The Grandfather’s Vocation.
by Peter J. Leithart.
October was Grandchildren Month for my wife and me. Early in the month, two new Leithart boys entered the world, each a first son of one of my sons. With their births, our grandchild tally rises to fifteen. For those keeping score, grandsons have moved into a fourth-inning 8-7 lead over granddaughters, though I hasten to add that it’s not (yet) a competition. At the end of the month, we visited my oldest son, father to the two teenage boys who are our oldest grandchildren.
Newborns and teenagers—just like old times for us. It’s also our future. Only half of my children are married, so I anticipate more grandchildren, with a growing age spread that will include teens, tweens, and toddlers for a long while. Age spread is old news to us too, and it creates some odd twists in the family tree. More than two decades separate our oldest from our youngest child; my oldest was off to college by the time his youngest sister was born. Though they’re in the same family, they have never lived in the same house. Yet in some ways, the age spread binds the family together. My youngest daughter is closer in age to her oldest nephew than to any of her siblings. It’s likely that some of my great-grandchildren will be roughly the same age as some of my grandchildren. Greats and grands will mingle like cousins, bridging the gap of generations.
“Bridge” is a clue to what I take to be my vocation as a grandfather. We all know the joke: Grandparents take revenge on their kids by spoiling their grandkids, then handing the toxic little monsters back to their parents to deal with the fallout. I don’t accept it, and not just because I’m not overly fond of spoiled kids. Our calling is precisely the opposite: We love, care for, and teach our grandchildren to honour their parents so they grow up to bear a heritage of Christian faith and are prepared to do the same for their children and their children’s children. We can’t reach a thousand generations (Exod. 20:6), but we can reach to a third, or, if the Lord wills, embrace a fourth.
And our influence extends further. By leaving an imprint on our grandkids, we throw a line to generations we’ll never live to see. I want my grandchildren to tell their grandchildren about my wife and me, as I reminisce to them about my grandparents. To be a grandparent is to build a bridge of hope from the past into the future.
Since we’re mostly long-distance grandparents, much of our influence on our grandchildren is indirect, through our continuing relationships with our kids. My wife and I unsentimentally raised our children to leave home, but I didn’t stop being a father when my kids shut the door on their way out. Being father to adult sons and daughters is, of course, drastically different from being a father to young children. My family isn’t a clan, with me perched at the peak as grizzled patriarch. Each marriage creates a new family, as a son and a daughter leave their homes to cling to each other as one flesh. My adult children make their own decisions, form their own opinions, set their own trajectories in life. They have become something like my peers, younger (sometimes much younger) siblings. This isn’t a diminution of fatherhood but an enhancement. In the ultimate, Triune family, Father and Son are distinct, yet fully equal in power and glory. Since it more closely resembles the archetypal fatherhood of our heavenly Father, being father to adult children is mature fatherhood.
In the final decades of his long life, my father was my biggest booster, cheering me on at every step. I want to be the same to my children. Besides, I’ve been where they are. I once chose a career and a wife and a life path. My wife and I have faced financial crunches and life-changing decisions. We’ve been parents to infants, toddlers, and teens—sometimes all at once—and I hope we learned a thing or two along the way. My children are launching and pursuing careers, finding and loving spouses, and raising children for the first time, and I don’t want to be unreachable when they need and ask for help. Our role as grandparents isn’t to spoil our grandkids, but to help our kids not to spoil theirs.
Grandparents uniquely encompass generations. We encourage our children to remain faithful through adulthood, as we urge our grandchildren to be faithful children to their parents. Grandparents are agents of the Spirit to fulfill the words of the last verse of the Old Testament, which promises a new Elijah who will “turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6).
(This article was originally published on the “First Things” website at: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/ 2021/11/the-grandfathers-vocation).