The Auntie Model

by Mindy Withrow | October 15, 2008
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Among responsible and useful methods of promoting egalitarian thinking -- writing about it, supporting organizations like CBE that promote it, seeking out churches that put it into practice -- my favorite is what I call the “auntie model”:  consistently giving loving ideological nudges to those in my closest circle, especially the little ones.

I grew up in a patriarchal family and church.  Though I have had my “aha!” moment and embraced the egalitarian position, most of the rest of my family continue in the patriarchal tradition.  And they take “be fruitful and multiply” seriously: just three siblings have given me (so far) 13 nieces and nephews, none older than 8.  For the most part, their parents are not actively cultivating gender bias, but if there’s one thing kids are good at, it’s picking up on and interpreting adult signals!  So in addition to trying to influence the “big people,” I also have regular opportunities to steer little minds in a new direction, to provide tiny course corrections in the context of a non-parental but just-as-safe-and-unconditional relationship.

Nearly every conversation opens a window to subtle worldview adjustment.  As evidence, I present the following transcripts, all real interactions with my precious little buddies:

NIECE:  Aunt Mindy, why do you have so many folders and file boxes in your office?
AUNTIE:  I guess I’m the kind of person that likes to be neat and organized.
NIECE:  But you’re not a person -- you’re a woman!
AUNTIE:  Interesting observation!  Yes, I am a woman, and you will be too when you grow up.  Sit here with me for a second and let’s talk about a big word: “personhood”…

NIECE:  One of our hens is stupid.  We’re going to get rid of her.
AUNTIE:  How do you know she’s stupid?
NIECE:  Because she doesn’t lay eggs!  She’s a girl chicken, it’s her job.  What kind of girl chicken doesn’t want to be a mother?
AUNTIE:  You know, sweetie, God designed hens to do more than lay eggs.  They also eat grubs to keep pastures clean and fertile, they scratch at the dirt and keep it aerated, they help other hens with big families raise their chicks, and they give their feathers and their meat for people to use.  So just because she’s not laying eggs doesn’t mean she’s not valuable to the farm...

NEPHEW:   Wife, make my dinner!  Daughter, make my bed!
AUNTIE:  Whoa – what are you talking about?
NEPHEW:  We’re playing house.  I’m the dad.
AUNTIE:  Oh, I see.  Well, Dad, do your wife and daughter have names?  Yes?  Don’t you think it would be a lot more respectful to call them by their names?  I agree.  And while you’re at it, wouldn’t you really show your love for them if you offered to make them dinner?…

AUNTIE:  So you really like science, huh?  You think you might want to study that in college?
NIECE:  Girls don’t go to college.
AUNTIE:  Really?  Says who?
NIECE:  Well, my dad went to college, but my mom didn’t.
AUNTIE:  That’s true.  College isn’t for everybody.  But I went to college, and there were lots of girls in my science classes.  And some of my professors were girls, too…

You get the idea.  And, no, I am not brainwashing them or disregarding their parents’ authority.  I don’t tell them their parents’ hierarchical structures are unbiblical.  I just stand in their lives as a glimpse of a bigger picture, an alternate voice, a different vision of the world than the one by which they are most often surrounded.  My hope is that they will grow up knowing good people have different ways of understanding these issues rather than unthinkingly parroting what was demonstrated at home.

What a privilege to be an egalitarian auntie!

Questions to start the discussion:
What does the “auntie (or uncle) model” look like in your situation?  Do you employ it in your biological relationships, or perhaps honorary ones with friends’ children or kids at church?  Have you, over time, seen fruit from such endeavors?  And -- bonus points for this one! -- have you learned anything from your interactions with these little ones about your own blindspots/hang-ups in how you relate to or value others?