There is a lot of upside to being an uncle.
Written by author George Vaillant, Ageing Well, as the title suggests, explores the process of getting older with dignity, health and happiness.
Drawing upon an extensive Harvard study that examined the lives of 800 or so individuals over a 50-year span, the book attempts to unlock the secrets to ensuring a good and meaningful life into the twilight years.
One of the questions Vaillant asks those who participated in the study is, “What have you learned from your children?”
Some people don’t get it, thinking the question should be phrased around the other way.
Vaillant was writing about adults learning from their grown up children, but in applying the theory to my two-year-old niece Billee, I can see where he’s coming from.
Billee is usually in a good mood, and loves to laugh.
She’s very curious, with almost everything in her life an adventure.
In two years she’s learned the rudiments of a language, and is constantly improving her vocabulary.
“Bye Baz,” she said to her grandad recently. “See you tomorrow.” It was the first time she’d strung so many words together in a sentence.
That’s one of the remarkable things about Billee: every time you see her she’s grown and changed from the time before. Literally of course, she’s adding kilos and centimetres at an astonishing rate.
Indeed, in the first few months of her life all Billee seemed to be doing was eating (well, you know, absorbing sustenance), sleeping and soiling nappies. All her energy, it appeared, was dedicated to growing physically and intellectually.
Then at about the four or five-month mark it all started to happen. Suddenly here was a little person, who had her own personality and foibles. Well, with visits separated by one or two-week intervals, it certainly seemed a very sudden change.
When, at about nine months Billee started walking, there was no stopping her. There was so much to discover.
No wonder little kids take naps so often.
There’s all that activity to recover from; all that roving, playing, and mental inventory taking must really exact a toll.
Billee doesn’t have regrets, or rue lost opportunities, or fret about the future. All her energy is focused on getting the most out of the present moment, or the fun things tomorrow might bring.
She likes to sing and dance – in public or private, it doesn’t really matter. She’s not self-conscious and hasn’t learned to be embarrassed. Haven’t got the lyrics quite right? No worries.
Making friends is easy for Billee, and she’s fond of public displays of affection for those she’s closest to.
Billee is very change-ready. Sure, she has her routines, her rituals and favourite things, but she also readily learns and takes on new skills and adjusts to changing circumstances.
Past failures don’t faze her or hold her back. It’s as though she’s forgotten them completely!
There’s a regular flow of fresh stuff to be learned about, played with, observed, or admittedly in some instances, destroyed.
She’s in touch with her playful inner child.
Now I’m aware that I’m taking somewhat of an idealistic approach here. I usually see my niece when she’s at her best, and I’m not required to discipline her, deal with her teething, or change nappies.
Young parents would also no doubt say that the average two-year-old has plenty to teach about throwing a tantrum, staying awake when they should be asleep, or wandering into places they shouldn’t.
As an uncle, it’s all upside. There’s play and hugs, maybe a little book reading, and then you get to say goodbye and take a breather.
It’s hardly her fault, but Billee has also stoked my competitive avuncular instincts.
When I see a toddler these days, I can’t help but think my niece is cuter, bigger, more advanced, healthier, smarter, happier or just an all round better little kid.
Yet such trifling and petty things matter little to Billee, she’s got so much else going on.
There’s playgroup, swimming lessons, dolls, handbags (she LOVES handbags), vegemite (MITE!), mini maestros, the backyard and beyond.
Little brother Ned, for instance, is a whole new source of amusement, potential play companion and partner in crime.
But he’s another story.
I originally wrote this piece 12 years ago. It’s hard to account for time passing so quickly. Billee and Ned are now both in high school, and are turning into delightful young adults.