Grandparenting and the Transcendent Summons

Introduction

Imagine the stereotypical American grandparents. Once you have the outline, start filling in the details. What picture emerges? Maybe something like what Ogden Nash said, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.” Or maybe the oft-repeated assertion that it’s the grandparent’s job description “to spoil the grandchildren and send them home.” This philosophy of grandparenting is to give the grandchildren whatever they want. If the children want more candy, then more candy they get. If the children want more fast food and TV, then they get that too. If the child wants a certain toy for Christmas, the grandparents buy it with no other considerations.

The reason these grandparents give the grandchildren whatever they want is that they want to be beloved. They want to be the child’s favorite. They want to be at the center of the child’s affection. This is why the stereotypical grandparents buy so much stuff for their grandkids, often against the pleading of the parents. This is why some grandparents insist the grandkids are perfect and incapable of wrong, offering excuses for their sin. The only time grandchildren don’t get what they want is if they play in traffic or touch the stove. Then they are told “no!”

If there is to be a generational advance of wise and faithful Christian grandparents, we must construct a definite vision of what kind of grandparent God prefers. And that vision must be right, thereby making other visions wrong. It’s time to publicly admit that there is a distinction between stereotypical American grandparents and a Christian vision for grandparenting. The former sets goals solely on a horizontal plane. The latter is living according to a transcendent summons.

The Biblical pattern is covenant succession. It’s not only in the Old Testament where God’s covenant is passed through the generations (Gen. 15:5, 18:19, 22:15-19). The New Covenant promise is also “for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39). Prosperity “is to see your children’s children” (Psalm 128:5-6). This means that the ordinary way God’s Kingdom advances is through covenant families handing the faith to the next generation. This is an intergenerational project that has implications not just for parenting, but for grandparenting.

Grandparenting is part of fulfilling God’s promise of covenant succession. Christian families should expect Christian grandparents to have an active role in passing on the faith.[1] All the love that grandparents give should flow from the goal to bless the grandkids not just materially, but also spiritually. This is the pattern Moses gave the Israelites in Dt. 6:2, “That you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.” So, not only should the church love grandparents, but equip today’s parents to become tomorrow’s faithful grandparents.

Is the stereotypical image of American grandparenting a Christian image? What would it mean for Christian grandparents to conscientiously scrap the American vision of grandparenting? What would a biblical vision of Christian grandparenting look like? What would be the long-term result of such an iconoclastic vision?

The responsibility of grandparents is distributed across two spheres: (1) Their relationship with their children (2) Their relationship with their grandchildren

Relationship with their children

The influence of grandparents is different than that of parents. Parents are in the front seat. They have control of the wheel and decide which turns to take. Parents have the responsibility to keep the car out of the ditch. They have to keep their eyes on the road and decide when to stop for food. Grandparents need to be in the backseat. Their hands are not on the wheel and their eyes don’t have to be fixed on the road. They can look out the window and perceive the terrain. They might even recognize a few of the landmarks because they’ve driven down this road before.

Grandparents are equipped as resources for raising the next generation. But they must stay in the backseat. Parents are in charge of raising their children in the Lord. Grandparents are given to help, but not interfere. A mother shouldn’t have to contend with critical in-laws. Nothing good results from meddling grandparents.

Even when parents and grandparents share the same Christian goals for children, the details of how they carry out their parenting will look different. In the relationship with their children, grandparents must show restraint and not offer advice without solicitation. In a moment we will see that wisdom is the quintessential virtue of grandparents. The wise soul knows that uninvited counsel is usually scorned. Aesop said to “distrust unsolicited advice” and most people do. It’s best to wait until guidance is requested. The avuncular manner will prove winsome in the end.

Relationship with their grandchildren

It’s appropriate that grandparents are smitten with their grandkids. After all, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged” (Prov. 17:6). One of the felicities of a child’s life should be their grandparents. It is a special relationship. Grandparents cheer for their grandchildren and take them to lunch. They display outward affection for them and revel in bringing joy. Grandparents attend games and recitals and use their home as a magnet point for family gatherings. But all this must rise higher than the goal of being the center of the grandchildren’s affection. The goal should be to influence the grandchildren so that Christ is the center of their loyalty.

Grandparenting is a different responsibility than parenting. But it is still a responsibility that ought to be fulfilled “unto the Lord” (Rom. 14:8) and “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). The righteous person will “still bear fruit in old age” because “they are ever full of sap and green” (Ps. 92:14). Bearing fruit as a grandparent means influencing the grandchildren. Not the sort of influence that is bought and paid for with expensive gifts, but is earned through the gravitas of gray hairs.

In many cultures of the world, the elderly are esteemed. This was once the case in the United States. People exaggerated their age upward to gain the honor of old age. Now, people exaggerate downward. Now, young people’s fresh ideas are privileged and old people are obsolete relics.[2] Young people are recommended as the model of Christian living. The virtue of their zeal is contrasted with adult apathy. When the cultural ethos values the young over the old that is because they value strength over wisdom (Prov. 20:29).

