders" with their precious children? because they're too busy to expand their relationships outside their immediate circle? But it's their loss, and (most importantly) the children's. They are missing out on some potentially enriching and maybe even life-changing relationships.

  9. I was going to comment here, but ended up doing a blog post instead, cos it was always going to get superlong