Three years ago, I had a baby. I say ‘I’ with great license, because of course I’m referring to my daughter giving birth to my first grandchild. But I swear I felt every contraction as I watched my daughter, who was once my baby, give birth to her first child.
It was a highly emotional moment as I was transported back in time to the day I gave birth to Gabbie. It was like time stood still as our shared experience of childbirth culminated in the arrival of another girl baby in the family. In that moment, I was acutely aware that I was a link in a generational chain—part of a much bigger story. I thought of my own mother and grandmothers and wondered what my influence and legacy might be on this emerging generation. What would my role be in her life? As Christmas approaches, I wonder about the bigger story we are part of—a story that began not with the child in the manger, but with the many generations that came before.
When Rosella was born it was like all my birthdays and Christmases had all come at once! What a precious gift she is to this doting G-ma! And she really is the gift that keeps on giving. I was taken by surprise, though, by the depth of my feelings for her. I didn’t expect to be so utterly besotted; I would literally cut off a limb for her. And it’s not that I wouldn’t have done that for my own children, but it’s different. As a parent I certainly endured plenty of pain—especially during the tumultuous teenage years! But as a grandparent you know hard times are inevitable, so it feels more like an invitation into heartache that you just cannot refuse. And those young parents need your comfort in the middle of that heartache, reassuring them they will get through. You did, so they can too.
I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt when they presented their newborn son to the elderly Simeon who prophesied that a sword would pierce their very soul (Luke 2:25–35).
The grandparent phenomenon
According to blogger Vanessa LoBue, anthropologists and psychologists confirm that grandparents have played a crucial role in human survival throughout history. Grandparents are life savers—in more ways than one. Furthermore, adult grandchildren who have a close relationship with a grandparent are less likely to suffer depressive symptoms. This phenomenon has historically been referred to as the ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ (reflecting traditional maternal gender roles), but a twenty-first century meta-analysis of 17 different studies confirmed that good grandparents make a significant difference to the overall wellbeing of a child.
Of course, this won’t be big news, with most grandparents answering an emphatic ‘yes’ when asked if they are ‘good’ grandparents. I positively dote on my grandchildren! I help with their care whenever I can and shower them with love and affection. But this measure of goodness is couched more in culture than Scripture. For people of faith, grandparents have an important role to play not just in the care and wellbeing of their grandchildren, but also in their spiritual formation.
‘Be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and their children after them’ (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Christmas confusion and clashes
Many of us will be spending Christmas with extended family—cousins, adult siblings, aunts and uncles and, of course, grandparents and grandchildren. And while for many of us that will be wonderful, for others it will come with some caveats and challenges. For example, some grandparents will inevitably over-indulge their grandchildren (probably me), causing tension with the beloved child’s parents. Other grandparents will feel they must be the voice of wisdom and interfere with their adult child’s parenting, forgetting that their role has shifted. Christmas can be complicated as we navigate alterations in roles and responsibilities. For some grandparents, what was once certain is now in flux. What is my role? And when your grandchildren reach adolescence, things can intensify as multiple generations clash with one another, causing confusion and hurt.
Founder of the Legacy Coalition, grandparenting expert Larry Fowler offers tips for Christian grandparents. His advice includes understanding your potential impact as a grandparent, clarifying your role, creating great relationships with the parents of your grandchildren, balancing grace and truth and, perhaps the most practical but challenging tip of all, adapting to your grandchildren’s world. What?! Fowler offers an instructive example that will no doubt illicit mixed feelings from older readers, but let’s hear him out—especially with Christmas family gatherings looming.
‘The host of our small group of grandparents was talking with another grandma about her 10-year-old granddaughter: “She is always playing a game on her phone. Last week when she came to visit, I told her, ‘If you can’t put your phone down, I’m taking you home!’ And a few minutes later I caught her playing again—so I took her home.” That grandma thought she was doing a good thing by being strict with her granddaughter, but I’m pretty sure she injured the relationship instead. She wanted the little girl to enter “grandma world”—sit at the table and talk over tea. What if she had said instead, “Help me learn about this game that you like to play so much on your phone, and then afterwards, let’s sit at the table and just talk”? The granddaughter would have felt what it means to be honoured, the relationship preserved, and the two of them could have enjoyed tea together.’
