“Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.” (Dr John Trainer)

Sometimes I pass my grandparents’ house, which has been deserted for a long time. I rarely open the gate and never go beyond the threshold of the house. I don’t know how Dad feels, on his daily trips to the place he called “home” for a third of his life. I don’t know if he longs to be a child again in the house with low roofs or if he thinks about all those things that you fully understand only after the words, gestures, and faces of parents can be found again only in the immeasurable archipelago of memories.

As for me, that wooden gate, washed by the rains and lonely summers, always reminds me of the doorbell installed in my first years of life, of its watchful clang, which did not let any guest sneak up to the front door of the house without being seen, the blissful strain of my childish imagination between the moment of the crystalline announcement and that of the guest’s identity being revealed, and those times when joy was simple, generated by an unannounced visit, stories told sitting next to the stove, and a handful of pumpkin seeds sizzling on the hot burner.

My grandparents’ house had many attractions, hiding places, promises, and strict rules, but one of the things that always fascinated me there was Grandpa’s Bible—a large Bible, with fine leather covers, with underlines made with grandfather’s special pencil, which had a multi-coloured core.

I always wanted that Bible to be mine, but I would have liked even more to understand clearly how that stream of ancient words managed to escape from between the covers of the book and flow into the comfort of my grandparents’ house, over the orderliness of the bookshelves and the closets with clothes woven by grandmother’s knitting needles, into the prayers in which they wrapped us when we slept at their house, and the peace in which they enveloped themselves when the time came for a long sleep, which only the resurrection can interrupt.

It’s been a long time since I opened the door that led to Grandma’s red geranium porch, but the last time I walked in there, the highlighted Bible sat on its bookshelf, resting after a mission accomplished: it had been touched and had touched the lives of several generations. The wall to the north still bore the arras on which Grandmother had woven with her needle and her faith, instead of flowers or geometric motifs, the words of an ancient covenant: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Family ties and the intergenerational passing down of faith

Today, grandparents are more available to their grandschildren than their counterparts from previous generations, for reasons related to changing family models, but also to increasing longevity. And yet, a significant number of them do not get involved much in the lives of their grandchildren.

Analysing the causes of missing these precious intergenerational interactions, researchers Valarie King and Glen H. Elder, Jr. found that religious grandparents are more involved in fulfilling their role than non-religious ones. Thus, 80% of religious grandparents helped their grandchildren acquire various skills, 37% had discussions with them about the problems they faced, and 50% cared for a sick grandchild (compared to 60%, 21% and 35% of non-religious grandparents).

Despite the profound changes undergone by American society, a child is more likely to follow the religious tradition of the parents than to reject it, and a good relationship with the father represents an essential factor in this continuity, the researchers found.[1] The religious influence of grandparents is also notable, with significant similarities between the generations of grandparents and grandchildren from the 1970s and 2005, respectively.

Analysing grandparents’ involvement in the spiritual guidance of their grandchildren, the researchers identified four types of religious influence: 1) grandparents who replace parents in the religious educational process; 2) grandparents who offer support to parents in the religious education of children; 3) grandparents who dispute or undermine parental religious education; and 4) grandparents who avoid any religious activity with their grandchildren.

Grandparents who support parents in exercising the role of religious educators have the greatest success in the spiritual formation of their grandchildren, while those who challenge or undermine parental religious education are the most ineffective and may even lose access to their grandchildren.[2] Although sharing the same religious practices matters, the decisive factor in the passing down of religion from one generation to another remains the quality of the relationship in the triad of children-parents-grandparents. “Warmth matters”—parents and grandparents who offer unconditional support, freedom of choice, and a consistent model of living the faith have the best chance of passing on this imperishable legacy to future generations.

Shaping the next generation: a task that cannot be delegated

Grandparents generally have a significant impact on the lives of their grandchildren, but those who authentically live their Christianity can have an incredible impact, points out Pastor Larry Fowler, author of Overcoming Grandparenting Barriers, a book which presents a set of principles to follow for grandparents who want to leave a deep spiritual imprint in their families.

Grandparents have a unique role, entrusted to them by God (Deuteronomy 4:9), to shape the spiritual development of children in a way that no one else but their parents have the privilege to do. In fact, when parents are disinterested in religious life, grandparents can become the most important spiritual mentors, Fowler points out, urging those who have the privilege of having grandchildren to examine whether their role boils down to the framework established by culture or whether it also extends to the passing down of spiritual heritage. We should never underestimate the impact of a life full of kindness, because the image that our children form of God depends to a great extent on what our lives say about Him.

Maintaining close relationships with one’s own children, finding the balance between grace and truth in relationships with grandchildren, adapting to the (very different) world of grandchildren, and keeping a vision of perpetuating the faith even beyond their generation, to generations yet unborn (Psalm 78:5-6) remain principles with an efficiency already proven by grandparents who actively participate in the religious moulding of their grandchildren.

Religious education in unfavourable circumstances

The patterns of family life have changed in recent decades, and grandparents must find new ways to pass on their faith to their grandchildren even in unfavourable circumstances such as parents hostile to religion, who are divorced or in relationships that do not follow the biblical model.

Grandparents’ access to grandchildren’s education can sometimes be a real challenge, but they should respect the boundaries drawn by parents hostile to religion or with a different faith, asking their permission to involve the little ones in various religious activities.

When your adult children don’t want you to influence their children religiously, the best approach is to do the best you can within the boundaries set by them and authentically live your faith, says Ken Canfield, president of the National Center for Fathering in Manhattan.

There are many ways to influence your grandchildren, including through landmark objects in your home and behavioural elements that cannot go unnoticed, such as a Noah’s ark mixed in with toys, children’s books with biblical messages, or the habit of praying and reading the Bible regularly, affirms Reverend Ruth Walker, noting that this faith-shaping process is not unidirectional, and grandparents have the opportunity to learn from children, who are often more open to spiritual concerns than adults.

When parents are not only reluctant but hostile to religious education, grandparents should try to clarify the reasons behind their opposition. Sometimes, the rejection of religion is related to unfortunate experiences that adults have had in the church or in their own family, in which case the grandparents must honestly admit their failures in reflecting the Christian teachings they adhere to and try to correct the mistakes of the past.

Moreover, the birth of the next generation comes with a new chance to love and shape destinies and even with the chance of a religious re-anchoring. Never give up on prodigal sons, says Professor Vern Bengtson, himself a prodigal son and grandson, who found the way back to his family’s faith at the age of 67. Returning to the God of his childhood helped him understand the burning desire his parents and grandparents had for their descendants to find the peace and hope they themselves experienced.

What grandparents do, no one else will ever be able to do, because they sprinkle stardust over the lives of their grandchildren, said writer Alex Haley. In fact, more than interstellar dust, they pour eternity over our lives, waiting for the day when we will look at life together again, but not from different ends.

I know this was the hope my grandfather held before he slipped into an uninterrupted, dreamless sleep. And I know, even without opening his Bible, that he underlined with his multi-coloured pencil the promise of a Father whom he struggled to resemble: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

Carmen Lăiu looks beyond the decorative role or that of pampering and fulfilling the physical and emotional needs of grandchildren that culture has assigned to grandparents, emphasising their unique responsibility in the religious shaping of the new generation.

[1]„Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.”
[2]Ibidem, p. 3.”

„Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.”
Ibidem, p. 3.”