My maternal grandmother was a religious scholar, a word I use in its strictest sense of “one who studies.” Religion wasn’t her profession but she studied it deeply. When I would spend the night at her house, I would wake up in the morning to the sound of her typing away, the typewriter making a rhythm of clicks and slides as she’d hit “return” at the end of each line and start all over again on the next. She labored diligently over notes from the religious books she was reading and on her death left us binders and binders of inspiration and exploration, from rigorous theological texts, to devotionals, to historical-biblical scholarship. When I tell my “call story” (fancy church lingo for “why I became a minister,”) my grandma always has a role.
It turns out I’m not alone. When we talk about raising children in the faith we usually focus on the role of parents. However, research is showing that grandparents can have an amazing influence on their grandchildren’s lives. This is true whether the child is growing up in a spiritual household or not.
Dr. Lisa Miller, a psychologist who has been studying spirituality in children and teens, points to the enormous importance of “intergenerational transmission” in the life of faith. Overall, she’s looking at how kids’ innate spirituality is developed along the way. The key factor is whether kids have a spiritual adult in their family.
This is good news for grandparents.
Even in a time when church attendance is decreasing and children may or may not be getting spiritual instruction at home, grandparents can become that spiritual guide. As Dr. Miller, grandparents are often in a prime position to become a spiritual partner for their grandchildren even if the child is being raised with religious or spiritual connection. “Very often a grandparent becomes this special spiritual partner even when the parents are healthy and functional and spiritually supportive. In our busy lives, so often it is a grandparent who sits and listens to a child’s questions, welcomes a child’s feelings and has deep talks at the kitchen table.”
So what does it take for grandparents to be a spiritual guide? Mostly it comes down to being a spiritual person yourself. Kids gravitate toward authentic spirituality. Let them see you at prayer, or invite them to join in your meditation practice. Share service projects with them and let them know this is part of your faith. Assuming the parents are agreeable, take the kids to worship or other church events when you can. Keep some story Bibles or religious picture books around for younger kids and some spiritually-based books for teens. The goal here isn’t to cram a bunch of religious education into them, it’s simply to open the door so that they know your faith life is enriching for you.
Perhaps most importantly, and the research supports this, make time to listen to them. Yes, 80% of the time it will be silliness and fads and whatever the latest news with their friends is but that other 20% of the time is worth waiting for. Those are the moments when they’ll open up about their hopes and joys and when they encounter an adult who is able to be present to them, they’ll flourish.