Five types of kids, and how to be their best friend
Personally, I’ve never aspired to be a parent. But I do believe that we all have an ongoing responsibility to positively impact the lives of future generations in whatever small or large ways we can. Sometimes it’s with a heart-to-heart about why it’s not nice to sit on their cousin until she cries, sometimes it’s teaching them to make it look like their finger is going through their ear all the way through to the opposite cheek. The main thing is to be there, be real, and be awesome.
In other words, everybody should be an uncle.
Kids benefit from having a variety of positive relationships with adults. It gives them lots of role models to influence the choices they make on their way to becoming adults themselves. Among the roles in this “it takes a village” paradigm, you will find the uncle figure. Though the field is traditionally dominated by men, uncle duties can be conceivably performed by women … I’ve certainly known
a few who are more than capable of teaching a child to climb a tree and make farting noises with their armpits. And you know what they say, nobody is 100 percent aunt or uncle; we all live on a continuum.
I’ve sometimes become a de facto uncle simply by having friends with kids. It has a nice ring to it. “Take this beer to your Uncle Sven.” After a while I figured out what kids want in an uncle: A cool adult. One who doesn’t carry all that authoritative baggage of the parent or teacher. An adult who lets you dabble with danger, ask inappropriate questions, and participate in a spitting contest. Somebody you trust to let you be a little crazy but not too crazy. And ideally, an adult who knows how to entertain. Kids have allowed me to extend my career as class clown far beyond my school years, and they’ve taught me a lot about what works with what kind of child.
The Wee One
Let’s call this first kid PJ. Though she’s a contrived composite of a number of very young kids I’ve engaged, I think she’s pretty special. Like most in her age range, she prefers the classic peek-a-boo icebreaker over the clumsier let-me-hold-her-right-now-oh-my-God-she’s-so-cute impulsive behavior so popular with aunts that just reinforces how few rights PJ actually has. It was simplicity itself: I just hid my face when I caught her looking at me and peered out through my fingers. Soon thereafter she was begging me to throw her into the air, again and again and again and again. And again. The little ones are big fans of repetition.
It’s embarrassing to have to admit you got your injury from roughhousing with a toddler, so it’s important to know when to distract them with a new activity. My go-to is juggling, a classic uncle skill. The very young ones are simply mesmerized by it, particularly if you’re tossing objects they’re familiar with, like their toys or their dinner. PJ would, at that age where kids can walk but not well, enjoy sticking her hands into the juggling pattern and causing everything to fall. “Do it again!” “Do it again!” They’re cute at this age, but kind of tiresome. Perhaps best to pass them on to an aunt until they grow up some and get more interesting.
Gift idea: simple musical instru- ment like a drum. Sure they’ll play it relentlessly, but it’s not like you live with them.
Now let me introduce you to “Eddie.” He’s the one you really have to keep your eye on. He and his ilk are especially drawn to games and tricks that border on destructive, deceitful, and irritating. These are naturally occurring traits; the parents’ role is to eradicate them. The uncles teach you how to use them responsibly.
As an example, I called Eddie over and said my neck felt stiff. As I rolled my head around, there was a horrible crackling sound. “What the heck?” he thought (50 percent of everything an uncle does should elicit this response). Then I showed him the secret, because he said if I didn’t he’d never reveal where he hid my car keys.
I’d hidden a disposable plastic cup under my arm and squeezed it as I rolled my head. He immediately performed this trick (deceitful) numerous times for everybody he could find (irritating) until the cup was crushed beyond all use (destructive).
Such physical gags are must-haves for uncles. No cup? Try the old cracking your nose bit: hold your fingertips against your nose, and wince as you crack it left and right. To do this, position your hands to conceal the fact that you’re really snapping the tip of your thumbnail against your front tooth.
Eddie was impressed by juggling, and immediately wanted to try it. I thought he was spectacularly uncoordinated until I realized he had seized upon it as a loophole in the don’t throw things in the house rule. Oops! He hit his sister on the head with an orange! Twice! OK, let’s take it outside.
“Geez Eddie, I think I actually hurt myself showing you that neck cracking thing. I’ve got dog jaw.” I opened my mouth and moved my jaw back and forth. “Darn it, dog jaw takes days to heal, too. It stems from tension in the skull, here, feel it, right behind my ear. That’s right, just … RUFF RUFF RHOWRUFF BARK!” Eddie leapt back from my snarling, snapping jaws and immediately ran into the house to try it on his sister. That poor girl; I made a mental note to offer her a few more pony rides.
