People ask me what I know about kids, since I don't have any. And my answer is: "Plenty!" Trust me, you want my opinion.
Brett Berk: My career as an early-childhood educator culminated in a term as the director of a struggling full-day preschool in Manhattan's East Village. A good chunk of this job, particularly at first, entailed hosting open houses and tours for prospective parents. During these events, I would tell moms and dads about how we did things. (We used simple open-ended materials, served healthy snacks, took weekly field trips, disavowed weapons play.) But at some point, someone would ask about the school's "educational philosophy." In my initial attempts at responding, I would talk at length about my various pedagogical influences. (I'm an enthusiastic disciple of a number of different thinkers.) The parents' eyes would glaze over as if I were their least-favorite brother-in-law describing his beer-can collection.
Eventually, I hit on a solution: Whenever this question came up, I would simply answer, "Gay uncle." The neighborhood parents -- a sampler-pack of urbane hipness that included musicians, midwives, bar owners, sword swallowers, strippers, editors, architects and social workers -- immediately understood what I meant: someone who adored kids while they were in his care; who existed outside the mundane and often debilitating day-to-day act of child rearing; who had an external perspective on familial dynamics; and who would be appropriately indulgent and fun without becoming mired in destructive emotions such as paternal disengagement or maternal guilt. Applications and enrollment soared.
But when I tried to parlay this success into a national career as a parenting expert, I met with some resistance. My book ("The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting"), my school lectures and my articles in parenting magazines and websites invariably elicited a certain reaction: "You're not a parent. Why should I listen to you?"
I'd trot out standard lines in response: "Not all plastic surgeons have face-lifts, and not all dentists have cavities." Or, "I've worked with thousands of young kids; you've worked with one or two." Or, "My whole point is that I'm not a parent, and thus offer a useful outsider's point of view." Stubbornly believing that biology trumps experience, many people still wouldn't listen.
But now vengeance is mine -- and how sweet it tastes! A scientific study has just been released that not only proves, but enhances, my position, demonstrating that we Guncles have a relevant, unique and evolutionarily supported role in child rearing. Paul Vasey, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, has authored an article in the most recent issue of Psychological Science describing his research among the Samoan fa'afafine (men who have sex with other men). Vasey's study shows that these gay uncles' altruistic behavior toward their nieces and nephews -- their willingness to do things like baby-sit, pay for school, purchase presents or teach skills -- is extremely high. It's higher than that of their straight male or female siblings. It's so high, they likely play a significant role in enhancing their young relatives' chances for survival.
In fact, some of Vasey's previous Samoan studies show that families with gay uncles have more offspring than those without -- suggesting that our assistance and expertise may actually enhance our female relatives' abilities to breed successfully. Vasey has yet to complete his research in the West, but I already have some circumstantial evidence to support this claim: My only sister and her husband are just about to have their fifth kid (a number that's more than two-and-a-half times the national average). And while I have two straight, childless brothers who adore the little darlings, I know that it's my hosting of sleepovers, setting up of custodial bank accounts, inviting the kids to trinket-shop at Claire's and giving them lessons on how to stage-whisper sardonic comments -- in other words, my expert and reliable Gavuncularity -- that has given my sister the strength to so triumphantly further our familial bloodline. So a bit of advice to parents: Keep your pediatricians and copies of "What to Expect" close, but keep your gay uncles closer.
|Brett Berk, MS Ed., has worked with young children and their families for more than twenty years -- as a classroom teacher, preschool director and research consultant -- and is the author of "The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting."|