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The place of relatives and friends in parenting

26 April
Posted by:
Michael Grose

Kids benefit from having a range of healthy adults in their lives. Also parents don’t parent well when they do so in isolation.

They, like kids, need to be supported.

In the past, children had almost daily contact with many other adults, including family members. Many had an alloparenting or direct child-rearing role. They benefitted from the input of a variety of people who had an interest in them.

Alloparenting has decreased dramatically with formal child care options being used. Interestingly, it still happens in developing countries today.

In developed countries like Australia parenting is now an individual endeavour where we take it on ourselves to raise our kids and will often push against efforts of others to be involved.

Distance place a part

The role of broader family in raising kids in Australia is made even harder due to the vast distances between family members. Many people raise their kids in different cities, even states to where they grew up, which makes it even harder for aunties, uncles and grandparents to have meaningful roles.

Is he my uncle?

Over the generations we’ve become less formal, even unsure about the relationships between adults and children. Kids rarely address their relatives as Uncle or Aunty, although the place of grandparents is still recognised with granddad, grandma still common as well as the use of a massive variety of endearing names such as poppy, pa etc.

The generation of parents after World War 2 referred to relatives as Uncle and Aunty, but for their close friends as well.

This was an indicator to children of the importance of these close adults in their lives. It was an also an indicator to the children’s relatives and close friends of the roles they were expected to play in the lives of their children. That is, that they were kin. Blood is thicker than water so there was an expectation that they would take an active, long-term interest in their nieces and nephews.

The elevation of friend to kin status by being referred to as Uncle or Aunty was perhaps the highest compliment you could pay your friend. The inference was that I trust you to look out for my children.

Have we lost something with our informality?

As a parent I didn’t insist that my children call their many aunties and uncles by their title. Neither did I defer to my children’s godparents in a formal way. Now that they are in their 20’s I doubt that they would even know who their godparents are.

If I had my time as a parent again I would change this. I would make sure that they called their relatives uncle, aunty, great uncle, etc. for two reasons. First, it would clearly identify to them that their relatives are special. The relationship to their kin is different to their relationship they have with other adults. Secondly, it would indicate and remind adults that as an uncle, aunty or great uncle that they have an obligation to take a long-term interest in their younger relatives. Now, not everyone will of course, but the use of those terms is a constant reminder of your role and the obligation that goes with it.

I’d also refer to some of my close friends as uncle and aunty as well, for the same reasons.

I would also more closely involve their godparents, by including them on children’s special birthdays and events, and insisting that children contact their godparents on occasions particularly if they had some good news or even school reports to share.

So, what role do other adults play?

Relatives and close friends can play the following roles in kids’ lives, depending on circumstances and kids’ ages:

1. Be the care-giver and baby-sitter who looks after children temporarily whether to give parents a break, or due to difficult circumstances.

2. Discipline kids when they are in their care. Parents need to stand back and allow this to happen.

3. Be included in special events such a birthday, religious milestones and special celebrations.

4. Look out for children’s well-being if family circumstances change such as parent illness or during family breakdown.

5. Be a ‘go-to person’ when kids have difficulties they feel they can’t discuss with their parents.

6. Mentor kids particularly when during adolescence when kids are less likely to listen to their parents.

Check out our new grandparents section at for more ideas about how the adults in kids' lives can make meaningful contributions.
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