The Diplomacy of Being an Aunt

By Kim J. Gifford

This is the prevailing notion: being an aunt is all sunshine and lollipops. Like grandpa and grandma, you get to spoil, have all the fun, then send the kids home to Mom and Dad at day’s end. I’m here to dispel this notion — or at least offer some perspective. Being an aunt may have its moments of sunshine and a good share of sticky lollipops, but it is also a lot of hard work.

Being an aunt requires a certain level of education and the initiative to keep apprised of popular culture, an ongoing task! We are responsible, after all, for knowing the lyrics to the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, the plots of everything from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, the right answer to who is the hottest member of music group One Direction, and at what age Justin Bieber stops being cool. While parents can receive the proverbial eye roll and maintain their status, this is the kiss of death to an aunt who must appear “in the know” at all times.

Interestingly, education, initiative and strong interpersonal skills are all characteristics prized in Foreign Service. Look at it this way: if Mom and Dad are akin to the President, responsible for laying down policy and overseeing the way a family runs, then aunts are the great ambassadors, skilled in diplomacy and maintaining the delicate balance between a child’s happiness and the rules her parents establish for her well-being. It takes a great deal of energy to pull this off in such a way that the child continues to think you are cool and the parents an acceptable influence. It’s not easy. Your degree of success often depends not only on your own highly honed skills, but also on whether the parents behave as dictators or a friendly nation.

Consider the Ultimate Cheerio Test. A few weeks ago, I was visiting my 20-month-old niece, Ellie. She knows me well, calls me by my nickname “Auntie Bee,” and trusts me to make decisions just like her parents, sometimes, instead of them. Such was the case that evening. We were playing on the floor before dinner, climbing in and out of a makeshift tent, when she reached for a box of Cheerios on the shelf. “Open Mommy?”

Her Mom caught it mid-air, saying, “No, Ellie. We are going to have dinner soon.”

Not to be deterred, Ellie waited until her Mom’s back was turned, reached for the Cheerio box again, handed it to me, and, with pleading brown eyes and quivering lip, asked me, “Open Bee?” Her Mom spun around and suddenly there were two sets of eyes staring expectantly. What to do? Negotiate as any good ambassador would. “Okay, Ellie, you can have two, but only two, because Mommy is making you a yummy dinner.” Ellie’s crocodile tears dried up before dropping and Mommy nodded approval. Disaster averted!

Negotiation doesn’t always work. Sometimes in order to avert an all-out nuclear war with the parents you have to come clean. A few years ago I snuck my then-9-year-old nephew Raine, high on sugar, home like a drunk in the night. I gave him $10 for a candy bar, expecting change, and he bought three bags of candy, eating half of the first before leaving the store. Unable to hide his ceaseless giggles and the fact that he was literally bouncing off the walls, I confessed to his sugar-conscious, vegetable-pushing Mama that he had devoured a bag of Peppermint Patties. I gladly suffered the stern look of disapproval, winked at Raine when her head was turned, and allowed him to sneak up the stairs with his remaining two bags of ill-gotten gains. Sometimes the only way to maintain your reputation with both parties is to be surreptitious. Aunts have the advantage with parents anyway. They’ll forgive you the next time they need a babysitter.

Kim J. Gifford lives in Bethel, Vt., where she is known as “Auntie Bee” to Christian, Adam, Raine, Catherine, Avery, Tori, Ellie, Cameron, Keagan, Hailey and Kaleigh. A writer, teacher and photographer, her favorite job is being an aunt.

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