By Richard Kew
When in 1985 our family moved to Sewanee, Middle Tennessee was very different than it is now. I often jokingly described Nashville back then as a hick city with rhinestones. Middle Tennessee was less prosperous: unemployment was horrendous, Music City’s symphony was on the verge of going under, and the city had a less cluttered skyline. Nashville has since become fashionable. Hundreds of thousands of people have packed up their belongings and moved here. Alas, this means much of the beautiful farmland and countryside on the edge of the city, where our home is, has been plowed under by rapacious developers, but that’s another story.
Nashville is very much an “in” city: thousands of young families settling, and then in their wake come legions of grandparents. The Economist (Jan. 16, 2023) tells us that grandparents are globally one of the fastest-growing demographics; there are approximately 1.5 billion of us (2.1 billion by 2050), and with family sizes shrinking there are relatively fewer children for us to dote on!
COVID and the seemingly unstoppable inflow of people is changing St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville. Seldom does a week go by when new families don’t find their way to our doors, accompanied or followed by grandparents. The older folks, usually aging Boomers, are most often attracted here by their little ones, and a desire to be involved in their children and grandchildren’s lives. (In the Kew family we did it the other way round. When Rosemary and I moved back to our home in Middle Tennessee after a spell overseas, our daughters, who both grew up in Sewanee, migrated back, bringing their families to us.)
As with many seniors, grandparenting is at or near the top of our priorities. The presence of our four grandkids, ages 10- to 17, is a constant reminder to us that contemporary grandparenting is a very different ball of wax, a perception endorsed by so many other grandparents, both new and long-timers in the congregation. With this in mind, we decided to try a 12-week forum looking at Christian grandparenting as a Christian Education offering. Three couples launched the Grandparents Forum, hoping we might draw a dozen more participants and reckoning we had enough material to keep us from September to Christmas.
Numbers have steadily increased, and even out-of-town grandparents join with us when here with their families who live locally. The camaraderie of fellowship has deepened, and once comfortable together, participants started raising being grandparents amid the issues today’s world has spawned. Around Thanksgiving, we floated the idea of another semester and got a unanimously positive response. By January we had sort of developed an Epiphany-Lent program that builds on the biblical undergirding of the fall. Almost every week there are new faces — often anxious folks wanting to be the best grandparents possible. Some who have become engaged with the forum have not ever been traditionally involved in Christian Ed. Fellowship and the desire to take grandparenting seriously brings them at first, and keeps them coming back for more.
While living around us isn’t always easy, grandparents inevitably play an important role in extended family life. They are the ones who pass on traditional beliefs, stories, songs, a sense of history, the continuity of any one family. Grandparents play a crucial role in helping to raise children, enabling parents to work outside the home, or being another pair of helping hands for the increasing numbers whose technology lets them work from home. Whilst this burden has traditionally fallen on grandmas’ shoulders, more grandpas are eagerly involving themselves with their grandkids.
Even though in theory we knew that our grandchildren are growing up in a very different world, only as we started digging into it have we realized just how dissimilar it is. Values are more fluid, and our children’s children are born into the digital environment that is enveloping everything. Technology and social media are the air they breathe, providing great advantages, while rife with pitfalls.
One advantage is that wherever we live and wherever our grandchildren are, it is much easier to keep in touch with them. The Internet makes it possible for families to remain connected as never before. We have friends in England whose daughter’s family lived in New Zealand. Time zones made it possible for the laptop to be on their breakfast table while on the other side of the world the family did the same at their evening meal. This was before smartphones had really taken off. Several members of our Grandparents Forum have developed a daily conversation with their grandkids through texting, and phone calls cost next to nothing compared with just a few years ago.
On the down side, the culture raises issues that are bewilderingly new to us oldies, in many respects there are ways that this is tougher for kids growing up today. We are being confronted by issues like gender identity, sexuality, eating disorders, depression, and suicide when it comes to the kids’ lives, but there are also increased complexities in our relationships with our daughters- and sons-in-law. Then there is the challenge of kids being raised by a single parent, or in the custody of our child’s former spouse or partner. In the past the religious issues were more likely to be denomination; now are children might have married into a totally different religion like Hinduism, or of no religion at all, often bitterly opposed to the Christian faith. We are discovering that some of the things we do which we think are helpful are a burden to our sons or daughters, and then we are being as an interfering pain in the back. Being grandparents requires a degree of humility.
Being involved grandparents means learning how to provide a loving, praying, caring presence in the life of the extended family, and knowing where the potholes might be — especially in a rapidly changing culture. Grandparents are important anchors in the life of a family, linking our grandkids with their roots, but also there to model in a gently and loving way what it means to be a disciple of Christ. We are in many respects something of a safety net, there in differing ways for our grandchildren and for their parents. We are representatives of their past, where they came from, but we are also a vital bond with their Christian legacy, especially our Anglican and Episcopal heritage.
This is just an interim report on a work in progress. We are realizing a lot, almost every week unaware of just how untutored we were when we started sharing the journey of grandparenting. We have a long way to go. But at the heart of it all is love for our grandchildren and a desire for them to grow up not just to be good and wholesome citizens, but faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. We often are the ones who have the time to listen and then perhaps to talk through things they raise — which means giving them time and being open to whatever it is, mundane or magnificent, that is on their minds.
Grandparenting is an artform and not a science, a joy and not a burden, and for all of us who have reached this point in life a profound responsibility. The Grandparent Forum works well in a large parish like St. George’s, and it is our attempt to enable ourselves in this ministry to our children and children’s children. Different sorts of congregations will address the challenge differently. A high school teacher who spoke to us the other week is a member of a smallish nondenominational congregation. He told his pastor he wouldn’t be there the coming Sunday because he was going to be with us. His pastor replied, “Bill, see what you can learn from them. Something like this for grandparents would be wonderful for us, too.”