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7 Things Uncles (and Aunts) Can Teach Empty Nesters

Tips on accepting the new normal and enjoying it

By Robert DiGiacomo

As someone with four nephews and a niece but no children of my own, I’ve learned when to say uncle.

empty nesters
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From my spot on the sidelines of parenting, I’ve been able to opt in on their lives on a regular basis. I’ve changed their diapers, taken them Trick-Or-Treating, sat through the joyful noise of their school concerts, hosted sleepovers and visited the oldest ones at college.

Together with my husband, we have carved a niche as the fun uncles who are on call to help on an as-needed basis. We’re always up for playing board games, going out for ice cream and riding a roller coaster, while acting as trusted advisers who are available to listen in confidence and weigh in — when asked.

Lessons From Interacting With the Younger Generation

As my friends and family members who are parents see their own nests empty, I sense some confusion about how to act. They’re still very much the Moms and Dads, but their roles have shifted. Ready or not, they are moving to a new, less structured stage of the parent-child relationship and one that can be tricky to navigate.

Here are seven things I’ve learned from interacting with the younger generation:

1. Accept your role: You can be your adult child’s confidante, provided you acknowledge that lines will (and should be) drawn. It’s probably better for everyone’s sake, for example, if you’re not privy to certain details of their dating lives. To keep their trust, you will need to respect their decision-making and accept that they will make their own mistakes.

2. You're not in charge anymore: As an uncle, even while entrusted with kids for an overnight stay, you're never really the boss — there's always a higher power: the parents. With your adult kids, they now call their own shots, and it’s important to accept their choices, especially when you don’t agree with them. Don’t worry — when the check comes for dinner, you will no doubt be able exercise your full parental authority!


3. It's about quality time: You're probably not going to see the kids as often as you would like, so when you do, remember to savor the time and not get caught up in the small stuff. You may be tempted to ask about their finances or whether they ever thanked Aunt Betty for the birthday gift. Save those thoughts for an email or phone call, if you really need to go there at all.

4. They may not be as into you as you would like: You will probably have to do more of the work in terms of keeping in touch, whether it's by text, email or even an actual phone call. Be stealth when you troll their Facebook and Instagram for info, which you will; but desperate isn’t becoming at any age. Think back to the whirlwind days of your early 20s, and you'll remember why calling Mom or Dad isn't always a priority.

5. Set your own limits: One of the benefits of being childfree is that you don't always have to make yourself available for kid time. Except for an emergency, you now have some say over your schedule. Don't skip the theater, book club or happy hour with your friends just because the kids have a last-minute opening.

6. Lighten up…within reason: It’s probably not the best idea to schedule a “Girls' Road Trip” or “Hangover”-style weekend with your adult child. But now that you're (hopefully) not supporting them anymore, you can enjoy their company through shared or new interests, whether it's wine-tasting, surfing lessons or a foodie getaway.

7. Share your stories: Maybe you have been reluctant to tell your own tales about a failed college class, speeding ticket or getting fired from your first job. In this phase, however, it could open up new dimensions in your relationship with your children if you feel comfortable sharing your vulnerabilities. At the very least, it will liven up the dinner table at the next holiday gathering.

Robert DiGiacomo is a veteran Philadelphia, Pa.-based journalist who covers food and travel, arts and entertainment and personal finance. He has written for The Washington Post, USA TODAY,  The Penn Gazette and Fodor's. Read More
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