Family Matters

4 Ways Uncles Make Life Better For Children And Parents

Uncles are a lot more than just the brothers of moms and dads.

Originally Published: 
An uncle helping his nephew up a slide.
Willie B. Thomas/Getty

Uncles aren’t just the relief pitchers of fatherhood. These big and little brothers fall under the scientific umbrella of “alloparents,” or caregivers to kids who are not direct offspring. Like grandmothers, grandfathers, and involved neighbors, researchers suspect these helpers play a unique role that goes far beyond spoiling their nieces and nephews and helping them make bail. What are uncles good for? A lot as it turns out.

Uncles (Especially Gay Uncles) Protect the Family Genes

Scientists seeking to explain the genetics of homosexuality through natural selection suspect that gay people evolved in part to help care for their siblings’ children, or to be uncles. The kin selection theory, first developed in the 1970s, suggests that despite not having offspring of their own, gay uncles (guncles!) pass on their genes by investing in the fitness of their nieces and nephews, who share about a quarter of their genetic code.

Still, the evidence for this was primarily based on limited research in Samoa, and follow-up studies in Western cultures have not demonstrated that straight uncles are any less invested in their siblings’ kids. And, as more homosexual couples adopt and have their own biological have children, the hypothesis hasn’t exactly aged well. Still, it’s worth bringing up because genetic stewardship is part of any good uncle’s job.

Uncles Make Up For Not Having Cousins

Uncles have closer relationships with their nieces and nephews when they do not have children of their own, research shows, and the same goes for aunts. Still, that doesn’t mean that they’re doing this to pass on their genes. It could just be that dads who are uncles have kids of their own to direct time and resources to; childless uncles have presumably more. As much as parents want to ask uncles when they’re going to have kids of their own, they may not want to encourage it if they want them to keep showing up to soccer games.

Uncles Help Out Mom

A mother’s brother is the favored uncle compared to the father’s brother, and there’s evidence uncertainty about paternity might play a role. Although there’s little question of a maternal uncle’s role, it is possible that a paternal uncle could be the father. That mere hypothetical could make the relationship weird on an unconscious level.

Maternal uncles along with maternal and paternal aunts have been linked with children having greater chances of surviving their first year, but subsequent studies have struggled to duplicate these results. Scientists consider humans to be cooperative caregivers, meaning it takes a village, but no parent wants their village full of uncles exclusively. As nice as it is to have another adult around who’s less sleep deprived, it’s best not to depend on uncles for anyone’s survival.

Uncles Are Better for Taking Care of Their Nieces

Uncles who do not have children have slight but positive effects on their nieces’ survival, one study found. But more surprisingly, uncles actually did the opposite for their nephews and decreased their chances of survival.

Researchers think that the very small advantage uncles provide in this case is limited to uncles who live with the family before they get married, but there’s a ceiling to this. And if they don’t actually move out, they start to compete with kids for resources. In extreme cases, paternal uncles who never leave are the most at odds with their nephews, decreasing their chances for survival. The lesson might be to never let uncles move in unless they’re getting put to work because they might never leave.

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