Grandparenting isn't for sissies!

5 ways to find love, faith, and joy

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By Thea Jarvis


I started praying with my oldest grandchild when he was still in his crib. If I were lucky enough to tuck him in at night and still had the energy to complete a rational sentence, I’d take his soft, pudgy hands in my own and make the Sign of the Cross on his tiny body. Then I’d whisper a simple prayer I made up myself, a secret prayer that seemed a good fit for a newly anointed grandmother and her adored grandchild.

“Good night, Jesus.”
Jesus says, “Good night, Ray. I love you.”
“I love You too, Jesus.” Amen

During our prayer, my grandson usually regarded me with wide-eyed wonder. His arms and legs stopped moving. His face grew still and thoughtful. Perhaps he was trying to decipher my mysterious hand signals and exotic language. Maybe he was just too sleepy to fuss. Whatever his reasons, at the end of our prayer, when I tickled his tummy and gave him a big fat squeeze, he’d giggle and sputter and laugh out loud. Our evening send-off gave peaceful closure to the day and set the tone for a restful night ahead.

Today, my grandson races round the soccer field and camps out with his buddies. He has a dog named Max and loves to tell jokes. Overnight, it seems, he’s grown into a sturdy young man with a quick mind and kind heart. Our grace-filled times together have grown up too: Sunday Mass and Eucharist, prayers he’s apt to say himself. But the delicate spiritual connection that began with a baby’s prayer continues to be the stabilizing center of our relationship.

It’s a privilege to share my faith with every one of my grandchildren, a humbling experience that makes me feel valued and useful. In truth, I hadn’t expected the deep bonding and intangible rewards. I hadn’t expected to love them as I do. Exhausted from raising my own children, I thought I deserved a rest. Instead, my grandchildren appeared, wielding invisible lassos that tightened around my heart before I had time to catch my breath. Now, when I realize how much they mean to me, I know the link between us is just a faint reflection of God’s own powerful love, a glimmer of the deep and tender affection God has for us all.

Simple Guidelines
As a grandparent, my role is complementary, helping to initiate my grandchildren into a Catholic Christian community, encouraging a healthy spirituality that will grow as they do. I’m important, but I’m second string. I fill in when needed and reinforce the home team. Five simple guidelines keep me on track:

  1. SUPPORT THEIR PARENTS.
    Over the years, it’s been a treat to watch my parents sharing faith with their grandchildren — lighting candles at Mary’s altar, bringing the kids along for soup kitchen duty, explaining how a rosary works. My folks’ participation was a surprising relief to my husband and me: It meant we had backup in building a family of faith. Parents may be prime movers, but grandparents are effective, enthusiastic cheerleaders. Today, I know my supportive presence speaks louder than words, giving me a welcome tie to my children and grandchildren while keeping me from overstepping my bounds.
  2. MODEL A LIFE OF FAITH.
    I want to be the best grandparent I can be — kind, compassionate, generous, understanding. When my own faith is thriving, it’s easier to maintain balance and practice what I believe. It’s easier to let go of the impatience, irritability, and intolerance that invariably arise because I’m a human being. Nurturing an inner life, keeping spiritually fit through prayer and sacrament, and listening for God’s Word and direction each day are the surest guarantees that I’ll live my faith, not just talk about it. I can’t give what I haven’t got. If I focus on my own growth and hold myself accountable, I’ll have a better chance of modeling a belief system my grandchildren will want to emulate.
  3. EMBRACE TEACHABLE MOMENTS.
    When my youngest granddaughter was learning to pray, she’d interrupt dinner by grabbing her tablemates’ hands and reciting grace several times during a meal. She dearly loved the “Amen!’’ we’d chorus at the end of her solemn blessings. Hunger was put on hold and patience prevailed as we indulged her piety. These were teachable moments after all, short-lived bubbles of opportunity quick to float away. Such subtle invitations to impart faith occur whenever I’m with my grandchildren. At home, in church, on vacation, or in the car, I can point to the glory of God’s creation, inject forgiveness into times of confrontation,and set boundaries that promote harmony. I can choose birthday and holiday presents that encourage moral and religious formation. I can respond to childlike curiosity with answers that reflect a God who is nearby, concerned, and caring.
  4. HONOR THE GOD WITHIN.
    God is present and hard at work in my grandchildren. Each one breathes the Spirit of God in a way no one ever has nor ever will. God made them and embraces them more firmly than any doting grandparent could. Because of this, I can relinquish unrealistic expectations and acknowledge my grandchildren’s delightful diversity. I can release them into God’s hands and honor the plans God has for their lives. I can stop worrying and count the ways God guards and protects them.
  5. LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY.
    Unconditional love means I’m crazy about my grandkids whether they’re trailing sand through the living room or reading quietly in a corner, fighting with siblings or clearing the kitchen table without being asked. I may not approve of their every action, but I always approve of them. The best gift I can give my grandchildren is to love them as God does, with unconditional acceptance, expecting nothing in return. I’m really proud of you! You’re doing a fabulous job! I’m so glad I’m your Mimi! A grandparent’s random babbling often inspires the self esteem, security, and freedom our broken humanity seeks.


Gifts of Grandparenting
Grandchildren are among God’s greatest gifts to me. They’re entertaining sidekicks, built-in excuses for trips to the zoo, the park, the beach, or the movies. They’re dependable companions who inject fresh insights and hair-raising candor into my sometimes stuffy world.

Like aging, grandparenting isn’t for sissies. It’s spirit-lifting and soul-strengthening precisely because it demands time, effort, attention, and imagination. Ultimately, however, a grandparent’s payoff is joy. The magic that materializes when my grandchildren share their days and dreams with me naturally overflows into a mutual exchange of spiritual values. Adding this transforming layer of faith to our relationship makes the bond between us even more satisfying, more lasting, and more real. CD

How to grandparent a teenager
Grandparents are especially important to their teenage grandchildren. Here’s why:

Grandparents can teach them: Teenagers are especially interested in family history, grandparents’ personal experience, and in philosophical discussions about life, religion, love, marriage, politics, their grandparents’ times, life and death, being older.

Grandparents help with social and lifestyle issues: Go to the library or on the Web to find out what the kids are into. Listen to your grandchild’s music. Watch their favorite TV programs. Take your grandchild clothes shopping. Discuss their lifestyles with them in a learning, rather than critical mode.

Grandparents offer a safe sanctuary: When problems exist, an understanding, compassionate, nurturing, and stress-free environment is just what teenagers need. Parents will appreciate knowing that the children are safe while things cool down. Grandma’s is always a good place to go.

Parents benefit too: Teenagers can “overload” their parents with issues and problems. A weekend at Grandma’ and Grandpa’s gives parents a break and children feel good when Mom and Dad are having fun.

- Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, Foundation for Grandparenting

Thea Jarvis

Thea Jarvis, author of The Gift of Grandparenting and Everyday Hospitality (Ave Maria Press), lives on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where she enjoys entertaining her eight grandchildren.