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Grandparents as Spiritual Guides for the Family

Religious faith, heritage and tradition–what makes this such a compelling matter in the relationship between grandparent and grandchild?

Just think back to your own relationship with your grandparents. Many of us carry warm memories of Grandma’s kitchen at holiday time, Grandpa’s stories of his ancestors or simply the feeling of connection that came from looking around the room and seeing all those family members gathered for a christening, a baptism or a bar mitzvah. For some, those potent memories may recall religious ritual–attending church, mosque, synagogue or temple with a beloved grandparent, hearing their singing or chanting, or learning the hymns or prayers through their teaching.

Pearl Graham loves to take her grandchildren to her Presbyterian church with her. “When they stay overnight with me on a weekend, I tell them to bring their church clothes,” the Aurora grandmother says. That’s how her 13-year-old granddaughter ended up handing out church programs and picking up the collection plate with her grandma on a recent Sunday when extra volunteers were needed.

For others it may be a more general sense of something spiritual, the glow of Christmas lights, a spirited discussion at the Passover seder, or any of the idiosyncratic family rituals that developed in your home around holiday times, rites of passage or just afternoons hanging around with grandparents.

At the Boslow home, Friday night Sabbath dinner was the spiritual highlight of the week. Marilyn Boslow, now of Frisco, continued her tradition of those multigenerational dinners even as her daughters grew into adulthood, warning their mother all the while that their lives were busy and not to expect them at the celebratory meals. Nevertheless, something was clearly compelling about welcoming the Sabbath at a family gathering because Boslow’s daughters kept returning to share those dinners with their parents and grandmothers, straight through the addition of the next generation, adding Boslow’s grandchildren to the family table.

Connection and Continuity

When it comes to grandchildren and faith, why do we care so much? Grandparents don’t usually expect to have a say in where their grandkids go to school or camp, who they associate with or what career they choose. Yet, many care profoundly whether and where their grandchildren practice religion.

Questions about how today’s grandparents pass on their heritage to up-and-coming generations are frequently discussed between friends, among members of religious organizations, even in online forums for grandparents.

It’s all about connection, says Valarie King, an associate professor of sociology at Penn State University. As a contributor to the book Children of the Land, which explores family connections in Iowa’s farm country, King studied grandparents and religion. Through her research she concluded that “religion is a factor that holds families together.” Based on the extensive survey data she reviewed, King notes that the grandparents who were more involved with their religion were also more involved with their grandkids.

For psychologist Carolyn Newberger, an involved grandma herself, it’s primarily about continuity; that preserving one’s heritage is a way of keeping our ancestors alive through our kids, and our kids’ kids. As a grandparent, Newberger says, “I stand in a place that stretches behind me and ahead of me. Through me, my grandchildren will carry forward what I remember.” She also points out that it is practices, as well as memories, that children and grandchildren carry on.

These ideas of continuity and connection seem to be intertwined. “Being human is a very fragile condition,” she continues. “Our antidote to our fragility is our connections–past and current.”

Graham articulates the same sentiment with a more specifically religious slant, explaining that faith has enabled her family to endure lots of tragedies. “Without our faith, I don’t know how we’d get through,” she says.

Grandparents want their grandkids to have the strength that comes with that grounded, connected feeling, Newberger points out, and knowing one’s roots can enhance that. Family, religious and cultural traditions are some of the ways we get to experience those roots with all our senses. (See “.”)

Newberger goes on to describe other values she hopes her grandkids, now preschool and elementary age, will develop over time, including humility, responsibility and a sense of balance–attributes she finds are learned through family connections and seeing oneself as a link in a network of family members.

Modern Times, Modern Questions

It’s not the same as when we were growing up, when grandparents were more likely to live down the street, around the corner, or even under the same roof as their adult children. Now the question, more often than not, is How do I share my background with my grandchildren who live hours or even oceans away?

A couple generations ago, we were also more likely to “stick to our own,” observes Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., the founder and president of the Foundation for Grandparenting. Then our faith was likely the same as that of our grandparents. But that’s not a matter most can take for granted now when inter-religious, intercultural, and inter-racial marriages are far more common.

