The way my friends wax poetic about their nieces and nephews, you'd think they were Bachelor contestants describing the loves of their lives: They're the most perfect, precious creatures I've ever met. It feels magical when they look at you or hug you. Watching them grow is such an incredible journey. In the past couple of years, my Instagram feed has transformed into a parade of photos of my definitely childless friends holding their nieces and nephews. Heck, even the Kardashians make being an aunt look lit.
All kids are objectively cute, but as someone who's not an aunt, I am constantly wondering: Why are all my friends so obsessed with their nieces and nephews?
The nibling (shorthand for nieces and nephews) infatuation might be a millennial thing, says Bella DePaulo, PhD, author of Singled Out, and academic affiliate at the University of California Santa Barbara. Relationship experts have long believed that relationships between aunts and uncles and their niblings tend to be less judgmental than those between parents and children. "A non-conforming kid can be a bit worrisome to a parent," Dr. DePaulo says. "To an aunt or uncle, maybe they are more likely to be a point of pride."
Since millennials tend to value individualism, and like to express uniqueness, they may have a special, nonjudgmental bond with their nieces and nephews, Dr. DePaulo says. But, besides being an open-minded ally for niblings, there are a few other reasons why millennials make great aunts and uncles.
Broadly speaking, people in the U.S. are waiting longer to get married or have kids, which means that millennials have many years of single adulthood to dote on their niblings. When people get into relationships, they tend to be more insular, whereas single people also stay in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents, Dr. DePaulo says. "Single people get to develop and nurture their own special relationships with their nieces and nephews, without having to accommodate what a romantic partner or spouse might think or want," she says.
Relationship experts have long believed that relationships between aunts and uncles and their niblings tend to be less judgmental than those between parents and children.
Having nieces and nephews around can also give single people practice for having kids someday. My friend Ross, 25, lives in New York City and has four niblings (plus one on the way) in Massachusetts. He says he finds a lot of city-dwelling millennials are "adulting," but not actually adulting. "So, in some ways, we are ready to raise children, but in other ways definitely not," he says. His niblings serve as a nice middle ground to spend time with kids without the responsibility.
Another friend, Abby, 25, says that as the youngest kid in her family, she enjoys having nieces to take care of. "I never babysat, and I don't think I ever held a baby until my nieces," she says. But, because she was so close with her sister, she instantly felt close to her sister's kids. "If I didn't get along with my sister, I would still like my nieces, but it wouldn't be the same I would imagine," she says.
In general, millennials tend to live closer to their family members than generations before them, so they have stronger relationships with their families, Dr. DePaulo says. "Researchers studying this have primarily focused on their relationships with their parents, but my guess is that the phenomenon is broader than that," she says. Of course, social media also allows extended families to feel closer and more connected than ever. For example, although Ross is not able to travel home all the time, his family has set up a shared iCloud photo stream just for sharing kid photos. "Also they make for great social media content, tbh," Ross says.
These days, social media is a love language for young aunts and uncles who want to show off their niblings. Andrew, 28, has a one-year-old nephew, and says that posting photos of him on Instagram feels like the "cool" version of parents sharing a million photos of their kid on Facebook: "I'm posting, like, Yeah I'm related to someone with a baby. Jealous much?" Before becoming an uncle, he had no idea he would be so hype about a kid, but now it's all he posts about.
When aunts and uncles go beyond the minimum of what's expected of them in their role, it makes the relationship extra special, Dr. DePaulo says. Ultimately, singling out a nibling as someone that they want in their lives is a really good thing and can mean a lot to children — even if it does make nibling-less people like me roll their eyes.