How to be a good uncle

Last updated 12:00 14/04/2014

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I became an uncle when my sister gave birth to her first child, Harry, in December 2010.

Being the youngest child in my own family, I didn't have any direct experience with babies or younger siblings to prepare me for this moment.

I was the youngest grandchild on my father's side of the family, and in the middle of my mother's side, however would not see my cousins often enough for me to understand what babies needed or how to hold them. Don't get me wrong, I had at least seen babies on TV or in public before and therefore understood their basic needs, but just didn't feel comfortable around them.

When it came to me holding Harry, I froze, panicked and gave "it" (what I used to call him) back to my mum or sister. I wasn't young, I was oblivious.

I pondered, what does an uncle do?

How can I be a great uncle like the ones you see on TV where the nephew or niece adores them, and considers them one of their favourite people in the universe, like Uncle Joey or Uncle Jessie on one of the most irksome (yet secretly we all love) TV shows of the 90s, Full House?

I slowly, painfully worked it out and am now very comfortable around Harry. So I decided to share what I have learned, and what I am still learning:

5. Recognise events

No matter how big or small, it is important to recognise, if not attend where possible, your nephew or niece's birthday, first day of pre-school, first day of school, first holy communion and make sure to make them feel proud on their achievements as well - first poo in the toilet, first joke, when they read their first book, etc. Every little moment counts to them, their parents, and should to you too.

4. Presents

It was easy for me to think that when Harry was just a baby, did he even care what I bought him for Christmas, or his birthday? Of course not. I could have bought him a bouncy ball from the $2 shop and pulled faces at him holding it to my face whilst telling my sister "He loves it, look. Oh I'm so glad he loves the ball. I knew he would!" The point here is, not necessarily buying them something expensive, but buying something to show you care, that you have put the effort in. If your nephew/niece doesn't appreciate it, their parents will.

I find buying presents for my nephews great fun and like to put some thought into it. Knowing you are going to make that wee face smile and laugh and be the happiest little child in the world for that very instant is euphoric. Spoiling them with large gifts can be expensive, but if you can afford it, it is worth it.

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And then the icing on the cake is buying a present from overseas, or a different part of the country. Shortly after Harry was born, I moved to London, but came back for a visit when he was turning two. With me I brought a giant Mickey Mouse dressed in a traditional Beefeaters costume and some London Transport models (Red bus, taxi, Underground train). He loved them all, and when I went back to London my sister informed me that whenever Harry saw a bus, he pointed and called out "Uncle Jemmy!" I remember when I was only five-years-old and my godparents brought a toy moose back from Canada. I treasured it for years, knowing it was foreign and rare, and therefore very special.

3. Making a fuss

Saying a big hello and a big goodbye always makes them feel special. It subconsciously says to them that you have missed them, will miss them, and care for them. Have a special goodbye or hello that only you do with them. Harry has learnt how to say 'au revoir' and from the front porch of my sister's house as I climb into the car I can see him waving his entire arm from side to side and yelling 'au revoir' - adorable from a three-year-old.

2. Spend time with them

They will want you to play games with them constantly which can be fun for the first 30 minutes, but after two hours of listening to the different ways Lightning McQueen can change his oil or even 10 minutes of Crazy Frog, it can become incredibly tiring. In order to avoid pulling your hair out at some of the noxious children's songs or fads currently out there, try to change the game every 10 minutes or so. "Lets go play outside" followed with "Yay" is a lifesaver when B.I.N.G.O. is nearing its fifth repeat.

Let them play with your things (keys, phone, wallet) - they will find it interesting and will help build trust in you, as they get to know you better and learn you are open and trusting with them.

1. Teach them things

As a role model for them, it is your job to help set an example on how to behave but also to teach them the ways of the world. Your nephew or niece will probably learn all the basics from their mum and dad, so it's up to you to teach them things their parents wouldn't - silly jokes, party tricks, dance moves, all those things that will not only give them joy, but give them something to share as they go to school and socialise with friends. All those things you learnt as a kid ("Oh, got your nose", the thumb extension trick, and so on) are all things you probably learnt from your uncle or aunt or your parents' friend.

My mum and I (AKA Uncle Jemmy and Gran) were babysitting one day and sensing Harry was getting bored and frustrated with the book we were reading.

So, I pulled out my iPhone and played some songs for him. Daft Punk - Get Lucky was played and all three of us jumped up and had a midday dance party, teaching him how to dance to dance music. It was electric fun and now I feel like I've contributed something to him. WARNING - three-year-olds not only know how to use iPhones, but applications as well. He opened YouTube and demanded I type in Crazy Frog.

Following the above is an assured way to win over your little nephew or niece and although your words, actions, gifts, emotions are all obviously important to the special someone in question, they are, if not more so, important to the parents too. Your sibling will want you to care for and love their child like they do. All these moments that their child goes through are meaningful and significant to them, and it is important to recognise this.

Essentially on my journey I have discovered that as much as you put into your relationship with your nephew or niece, the more you will get back from it. A little bit of energy and careful thought can establish a relationship that will live forever in the little one's mind, and it's up to you whether it's bad, average, good, great, or tremendous.

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