I’m a Grandfather. Now What?

Written by Stephen Gabriel:

I’m a grandfather. Indeed, I’ve been a grandfather for nearly 18 years. Moreover, I’m the grandfather of 35 grandchildren (and counting). My grandfatherhood is, in many ways, an extension of my fatherhood. I’ve always seen my children and grandchildren as my eternal legacy. All of my worldly accomplishments will soon be forgotten. I’m no Winston Churchill. But these souls that I’ve collaborated with God (and my wife) to create are forever. My primary responsibility as a father was to form my kids in the Catholic faith and help them grow in the virtues. But what is my role as a grandfather?

Ideally, my children are fulfilling their roles as good Catholic parents and from my vantage point, I think they are. What formative role do I have, if any? Or is my role merely one of being a friend and companion, going on outings together like fishing, museums and ice cream shops? To be honest, I’ve found that I have relatively few opportunities to have one-on-one outings, let alone conversations, with my grandchildren due to distance in some cases and the sheer number of grandkids I have. I certainly will take the opportunities to chat with them one-on-one at family gatherings. But those encounters are generally pretty brief and there are usually a number of other grandkids around that I’d like to catch up with as well. If you are able to take your grandchildren out on one-on-one excursions on a regular basis, you are indeed fortunate. What a joy for both you and your grandkids.

So, sadly, the one-on-one time spent with my grandchildren is pretty limited. No doubt, I could make more of an effort. But, frankly, carving out the time with each of them given their busy schedules would be a monumental challenge.

How could I play a more formative role in their lives? Fortunately, my eight kids are all practicing Catholics and we share the same values and aspirations for their children. So, any formative input I provide to my grandchildren would be reinforcing their efforts and helpful to my kids. But, as a grandparent, how can I pull this off? I don’t want to be the grandpa who launches into heavy conversations about virtues and the various life issues every time I have an opportunity to talk with my grandkids. I prefer to be and I think they would prefer that I be a grandpa who is fun to be with and who shows an interest in them and the things that are important to them. Depending on your situation, you may be able to have occasional serious formative conversations with your grandchildren. I urge you to take advantage of those opportunities. Open your heart to them. Make it a conversation, not a lecture.

Yet, I am deeply concerned about each of my grandchildren and their immortal souls. After a lot of thought and pondering, I decided to write letters to my grandchildren about things that matter—God, the Church, their sexuality, friendship, hardships, work, etc. In the letters I try to speak to my older grandchildren, those who are about 13 years old or older. There are many ways I could have delivered these letters. I could have sent each one of them one letter a month until I covered all the topics that I wanted to discuss with them (there are 16 topics). But that approach could have been disrupted for one reason or another over the course of 16 months. And who knows where I would be when the younger ones reached an age when they could appreciate and digest the subject matter contained in the letters. Most people have only a handful of grandchildren so this approach could work well for them.

I chose to put all sixteen letters in a single volume and bind them as a book. I gave a copy to each of my children for their review and asked whether their younger, junior high school-aged kids were ready for its contents. I was particularly concerned about the letter on their sexuality. I printed out enough books for all of my grandkids plus a few more for the grandchildren yet to be conceived. I signed each of the books of letters and gave them to each grandchild personally. I told them that each letter was written from my heart. Eventually, I’ll sign all the books and give them to their parents for safe keeping for the little ones. I’d like to do this while I still know their names.

How will my book of letters be received by my grandchildren? As the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Each of them will have to decide whether to read the letters and, if so, to take them to heart. For some, they will have little impact on their lives now but they may later in life. For others, they may have a profound influence on them and lead to wonderful conversations with me, their parents or a mentor. Regardless, my hope is that it is clear to them that their grandfather loves them deeply and wants only what is good for them.

Scepter Publishers has taken these letters and published them in a book entitled Hope for Your Grandchildren: Talking to the Third Generation About What Matters. My hope is that these letters may be helpful to other grandparents in formulating discussions with their grandkids or in drafting their own letters. Our grandchildren are living in a world that is confusing and, in many ways, toxic. We can help them, together with their parents, to navigate the turbulent waters of life by providing our friendship and some heartfelt words of wisdom.