Never accept defeat
Parenting guru Steve Baskin explains that historically, and in most societies, age was always associated with wisdom—we respected our elders because, well, they were the carriers of the sort of knowledge only attainable by living longer. Young people sought the counsel of the elders. In the twenty-first century, however, the implied worship of youthfulness de-venerates elders. Technological expertise and early adoption of anything ‘new’ has distorted the message, and age is no longer exclusively associated with wisdom. Adults who can’t ‘keep up’ with technology or understand the latest trends can be quickly sidelined.
However, Christian grandparents (and their children) mustn’t accept defeat! Fowler explains that ‘as they grow older, adapting to your grandchild’s world may become increasingly more difficult. But you can do it. Start by asking yourself, what are my grandchild’s interests? And then be genuinely interested. Do you have a grandson who is into video games? Sit with him and ask him to explain the game to you rather than scolding him for playing it. Ask yourself these questions: What are his emotional needs? Spiritual needs or questions? Does he need comfort? Encouragement?’
Fowler suggests that if you don’t know the answers to these questions, it’s time to change your current approach. ‘Switch from being an advice-giver (most of us grandparents are really good at that even when it’s unsolicited) to being a question-asker. Take your grandchildren out for ice cream, and then ask them questions to get them talking and listen. Listen. Hold your tongue,’ says Fowler. ‘And here’s a great rule: don’t give your grandchildren more pieces of advice than there are flavours of ice cream in front of you!’
If you’re not convinced, consider this: researcher Dr Lucie Moore reveals that in the UK, the Church is full of grandparents. In 2018, a third of all regular attendees were aged 70 or over. And it is likely similar in New Zealand, as is the rapid decline of young people attending church. So while the potential significance of grandparents for young people’s faith has never been greater, what we are doing is just not working. However, for churches where an intergenerational approach is cemented, a different story is emerging.
Something bigger than ourselves
Dr Lucie Moore explains that intergenerational relationships are key to creating faith that ‘sticks’ into adulthood. While the Bible exhorts us to be intentional in passing faith on to the next generation, studies demonstrate that each progressive generation is less inclined toward faith. However, where faith is successfully transmitted, where families and the Church partner together, a holistic understanding of the gospel is presented, and safe spaces are created for doubt. Grandparents have a unique role to play in helping children discover that they belong to something bigger than themselves—they have family history and faith is part of that story.
A UK study revealed that knowledge of family history predicated measures of adolescents’ self-worth and identity development. In other words, intergenerational conversations about the ‘ups and downs’ of family history supports teenagers’ developing sense of self. One of the authors of the study concludes that children who have the most self-confidence have a strong ‘intergenerational self’—they know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
So grandparents, this Christmas let’s humble ourselves and be faithful, loving conductors of the message of Jesus in a world that is not as kind as the one we grew up in. The message of Christmas certainly doesn’t change, but our grandchildren have so much information coming at them from many different mediums of communication—and it’s not all safe and healthy. If we are to pass on faith to the next generation—if the next generation is to hear that important message—it will be as much through ‘how’ the message is transmitted as the ‘what’ of the message itself. We display wisdom not so much by what we have to say, but how we make our grandchildren feel. Do they sense that we are really listening? Do they feel safe with us? Are we a soft place for them to land when everything is falling apart? Or are we more concerned about them showing us respect? Let’s lead the way and show children the Christ we know and love, and respect will likely follow.
After all, as Moore points out: ‘What we see in the New Testament is that these intergenerational conversations are not one-way. In inviting children to himself, Jesus challenged a powerful assumption still held today, that adults are inevitably wiser than children. But after rebuking his disciples for preventing the children drawing near, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it”’ (Luke 18:16–17).
This Christmas, let’s remember who knelt before the child and adopt the same humility as the shepherds and the wise men and maybe, just maybe, we might get a fresh glimpse of the Christ-child in the faces of the next generation.
Words Jules Badger