Aunting: Book Illuminates Why Aunts Matter

By Dennis Walikainen | Published

Perhaps she let you do things mom and dad didn’t. Maybe she made you work hard but paid you for your chores. There are myriad other examples of relationships most of us have had with aunts, and a new book explores their importance in our lives.

“Aunting: Cultural Practices that Sustain Family and Community Life” has been published by Baylor Press. Authors Laura Ellingson, associate professor of communication at Santa Clara University and Patty Sotirin, professor of humanities at Michigan Technological University, uncover many stories and some surprising nuances about our interactions with our aunts—those who are related and those we choose.

“We can develop important relationships with aunts outside of the nuclear family,” Sotirin says. “The relationship with an aunt might change over time, as you become an adult, but aunts can be important in our lives in many ways—filling in gaps in your family’s story, for instance.”

Many of the strong connections with aunts exist because this role is more negotiable, flexible, and adaptable than parenting, Sotirin says. And aunts don’t necessarily have to be related, either, hence the new verb, “aunting,” a set of practices that supports personal, familial and community bonds through material, emotional, and symbolic means.

Aunting might be practiced as nurturing, encouraging, mentoring, story telling or listening. Across these practices, there is a reciprocal sense of connection and—usually—caring, she says.

Aunting can be expanded beyond traditional kinship roles. “An aunt could be anyone who plays a significant role in guiding or nurturing us. When we name someone an aunt, that person is in a special relationship that is ongoing, important and supportive in whatever ways make sense to those involved,” Sotirin says. “For example, even a step-mom or a mentor at school can do aunting. Laura (Ellingson) and I realized early that aunting was a rich and complex topic.”

Sotirin says that aunting includes emotional expectations and socialization aspects that are both varied and flexible.

“We heard stories of aunts who indulged their nieces and nephews, aunts who were strict and demanding, and eccentric aunts,” she says. “Aunts can operate with different rules—outside but not necessarily contrary to—those in your house.”

And these special kinship (or kinship-like) relationships can also spur “generativity” (concern and care for future generations), as when older aunts pass along family traditions and stories. Reciprocally, nephews and nieces may express a desire to “pay back” by aunting others in the spirit of their own aunts or by caring for elderly aunts, whether they are related or chosen.

Perhaps you see your aunts only at family gatherings or infrequently because they live so far away. Distances don’t necessarily cancel out aunting relationships, Sotirin says. Time spent during holidays and family get-togethers can be emotionally significant, and even an absent aunt may be a character in a family’s history or a kinship network.

Also importantly, aunts show both nephews and nieces that there are many life choices possible.

“Each aunt shows a different possible life path. One may be a career woman, another a stay-at-home mom,” Sotirin says. “One aunt may seem like a great role model, another’s situation may make a niece or nephew realize the consequences of certain choices. The interesting thing is that, whereas the example of our parents may impose expectations for a child to follow, the example of an aunt doesn’t weigh as heavily.”

The topic of aunts is becoming popular. Several trade books are available about aunts, and at least one other scholarly book on aunts and uncles was released earlier this year. Sotirin and Ellingson are already busy on their next aunt project: aunts in popular culture.

“Aunt Bee on Andy Griffith, Auntie Em in the Wizard of Oz, Auntie Mame, they are all taking care of a nephew or niece. but they each do that very differently,” Sotirin says. “These aunts may reaffirm family values and ideals, but they can also be seen as examples of more alternative, more eccentric families.”

Whether or not your aunts are “normal” or “eccentric,” you probably have had an aunt whom you admired and/or learned from. You may even have had a favorite aunt who indulged you just a bit.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.