Grandparenting: Needed, Now More Than Ever


Grandparents and grandchildren enrich one another's lives in many ways, according to Arthur Kornhaber, who has spent 30 years researching the emotional bond between the two generations.

For someone Joan Guenther’s age, it’s hard to be excited about a milkweed pod.

That’s why she loves spending time with her grandson, John Michael. For the 4-yearold, it was hard not to be excited when she showed him the sprout with milky drops hidden inside it.

Being a grandparent lets you “see things new again,” says Guenther, a grandmother of 10 from Ann Arbor, Mich. “You see their joy at seeing these little things and it’s fun again.”

Grandparents and grandchildren enrich one another’s lives in many ways, according to Arthur Kornhaber, who has spent 30 years researching the emotional bond between the two generations.

But society doesn’t encourage grandparents to be intimate figures in their grandchildren’s lives, adds Kornhaber, author of Grandparents/Grandchildren: The Vital Connection.

The factors he cites: far-flung families, divorce, generational disconnect and the culture of TV- and day-care.

But many authorities, including Pope John Paul II, emphasize that healthy grandparent-grandchild relationships are especially needed in today’s world.

The Holy Father wrote in last year’s Letter to the Elderly, that old people are becoming less integrated into family and social life while “their role becomes ever more important, above all in the care and education of grandchildren.”

He pointed out that, ironically, in the countries where the elderly have been moved out of mainstream life, “young couples, in fact, find grandparents an indispensable help. ... On the one hand, the elderly person is marginalized, while being sought after on the other.”

“The Christian community can receive much from the serene presence of older people,” the Pope wrote. “I think first of all in terms of evangelization: Its effectiveness does not depend principally on technical expertise. In how many families are grandchildren taught the rudiments of faith by their grandparents!”

Indeed, it is likely that more and more grandparents, should they choose to accept the responsibility, act as the main instructors in the faith for their grandchildren. An estimated 3.9 million children under the age of 18 currently live in their grandparents’ home, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau, an increase of almost 80% since 1970.

Becoming an involved grandparent begins before grandchildren are born, says Kornhaber, who is also the founder and president of The Foundation for Grandparenting, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting the importance of grandparenting.

He tells future grandparents to first “garden their children’s marriage.”

“It’s important ... to try to become friendly with the person the child marries rather than put the child in between the child’s own parents and the spouse,” Kornhaber says. “To have a good open relationship with your grandchildren, you have to also have a good relationship with their parents.”

Kornhaber also advises future grandparents to attend their grandchildren’s births if possible.

“It is one of the most powerful moments in life,” Kornhaber says. “Grandparents should try to be around at least in the waiting room.”

Grandparents should listen carefully to what their children want, let their children know that they’re there to help, and follow through on the offer of assistance, he adds.

To accomplish this, however, many of today’s grandparents must overcome an attitude that overemphasizes emotional independence in family relationships.

According to this unspoken belief, Kornhaber says, offering financial and emotional support equals “meddling,” giving advice or opinion equals “controlling,” and expressing interest in the lives of the other equals “interference.”

Julia Nelson, author of New-Fashioned Grandparenting: Changing America One Grandchild at a Time, urges grandparents to be diplomatic in approaching their relationships with their children and grandchildren.

"Grandparents need to make a genuine effort to respect the wants and needs of the parents,” says the grandmother of five. “But that doesn’t preclude them from being involved.”


One way parents and grandparents foster a strong relationship with their children and impart faith and values is by example.

“The good example is always the best evangelization,” says Father Angelo Henry Camacho, a Dominican based in Jersey City, N.J., and founder of the Latin American Secretariat of Worldwide Marriage Encounter.

Nelson encourages grandparents to approach their role as conveyors of values to the younger generations very seriously.

“I believe it’s really critical in this society for grandparents to take an active role in sharing old values and beliefs,” she says. “It’s our job, our responsibility in the third state of life.”

Germain Grisez, professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., says grandparents need to think hard about their obligation to be witnesses of the faith to their grandchildren.

“They have an obligation to do what they reasonably can to promote their well-being and being properly catechized is certainly more important than physical health or being educated,” Grisez says.

But he emphasizes that grandparents must also consider their own responsibilities and limitations such as distance and health.

“People ought to think about and discern what I really ought to do and what I can do here,” he says.

Transmitting the Catholic faith to their grandchildren is very important for Joan and Mike Guenther of Ann Arbor, Mich.

When they’re caring for the youngest generation they take them to Mass and Eucharistic adoration. When they celebrate a grandchild’s birthday, they always read aloud Psalm 139, a tradition Joan started with her own children.

“It lets them know that that’s how God makes every one of us,” Guenther says. “We’re wonderfully made and he knows us.”

Prayer is also important to Joan and Mike.

“One of our essential roles as grandparents is to pray for our grandchildren and we do that every day,” Joan says.

David and Peggy McCarthy, of North Haven, Conn., demonstrate the importance of prayer to their grandchildren by saying grace at meals.

Another way grandparents can catechize their grandchildren is by giving them sacramentals. Crosses, statues and other religious items, often handed down in families, convey the importance of the faith and help memorialize the giver.

Although developing a strong connection with a grandchild might seem like a lot of work, Kornhaber reminds grandparents that their relationship with their grandchildren is not a one-way street.

As he writes in Grandparent Power: How to Strengthen the Vital Connection Among Grandparents, Parents and Children, even as you teach and inspire your grandchildren, they can teach and inspire you.


Mary Zurolo. “Grandparenting: Needed, Now More Than Ever.” National Catholic Register (November 5-12, 2000).

Reprinted with Permission of National Catholic Register.


Mary Zurolo first wrote about grandparenting for Catholic Faith & Family magazine.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register

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