It’s fun to prank kids (aunts may disagree), but it’s even more fun, and more bonding, to prank somebody else as a team. Particularly parents. I once spattered Eddie’s hands with catsup to look like blood and had him seek out his mother. “Uncle Sven won’t get up!” Apparently his performance was excellent; it got me a long lecture about “going too far” and “appropriate activities” and “not encouraging him” and other blah-blah-blah mom stuff.
Eddie likes physical activities, and he insists that we play the hand-slapping game whenever we get together. Also called “red hands,” it’s basically a socially sanctioned way to sublimate his hopefully temporary urge to hit people. If he’s the first slapper, I hold my hands out, palms down. He puts his hands under mine, facing up, and nearly touching. Then he tries to quickly slap the backs of one or both of my hands before I can pull them away. If he misses, it’s my turn to slap. That’s the basics, but the real relationship-building part is the insanely long list of additional rules for play and scoring we’ve developed along the way. The only thing I’ve ever seen to rival it is the corporate tax code.
Gift idea: Rubber hand. Good for pranks and reenacting when Luke gets his hand cut off by his father’s light saber.
Ellie is too civilized for most of the fun I have with Eddie. She’s a reader, a thinker, a puzzle solver and a perfectionist. Her imaginary friends are a teacher and a pony who’s also a patent lawyer.
When she was little, I handed her a nickel I’d pulled out of her ear and learned that a serious kid like her isn’t comfortable with mysteries. “Whose nickel was it, will they miss it?” She asked. Yes, such earnestness, per the Uncle Code, must be counteracted with lots of tickling and teasing. But her natural curiosity must also be nurtured so she can cure cancer later.
Now that she knows that magic tricks are just tricks, she loves to try to figure them out. I sometimes have trouble keeping up with requests for new bits, but there are many books out there filled with easy-to-do magic tricks, and YouTube has more than anybody has time to learn. Sometimes I tell her how it’s done, sometimes she has to work it out herself. She knows that when I do the “got your nose” thing it’s really the tip of my thumb I’m showing her, but she has no idea how I drop it audibly into a paper bag. But I’ll tell you: Hold the paper bag between your thumb and middle finger as though you’re about to snap your fingers. Then, as you pretend to throw the nose into the bag with your other hand, go ahead and actually snap your fingers. If you time it right, the bag makes a great sound and shakes a little, as though the nose hit the bottom.
Another one she hasn’t worked out is how I can, using my invisible eye laser, cut a banana in half before it’s peeled. The key here is, as always, misdirection. I make a big show of the psychic chopping, placing it on my head, chanting, and tossing it from hand to hand. She assumes that it somehow gets cut while I’m handling it. In reality, it’s a prepared banana and none of the razzle dazzle she sees me do has anything to do with it. Ready? To cut a banana inside the skin, insert a straight pin or paper clip and carefully work it through the banana without poking out the other side. All that’s left is a tiny, nearly invisible hole. When it’s peeled, it’s already cut. Ta da!
She’s not comfortable doing her own magic tricks yet, but she loves being my assistant. Her favorite so far, and mine, was our precogni- tion act. Her parents were our first audience. “Chuck, Amanda, you’re not going to believe this, but your daughter has amazing powers of prediction. We’d like to show you a little demonstration. Cover Ellie’s ears so she can’t hear, and whisper to me a number between one and 10.” Which Chuck did: Five. “Now Chuck, let go of her ears. Ellie, before we came in here you wrote a number down on the inside of your right wrist, right?” “Yes,” Ellie said, and rolled up her sleeve. And there, sure enough, was the number five. “Good job Ellie. Now run along and pack, we’re going to Vegas.”
An hour later Chuck confessed he still couldn’t figure out how we did it. But it was just a twist on an old mentalist technique. Ellie had all ten numbers on her somewhere, I just had to remember where they were. The five was on her inside right wrist, so that’s what I had her reveal.
Gift idea: Blow-up-the-house- grade science kit.
Carlos is into the simple joys of life. There always seems to be laughter around him. He’s easy going and eager to try new things. He’s the type that loves simple sight gags, like the orange-rind-smile thing. When he was really little he liked watching me do them, and once older he loved doing them himself. He will make an outstanding uncle himself one day.
