The uncle's guide to parenting

There are some things your kids can only learn from their favourite uncle; you know, your brother who never grew up and still knows how to push your buttons

“Uncle Rob? that’s not really you! And no… Dad! Is that our dad?” Saucer-eyed, my 14-year-old nephew, Matt, gapes at a series of fading ’70s-era Polaroids. “Gaaad, you were, like, hippies or something,” laughs his 16-year-old brother, James. Emma, 12, ever the one for a dry, spare opinion, is on point: “Weirdos.”

My brother Ted has some ’splaining to do to his offspring about these images of his slack-jawed teenage self, his Afro a frizzing, armpit-length teepee. Today a steely-eyed, buttoned-up and highly respected neurosurgeon, he hems and haws about “the style of the times” before collapsing into a befuddled silence. OK, well, never mind, Dad. The kids know only too well they can count on Uncle Rob to bring some juicy insight to these pics. Ted looks on, gritting his teeth, as I confirm what his children already suspect: Some members of our generation inhaled…a lot.

The job of “uncling” can be a ticklish business. And particularly for the childless uncle, like myself. To the casual observer, the uncle is perhaps no more than a simple amusement. But the kids know better. They sense something in us that few parents understand. We’re still allowed to be the very same brats of decades past — irresponsibly well-slept, far less accountable than our careworn siblings (the parents), uncensored, free. Kids like that, trust it and — hey, dude — can relate. My uncling style relies on what I hope is a good dollop of common sense — and absolutely zero hands-on knowledge of child rearing, guidance and discipline.

So Ted’s children turn to me for a frankness they know they can’t get from their parents. That said, I have to know my nephews and nieces very well to judge how much is appropriate to reveal. Ironically, I actually have to be one of the more responsible adults in our clan.

Luckily, I do not have to be particularly circumspect with Ted’s kids as they question these pictures of “Dad: The Early Years.” I explain to them that Ted was more the faux-hipster and laze-about, leaving the truly self-destructive behaviour to his younger brothers (which explains how he retained the requisite brain cells for such touchy work as messing with the innards of his patients’ skulls). Disappointed, his boys accept my truth as they would not their parents’. Uncle Rob has nothing to lose …except their trust, which he values above all. (No matter for Emma: We’re still weirdos.)

The uncling dynamic

The uncling dynamic requires more than truth telling, however. If an uncle is to have any lasting influence on these children, he can’t be just another boring adult.

For that reason, my uncling modus operandi has evolved into feigning confusion or balking at the rules and constraints laid down by my parenting siblings. My namesake, Robbie, has got himself one serious sweet tooth. Hence, his parents have severely restricted his access to candy. To my mind, this strategy has only created a five-year-old now irretrievably obsessed with all things sugary. So, naturally, Uncle Rob thought it a good idea to test the boy’s limits with a little aversion therapy.

On one recent babysitting duty, Robbie and older sister Liz accompanied me on a field trip to the local candy store, where we gleefully purchased and consumed several pounds of candies, chocolates and ersatz fluorescent puddings — all washed down with a queasy-looking purple-green pop. Interestingly, the kids were soon bouncing off the walls like SuperBalls. And putting them down for the night was impossible. By dawn, they were in full projectile barf. Hmm. Now, I admit I got in real trouble for that one, but feel that Robbie’s sweet tooth has since been somewhat tempered.

There’s one line I won’t cross, and that’s the terrifying responsibility of surrogate parent. Trusted mentor, fine. Anarchic co-conspirator and sidewise interpreter of the world, a pleasure. Parent, no.

My few tentative steps at shouldering in to take uncly charge have come off poorly. In one case, I attempted to counsel an unnamed nephew on the best way to respond to verbal abuse from a teacher from hell. (The 13-year-old felt he might come off too whiny if he were to approach his dad about the problem. Uncle Rob seemed a safer bet.) After testing the veracity of his claim with a schoolmate, I offered what I thought was good advice. I recommended grovelling deference, yet a rational and firm response when it came to the teacher’s humiliating browbeatings.

My advice backfired. My nephew’s thuggish teacher — a classic schoolyard bully — was outraged at any defence (particularly a reasoned and well-articulated one). His indignation went from principal to father and mother, before it all came down hard on Uncle Rob. Obviously, I should have confided in my brother, who would have taken appropriate steps at the school. Problem was, I being the trusted uncle, in a position as fellow dude, all would have been shattered had I betrayed the boy’s trust.

Hero-worship

All of my nephews and nieces are now far-flung — Italy, Colorado, Manhattan, California. In my case, though, these distances have made our relationships that much more enriching. My sister Ruth’s kids, Charlotte and Teddie, have been raised under the Tuscan sun in a small town outside Siena, Italy, and for them, trips to Canada and encounters with strange English-speaking uncles are really quite the ticket.

Early on, Teddie (now 11) determined that I could do no wrong. Of course his hero-worship was tested by the language barrier that had us communicating mostly by intense eye contact and arm-flapping mime. (“How you not speak right?” he asked me more than once.) But it was last summer that he received final confirmation that “uncle” was not synonymous with absolute perfection. On a family trip to Toronto’s CN Tower, Teddie was over the moon to go up and try to stamp a hole in the glass floor of the observation deck. But Uncle Rob — scared of heights — refused the dare. Teddie, a kid from a town where humans were sensible enough to build no higher than they could throw an olive, was nonplussed. “Uncle Rob afraid?” he asked his mom in amazement. “Uncle Rob is afraid of lots of things,” said my sister dryly. The boy was at first saucer-eyed in confusion. But soon he was both forgiving and, I like to think, empowered. “I still love you much,” he assured, taking my sweaty hand.

Uncles who duck the chance to be a part of the lives of their nieces and nephews are really missing something. For it is the kids who provide a unique insight into what my brothers and sister and Uncle Rob once were — kids. These children have allowed me to still look upon Ted, for example, as my principal playmate — the teen who could so infuriate me, I once tried to punch him through a plate-glass window.

This is a story his boys identify with fully, and a favourite in family annals. My scarred right hand is some proof, but not enough. “Did you get him, glass in your hand and all?” they ask eagerly. “You guys are just weird,” says Emma as she tries to imagine her father as something other than the sober and responsible parent. Here, her uncle is bearing witness to a person so entirely different: a confused, sometimes absurd teen — someone much like what these kids encounter each morning in the mirror. They hang on my every word.