Grandparents In the Gaps

The universal rule for conscientious grandparents is: Do what you can, and don’t blame yourself for what you can’t

I’m not a big fan of clever tee-shirts imprinted with smart-alecky sayings, but not long ago I saw one that caught my fancy. It read: “I was an okay parent, but I’m a helluva grandparent.” With Grandparents Day coming up on Sunday, September 7, that’s worth thinking about.

Of course Grandparents Day is one of those artificial festivals celebrated largely by the greeting card industry. But this relatively recent annual observance nevertheless does serve to call a bit of attention to a largely underappreciated group that deserves it.

Especially now. The widespread breakdown of marriage and the rise of single parenting in these latter days have frequently shifted responsibility for the raising of grandkids to the bent but willing shoulders of grandparents. Even those with a less hands-on model of grandparenting are sometimes called on to fill parenting gaps that will otherwise go unfilled.

Here, then, are a few thoughts for granddads and grandmas facing or likely to face these late-in-life demands. They take for granted a fairly high level of agreement on fundamentals between the grandparents and a child’s parent or parents. Where that’s lacking, grandma and granddad may not be able to do very much. The universal rule for conscientious grandparents is: Do what you can, and don’t blame yourself for what you can’t.

Start with the fact that Christian families in today’s America live surrounded by a secular culture in many ways hostile to the values of their faith. When all is said and done, the only solution is for each such family—in cooperation with other, like-minded families, if they can be found—become a miniature counter-culture rooted in the values of the gospel.

Religious writing often describes the family as a domestic church. It’s a beautiful thought. But what I’m suggesting is something different: To the best of its ability a Christian family today has to be what might be called “a domestic counter-culture”—a place where Christian beliefs are accepted, taught, and consciously lived out.

To say the least, that isn’t easy. Among other things, it requires that forming children start from a view of the human person that’s not so common today.

The key to it is freedom. Formation isn’t training or conditioning. As Pope Francis recently remarked, one reason why some people seem to prefer pets over children is that “the emotional rapport with pets is more programmable than the relationship with children. An animal is not free, but a child is very complex.”

Certainly very young children do require conditioning, but even so the aim should be to prepare them to use freedom well—for example, by giving them some say and actually listening to them while reserving decisions to yourself. As they grow older, practice in the use of freedom should increasingly take the place of conditioning.

Problems arise when a parent or grandparent acting in the parental role is unable to make this crucial transition comfortably. The result is likely to be either even more adolescent rebellion than is likely in any case or else an unhealthy suppression of the child’s autonomy together with a superficial, and by no means healthy, conformity.

Today, then, as perhaps never before, the formation of children will consist in forming them not to fall in line with the values and norms of the secular culture. That means forming them to make good use of freedom by learning to choose well in the face of constant cultural pressure to choose badly transmitted by media and peers and even many organs of formal education.

All this, it should be pointed out, is nothing new. The New Testament is full of exhortations not to conform to the corrupt standards of the secular culture of that day. St. Paul sums it up in Romans when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12.2).

Since the material for formation is human freedom, however, it’s important to realize that there are and can be no foolproof techniques guaranteeing success. Here are three suggestions, by no means foolproof, for grandparents to consider.

First, let the child have some free time all his own that, within reasonable limits, he can do whatever he likes with.

Many kids today, like many adults, are habitually overscheduled: up early, hit the road for school, then soccer practice or swimming practice or Scouts, homework next, and so on through an overly long day. But kids also need time to daydream or play or just mess around. To anxious adults this may look like time wasted time, but this may be when aspects of the child’s personality like imagination and creativity start to emerge.

Second, provide an environment that offers a range of truly good options for the child to choose among.

Sometime back, I noticed that my younger grandkids seemed to be getting mostly electronic gizmos as Christmas and birthday gifts. So I resolved to be the grandparent who gave books. That’s what I’ve pretty much done ever since—with what results, I can’t pretend to know. If another grandparent thinks of something better, go for it.

Third, don’t be shy about talking to the child about your religious faith and, as occasion permits, practicing it in ways he can observe.

That doesn’t mean lecturing the child or catechizing him, and certainly not coercing him. It means giving testimony to what faith means to you. If it doesn’t seem to make much impression now, maybe later, even much later, it will. In the end it’s up to God. The rest of us, grandparents included, can only do what we can.


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About Russell Shaw 205 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.