His fave is finger juggling, a fun little optical illusion trick where you start out holding up both of your index fingers. When ready, you smack both those fingers together and apart again, very quickly. Suddenly one hand has no fingers up and the other has two, like a peace sign. It appears that one of the fingers has moved over to the other hand. Do it again, and both index fingers are up again. Each successive collision of the hands yields another combination of fingers, depending on your level of dexterity. Try it in a mirror for a while until you manage to very quickly change the finger positions at the exact time your hands touch. If he can do it, so can you.
For a while he was amazed that if we both concentrated with our hands hovering above the table, we could levitate it. This was a simple matter of my lifting the table with my knees. Sadly, a party pooper sister told him what was happening. Even more sadly, he’s still too small to do it himself.
Carlos is the only kid I’ve tried to teach to juggle who actually got the hang of it. Most children, heck, most people, aren’t willing to live with their own failures long enough to learn how, though I maintain almost anybody can do it if they commit to practicing eight times for eight minutes. For the rest of his life, whenever anybody asks how he learned, he’ll say I taught him. Feels good.
When I showed him how I can put my thumb through my ear, he worked on it until his ear was bright red, and he may never get it unless his ears get bigger. But here’s how it goes: Put your right thumbnail against the opening of your right ear. Stretch the top of your ear over the thumb, and then the lower lobe over the bottom of your thumb. Hold both in place with your right index finger. You better find a mirror to fine tune this. Once you’ve got it just right, wiggle your thumb a little and try not to faint, it’s pretty freaky looking.
Gift idea: Joke and riddle book.
Sometimes you’re outnumbered. If your uncle time is mainly limited to holidays and other family gatherings, it’s likely you’ll be hanging out with more than one kid at a time. They can surely entertain each other, but adult supervision is sometimes called for, and if you’ve got the energy, you can give the parents a break and round up the kids for some games.
I’ve always enjoyed watching the Adult Shoe Race, where all kids must put on a pair of their parents’ shoes and run an obstacle course of your own design. It makes for pretty hysterical viewing, particularly if high heels are involved; they may have to rubber band their feet in place. Eddie usually wins this, but he cheats.
Hide-and-go-seek and scavenger hunts are always good, as long as it’s not your house. They’ll infiltrate everywhere and you can expect somebody like Ellie to wander out holding something embarrassing and asking what it’s for.
It’s an honor to be the first to introduce a child to Thumb Wars. But there’s a lesser-known game that doesn’t get them so hyper that I call Elbow Finish Line. It’s pretty simple. One person is blindfolded and lays his arm out straight on a table with the inside of the elbow facing up. Another person slowly and lightly moves her fingertip up his arm, starting from the wrist. All he has to do is say “stop” when her finger gets to the crease at the inside of the elbow. Try it, you’ll probably fail.
Group gift idea: Large scale bubble-blowing devices.
At some point, kids become teenagers. Overnight, it seems, all these amazing games and magic tricks are beneath them; the only things they want to see pulled out of a hat are iPhones and concert tickets. It can seem like the uncle era is over for them. But it’s not.
Kelly’s parents weren’t the first to tap me for help with hands-on driver training practice. Uncles are ideal driving instructors; it’s a good example of when a teen needs a trusted adult who’s not a parent. Teens and parents are both nervous about the driving thing, and they tend to get on each other’s nerves. I’ve got more patience and hey, it’s dad’s car, not mine. Floor it.
On rare occasions, Kelly actually contacts me to have a talk. Sometimes teens want an adult they can talk to who doesn’t carry the parent/child baggage. Kelly confides with me about recent activities and wants straight answers about sex, drugs, and the cruelty of social media. In turn, I try to be a good listener and not call the police or a priest.
Soon she’ll be all grown up, and though I hope we’ll maintain some sort of relationship, it won’t be the same. That’s a little sad, but I also know that she shared many of the games and tricks with her friends in school and at camp, and some of those things could still be reverberating through kid culture. I’m sure she’ll turn out to be a great person and an asset to the world, and I feel like I can take a little bit of credit for it. If she’s a bit of a disappointment now and again, well, I didn’t want to say anything at the time, but she was awfully spoiled by those aunts.