Not only do young people value strength over wisdom, but when they seek advice, they default to their peer group. Grandparents are fighting an uphill battle. They must make wisdom more attractive than strength. This won’t happen when their lone job is to indulge the grandchildren, forgetting the sage words of novelist P.D. James, “If from infancy you treat children as gods, they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.”

Wisdom can be made attractive when grandparents have profound and attractive things to share. The hope is that the grandkids are drawn to those sages who see through the fashions, who see life for what it is because they’ve caught glimpses of the deeper significance of things. Jordan Peterson draws large audiences by telling people “Pick up your responsibility, pick up the heaviest thing you can and carry it.” Why are young men grabbed by Peterson’s countercultural message? Because their father and grandfather never taught them these things. The Peterson phenomenon proves that given the option, scads of young people will trade in the brassy sounds of their peers for the golden wit of many years. There is something winsome about a life where righteousness looks normal and sin looks strange. If grandparents want to be more than a year-round Santa Clause, they have to manifest wisdom.

God commands grandparents to share their wisdom with their grandchildren. Deuteronomy 4:9 says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” While it’s sensible for grandparents to avoid dispensing advice to their children until invited, they have expanded leeway to share their treasure trove of hard-earned wisdom with their grandchildren.

This doesn’t mean they should impose upon their grandkids, or seek to subjugate them to the olden days. Dispensing wisdom is a matter of prudent moderation, and moderation is the way to maintain the dignity fitting for old age. A wise Christian of many years ought to have storehouses of wisdom to share. This might be sorted into two categories. The first, we might call the knowledge of nature. This is the knowledge of God’s world, including science, history, and literature. While this type of academic knowledge may be useful, it is unequal in importance to the second category, what we might call the knowledge of virtue.

In the Bible, age signifies wisdom. Job 12:12 says, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” This is why we are to “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom” (Job 32:7). “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Prov. 20:29). This is why Solomon sought the expertise of older men (1 Kings 12:6). Wisdom is not the accumulation of facts, but following the path of right living. Christian wisdom is the fruit that results from interaction with the truth of Scripture, reflection on its meaning, and the virtuous life that grows hence. The person of wisdom knows how to act in a variety of situations, pray in all circumstances, rejoice in suffering, love the weak, and enjoy the mundane simplicities of life. The collective wisdom of many generations is shared through a life well-lived.

But old age doesn’t automatically produce wisdom, as the old English proverb says, “There is no fool like an old fool.” Some men of age habituate the speculation of jaded years rather than the hope of the Lord. Some gray heads haven’t increased in learning (Prov. 1:5) or cultivated self-control (Prov. 25:28). Some octogenarians want to give advice having never received it (Prov. 12:15, 13:10, 19:20). Some golden-agers despise their neighbors (Prov. 14:21) and fear the wrong thing (Prov. 9:10). There is something deeply wrong when the church is filled with senior citizens whose stock of wisdom is small. Being a faithful grandparent starts long before the blinking eyes of grandbabies are looking back at them. It takes years of accumulated wisdom.

Faithful grandparenting starts with a wise person. The young are unlikely to appreciate the outcome of their grandparent’s way of life (Heb. 13:7) if they lack wisdom. Grandchildren should see that their grandparent’s life has substance. Substance means maintaining joy while the body breaks down due to age. It means giving words of hope in Christ and eliminating the entire wasteland of hyper-critical words about neighbors, waiters, and relatives. It means accumulating godly habits and customs: daily prayer, writing letters, taking time for people, and treasuring their spouse of fifty years. Grandchildren should see their grandparents faithfully live by everything they know to be true. And for Christians, that means to live as God-fearing saints.

Conclusion

The topic of grandparenting is an oak tree with many branches. And in the real world, many of those branches have an ugly case of canker disease. The various ways Christian families have withered during previous generations tell us that not every situation is ideal. There are scores of statistics about absentee fathers. That is a multiplier statistic because today’s absentee father is tomorrow’s absentee grandfather. It’s a double hit. Undoubtedly even some Christian parents who were raised in Christian homes think, “I don’t want my kids overly influenced by the parents that raised me.” In the grandparenting ethos proposed here, the point is to cast a vision for the future. It’s not written mainly for existing grandparents, but future ones.

Fish were designed to swim, the stars to twinkle, and grandparents to leave indelible marks. Your concern can’t be to point the finger of judgment at the grandparents around you. Rather, look to the future. Look to the day you will be a grandparent. Set out this day to leave a spiritual legacy for your family. If you are a parent of school-aged children, your transcendent summons starts with stewarding your little platoon. And as you raise the next generation, don’t forget to think at least two generations ahead. One day you will be in the fraternity of Christian grandparents. What kind of grandparent will you be? The answer to that question starts with a continuous advance in a definable direction. Let’s start asking, What does it mean for grandparents to “bear fruit” (Ps. 92:14) and fulfill their responsibility “unto the Lord” (Rom. 14:8) and “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14)? But let’s not just ask the question. Let’s prepare to live out the answer.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] There are numerous questions this short essay doesn’t address, for example, what role non-Christian grandparents should play in the Christian home and what to do when the parents are delinquent and the grandparents have to raise the children.

[2] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 18.