Can I still pass on my love of my religion to grandchildren raised in a different faith? And, if so, what are the ground rules? These are key questions today, according to Ronnie Friedland, who has covered this matter in response to frequent inquiries from visitors to

Grandparenting is a role that has had to change to adapt to current times, but it’s as important as ever. “Distance affects contact,” King says, “but not feelings of connection” between grandparents and grandkids.

For many whose children have married out of their faith, grandparenting “requires a lot of love and understanding,” says Kornhaber, who’s researched about this role for the past 30 years. Fortunately, he’s observed over those years an increased tolerance for difference. That’s nothing short of a miracle, says the prolific author whose recent books include The Grandparents Guide and Spirit.

Still, Friedland notes, “You grow up and expect your grandkids to carry on your traditions. It’s important to respect that loss” when children choose another path. But that’s not the same as insisting you should have a say in how grandchildren are raised.

“For the world to continue, we will have to appreciate diversity,” says Gerane Rundstrom, a Centennial great-grandmother in her 70s. “I don’t try to impose my beliefs on my grandkids,” says this church-going Presbyterian. “I think children need early training in religion, whatever religion it is . . .  One of my grandsons is Jewish. I think he should be that fully, and he is.”

Rundstrom also has one son who is Catholic and a daughter who’s Baptist. “I’ve learned so much about religion from my family members,” she says. Clearly open-minded since her own parenting days, she recalls her years as an on-the-move military wife. When the family lived in Jakarta, her son, John, enjoyed spending time with the Muslim houseboy. She allowed John to go to the mosque and explore what must have seemed a very exotic religion. “I remember he really liked Ramadan,” she adds.

Rundstrom also recalls her own father, a very religious man, who she describes as too intolerant. “He almost turned me against religion,” she says. “He made me resentful.” It’s a message worth heeding for any grandparents struggling to embrace a religious perspective different from their own. If grandchildren are being raised in a different faith, Kornhaber advises, “try to learn about the other faith. Don’t make it into a contest.”

Focus on the sense of spirituality, he encourages, reminding us that “it’s all about God.” Kornhaber recommends speaking openly and respectfully with your adult children about the grandchildren and concerns about religion. If the situation remains uncomfortable, he suggests seeking the help of a family counselor.

Grandparents Have a Direct Line

The good news, according to Kornhaber, is that what transpires between grandparents and grandkids is unique and powerful, thanks to what he calls a special communication system making grandparents ideally suited to the role of “spiritual guide.”

“Religion is passed more easily from grandparent to grandchild than from parent to child because of how a child views a grandparent,” he says, referring to the unconditional love more easily established between grandparent and grandchild than between two of closer generations.

Friedland points to the frequency with which a child takes on the religion of a grandparent in adulthood, or marries a partner of the grandparent’s faith, even if it’s different from that of his or her parents. She encourages grandparents to make use of opportunities to share their religious traditions with grandchildren. She’s found that children who don’t get exposure to this aspect of their grandparents’ lives can, later in life, end up feeling like they missed out on those rich traditions.

“It’s very sensual,” Kornhaber points out. “Grandparents feed a child spiritual wonder about the world.”

His point, a very powerful one when you consider it, is that what is relayed to grandchildren about one’s heritage transfers easily through the grandparenting relationship, through the things we do naturally with our loved ones.

“Grandchildren are arriving at the same time as grandparents are moving toward leaving,” observes Kornhaber. In grandparents, and for some, great-grandparents, children “sense their importance as links in the family history–and the impermanence of that,” adds Newberger. Because of that timing issue, Kornhaber says it’s a relationship “hardwired for (communicating) spiritual and emotional knowledge.”

In other words, Kornhaber believes grandparenting is by its very nature a spiritual role. “There’s something cosmic about that bond,” he says. “You just have to be together . . . No work involved!”


The Grandparent Guide: The Definitive Guide to Coping with the Challenges of Modern Grandparenting, by Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Mingled Roots: A Guide for Grandparents of Interfaith Children, by Sunie Levin and Dahlia Schoenberg, URJ Press, 2003.

18Doors:18Doors empowers people in interfaith relationships— individuals, couples, families and their children—to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and encourages Jewish communities to welcome them.

This article originally appeared in and is reprinted with permission of the author. Visit

Janet Strassman Perlmutter

Janet Strassman Perlmutter is a family therapist and a frequent contributor to “Get Up & Go.” Her last article for was “New Thinking About Community Involvement.”