Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Generative Uncle and Nephew Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Generative Uncle and Nephew Relationships

Article excerpt

This study investigates generativity, or a concern for future generations, in the relationships between uncles and nephews. Using in-depth interviews, 21 uncles and 31 nephews were interviewed in Wellington, New Zealand and Bangor, Maine. Uncles describe themselves as supplements to parents, as friends, or as surrogate parents. Uncles act as mentors by providing nephews with advice and sometimes criticism. They act as inter-generational buffers and family historians by engaging in family work with nephews, providing insights into the behavior of parents or siblings. In turn, nephews provide uncles with insights into the behavior of family members. This study contributes to the literatures on generativity, men and caregiving, and more broadly third-party influences in family relationships.

Key Words: generativity, kinship, nephews, uncles.

The field of family studies has advanced substantially in the past several decades and yet remains underdeveloped in some areas. One instance of this underdevelopment is the literature on families and their involvement with kin (Johnson, 2000). This study advances our knowledge of families by directing an inquiry at the relationships of uncles and nephews, a theme that has been largely unexplored to date. Conceptually, the study is cast within generativity theory and draws upon contemporary understandings of Erikson's model of adult development. Four relational features, taken from Kotre's (2004) definition of the requirements of generative cultures, frame the primary research questions regarding how uncles serve as mentors, family historians, intergenerational buffers, and friends of their nephews.


Scholarly interest in men and their contributions to families largely began with research on fatherhood in the late 1970s and developed substantially in the 1990s (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000). This literature focuses on how fathers contribute to their children's development, how these contributions are distinct from those of mothers, and how fathering contributes to fathers' own personal development.

One emerging perspective examines fathering in the context of life span development and as an instance of generativity defined as an "adults' concern for and commitment to the next generation" (de St. Aubin, McAdams, & Kim, 2004, p. 4). Generativity has been viewed as a stage of midlife development as originally proposed by Erikson or more typically as salient concern-elements of which appear throughout the adult life course (McAdams & Logan, 2004).

We can speak of generative individuals and thus place generativity in the mix of personality attributes (McAdams, Hart, & Maruna, 1998), as well as generative parents where most research efforts have focused (McAdams & Logan, 2004; Snarey, 1993). In addition, we may speak of generative roles and in so doing open the inquiry to a variety of family, work, and friendship roles in which generativity is expressed (MacDermid, Franz, & De Reus, 1998), as well as generative societies and cultures (Kotre, 2004). Curiously, in applications of generativity to families and societies, research has largely ignored the potential contributions of collateral kin, including uncles, and nonkin, including fictive kin and friends. Parents, although certainly important purveyors of generativity, are not unique in this regard.

In applying the concept of generativity to uncles and the caring for nephews and nieces, I borrow from Kotre's (2004) conceptualization of generative cultures in which four forms of cultural mediators are viewed as essential. Mentors are practical guides, individuals who model action, teach skills, provide guidance or support, and generally facilitate the advancement of others. The keeper of meaning refers to individuals concerned with preserving a family's traditions. Intel-generational buffers can be viewed as family members who have firsthand knowledge of parents and their children and who can intercede on behalf of a parent with a child, or conversely. …

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