By Fern Horst
If I’d known how much fun grandchildren are, I would have had them first!” I recently heard a Christian broadcaster say. Yes, that would be nice, but it doesn’t work that way, I thought. But then I realized that it is indeed possible to have that kind of a relationship with a child without being a parent first, and I’ve been privileged to experience it with not just one child, but with eleven very special children!
The broadcaster was, of course, referring to the relationship a grandparent can have with a child that they couldn’t with their own children – one in which they can relate closely and enjoy all the delightful antics of a child, but without the responsibility of raising the child. A good grandparent/grandchild relationship is a fun one. While leaving the upbringing in the hands of the child’s capable parents, a grandparent can sit back and enjoy all the wonders of a child’s development and discovery and interact closely without having to discipline and train from day to day. I can certainly see why grandparents relish this stage of their lives.
I am neither a mother nor a grandmother, and yet I enjoy a similar relationship to my eleven nieces and nephews. As I’ve enjoyed the addition of each one, I’ve become aware of other single aunts and uncles (as well as childless couples), who enjoy a similar close relationship with their siblings’ children. One doesn’t need to have nieces and nephews to enjoy relating to children, but it does offer a natural opportunity to foster such a relationship.
Not long ago my thirteen-year-old nephew was sitting next to me at the table during a family get-together. He told me, “Fern, I’m glad you haven’t gotten married and had children, because if you had, we wouldn’t get to go out with you for our birthdays and things like that.”
He was referring to what has now become a much-anticipated annual event for each of my nieces and nephews. When my oldest niece turned three, I toted a set of toy dishes all wrapped up in pretty paper to her birthday party. One by one, she opened one set of dishes after another. It just so happened (or was it providential?) that my gift was the last one to open. Realizing that she already had more dishes than a three-year-old needed, I mentioned to her mother what I’d gotten her and we agreed that we’d just quietly remove my gift while she was distracted and I’d buy her something else.
A few days later I took her with me to shop for her present. On the way home from the store, we stopped at McDonald’s for an ice cream cone. Little did I know that a tradition was being born. When we returned to her house her older brother began talking about when I would take him out for his birthday. Now I take each one out to the restaurant of their choice, and then shopping for their present. Planning where to go is part of the fun, and having a set amount to spend puts a limit on the gift while giving them freedom to choose within that amount. As they get older, I also see them learning to choose wisely, based not just on what they want, but on whether the item is worth the amount on the price tag.
Although my oldest nephew is able to see the freedom I have as a childless aunt to do these sorts of things with them, my four-year-old niece was not quite so insightful. She informed me as we ate out together for her birthday that when she grows up she wants to be both a mother and an aunt, so she can take out her nieces and nephews for their birthdays. But, she wondered, who would take care of her children while she took out the birthday child? I grinned to myself. She hadn’t yet grasped the full picture her older cousin had – that having your own children leaves little time and energy to spend with other children.
When they were younger, sleepovers with bedtime tea parties around my coffee table created special memories. I happened upon a nice set of china cups and small plates at an estate auction for just a few dollars. The children helped me set a pretty tea table without me worrying about expensive dishes being broken. Surprisingly, though, not one was broken over the years. As we prepared for the tea party, they helped to choose which of my tea pots to use and set the table with the cups, plates, snack, pitcher of milk (to cool down the tea), and lemon drops (to make it sweet). After one tea party, my then four-year-old nephew told me, “That’s the most delicious tea party I ever had!”
I could tell you of other fun times together – taking three little girls on the busy Washington DC metro train; trips to the Smithsonian with my older nephews; posing together with all of them for pictures for my Christmas cards as Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, and angels; going camping together; the list of fun times together could go on and on.
My auntie memoirs sound like a lot of fun, and they are! But I trust they’re more than that. While the weight of the responsibility to raise them goes to their parents, I feel my own sense of responsibility as one who is close to them to influence their impressionistic minds and hearts with all that I can while I have the opportunity. I am so thankful that my siblings and their spouses are raising them to serve the Lord, and my desire is to supplement that training and serve as a role model.
I was both flattered and sobered when my niece, after her mother had answered a rather difficult question she’d had, told her mother she was going to ask me about that, too. It made me realize the role I often play in their lives, sometimes without realizing it. Her mother wisely understood that children will often go elsewhere for affirmation about what their parents teach them. I just need to be on my toes when they ask me questions, and stay close to their parents so that I can be an asset to their training, not a hindrance.
Even though my influence and role in their lives is an important one, the bottom line is that their parents are responsible for them, not me. I get to have fun with them and send them home for the difficult task of day-to-day training and discipline. I get to rock them during the day and go home and sleep through the night, while their parents deal with midnight feedings.
I have no doubt I would have enjoyed the blessings of being a parent had that been the Lord’s plan for my life. But I’ve been tremendously blessed by what He has given me, and the special role I can play in my nieces’ and nephews’ lives. Whether a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. I wouldn’t want to declare that one is better than the other. But I do plan to take full advantage of the special role God has given to me – that of being an aunt to eleven very special children!