My brother recently had a dinner party that included my parents and some close friends. When his three kids finished eating, they asked to be excused from the table. As I enjoyed the dessert and adult conversation, in the background I could see them plotting something. They were quietly scurrying around, dashing ninja style through the kitchen, like we couldn’t see them. I had no idea what they were up to but experience told me it wasn’t anything good. After about 20 minutes of giggling and trying to look nonchalant as they went in and out the back door, they came to me at the table and whispered, “Aunty Jo, can you help us with something?” I realized I was about to become part of the scheme, but I was so pleased to be singled out from all the adults at the table that I ignored the voice in my head telling me to run away.
They took me outside and explained that they had gathered all of their father’s toiletries from his bathroom and placed them in a shoe box. The box was now buried in the vegetable garden and they needed to paint an X on the ground. They were going to make him go on a pirate treasure hunt for his own comb and shaving cream. I surveyed the mess they had made in the garden and considered the possible courses of action. I could (a) act like an adult and explain that this is not a good idea and Daddy probably won’t be too happy about having his toothbrush in a hole in the ground, (b) go and get someone actually responsible for these children and make them be the bad guy, or (c) find some paint in the garage and coat the dirt in my brother’s garden. If you’ve read anything I have ever written you already know what I did. In my defense, there may have been a glass or two of wine involved, impairing my usually questionable judgment.
I knew it was a terrible idea, but three little faces clasped their hands under their chins and said, “Pleeease Aunty Jo, we’ve been working so hard on this prank on Daddy and we can’t do it without you.” I was powerless. I found a can of spray paint on the workbench in the garage and painted a small X in the dirt. The can was clear varnish and the kids began to question their choice of co-conspirator. I announced that this plan wasn’t going to work but they were not about to let me off that easy. They produced a silver can that was missing the nozzle, so as three little people danced around in excitement, I took the nozzle off another can and tried to attach it to the silver paint. That is when the can exploded, covering the kids, the fridge in the garage, the driveway and wait for it . . . my Dad’s brand new car. At this point the camaraderie of our dastardly pirate crew broke down and the kids ran into the house to tell on me while I frantically tried to clean the car and the fridge with a rag. A moment later, a grownup appeared and my little brother rolled his eyes at me and got out the turpentine. If I’m going to do something stupid, I go big, like covering my brother’s garage and family with oil-based paint. My parents never noticed anything amiss with their white car so I may have gotten away with that one. But as I stood in line with the kids waiting for my turn to be scrubbed with paint thinner, I gave some serious thought to the events that led to such a spectacular act of idiocy.
As an aunt, I have a really hard time finding the line between making the kids happy, and therefore love me, and being a responsible adult. The other day while babysitting, I overheard six-year-old Rose say to her brother, “I didn’t think she was going to let us do that.” Eight-year-old Rider responded, “Oh come on Rose, there isn’t much Aunty Jo won’t let us do.” It’s true. When the kids ask me if they can do or have something, I take a split second to consider how important it is in the scheme of things. If I am in the middle of reading my email and they ask if they can play a game on my phone, I can say, “No, I’m busy, go away” or “OK” and read my email later. The cost of saying yes is so little to me that I save my “no’s” for when they truly matter. The problem is that I get so used to saying yes that I’m not strong enough to recognize when it does truly matter, like say, when they beg me to decorate the garden with toxic paint.
Every day parents struggle with the issues of picking the right battles and avoiding the trap of being permissive so that their kids will like them. Extended family members have the same problem, but much less opportunity to practice. In the brief time I get with the kids on the weekend, I don’t want to be the bad guy and enforce discipline. When the parents are handy I can just say, “Ask your mother,” and then it is not my problem. But when the kids are alone in my care or we are executing a covert plan in the backyard, it is my problem and I have to act like a parent. If my brother is going to feel comfortable leaving me unsupervised in his household, once in a while I am going to have to be unpopular and say no.
The point I am trying to make is being a perfect aunt is a really tough job, especially when you don’t have kids of your own to practice on and you only surrogate-parent on an occasional basis. However, some aunts recognize their failings and are doing their best to change. They need gentle guidance, patience, and forgiveness. And turpentine.