While parents are supposed to love and nurture their children, the role of the uncle is to toughen up the kids of their kin, and I take my role as uncle very seriously, particularly when teaching my niece and nephew about the outdoors.
This is no secret to their parents. While now 7 and 8 years old, respectively, my niece and nephew have enjoyed four seasons of outdoor activities with my wife and I since they were old enough to walk.
From going on 25-mile canoe trips in summer, to getting thrown out of dog sleds during crashes with trees in winter, they've really already done more activities outdoors in their young lives than some Alaskans I know who are more than twice my age.
This isn't to say that my niece and nephew's parents don't get them outdoors enough, because they do. It's just a different kind of outdoor experience from when they're with us, and me in particular.
I was very much raised in a "boys will be boys" way. I was building my own campfire, whittling with my own pocket knife, and shooting my own BB gun by the time I was my nephew's age, so in some way I feel I've already failed him a bit since he's not shooting tin cans from 50 yards away.
It's not really me though, I tell myself it's just a societal change. Kids are coddled so much more nowadays than they were 20 years ago. The solitary activities of mastering video games and watching DVDs about ridiculous things such guinea pigs trained to carry out covert special-ops have replaced roving bands of adolescents exploring the woods near their home and playing with bows and arrows and tomahawks.
However, like someone's grandpa at a wedding that talks into the microphone like it's a cell phone because they've refused to embrace technological changes, I too have refused to accept the societal norm that my nephew shouldn't be taught how to survive on his own in the woods in case of some post-apocalyptic scenario.
So secretly, I've taught him a few things over the years, and occasionally been outed when someone else finally got around to teaching him something they thought was going to be novel.
The best -- or possibly worst -- example of this came last summer when his father took him camping. He had hoped to have a father-son moment by teaching his boy to carve his own stick for roasting marshmallows.
As he unfolded his pocket knife and began to explain how to safely use the blade, his son brought the special moment to a screeching end when he said "Yeah, I know, I know, Uncle Joseph already taught me."
Little did his father know that not only had his son been whittling his own roasting sticks for over a year, but had also used an axe to chop limbs for the fire, and matches to get the blaze going to roast the marshmallows.
That is just one example. My niece and nephew have helped us with a variety of tasks that would turn their parents' blood to ice water. They've dismembered and butchered moose, swung the sledge hammer to smash apart frozen blocks of fishheads for sled dog food, driven four-wheelers at high speed, rappelled off the beach bluffs, and picked salmon from the nets, bonked them dead and then filleted them.
When they're with us they get dirty, they take risks, they sometimes get hurt, but they always have fun, and we have fun watching them do it. They may get scraped knees and elbows with their aunt and uncle, but it's OK because their mom and dad are always there with open arms and a tube of triple antibiotic.
And hopefully they are making lifelong memories, because to me the greatest sign I've succeed in being a good uncle would be if one day while in college or working at their careers, someone asked my niece of nephew how they got that scar on their forehead and they answered by saying "Let me tell you a story about my Uncle Joseph ..."
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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