Grandparents as Parents

Now more than ever grandparents are being called upon to rear their grandchildren. According to a recent nationwide study, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising their grandchildren here in the U.S.[1]Although there are countless reasons and scenarios in which a grandchild may need to live with their grandparents, the most common situations (68%) are related to substance abuse, abandonment, abuse and neglect. The number of grandparents raising their grandchildren is steadily increasing, and I believe, both as a pastor and someone who lived with his grandparents, it is time that we, the Church, take notice of this growing population within our congregations, seek to understand their unique struggles and start considering how we work together to support and reach out to them.

The Challenges Grandparents Face Raising Their Grandchildren

Raising your children is one thing, but raising your grandchildren is another thing, and presents its own set of challenges. Through interviewing a few grandparents (and senior family members raising a child) and conducting some research I put together a non-exhaustive list that I hope will better illuminate their reality.

1. Decreased physical strength and energy

As of 2000, the average age people become grandparents is 50 years old. While that may not seem very old, that is a significant gap from the average age of a first-time parent. I think it goes without saying that your physical stamina and energy levels change drastically between 25 and 50 years, and raising children takes a lot of energy. Many grandparents are physically fatigued and depleted by the rigors of rearing children in their fifties, sixties and seventies. For some it means making bottles again, changing diapers, chasing toddlers, extracurricular activities and parent-teacher conferences in what some would say should be the golden years of their lives.

2. Lifestyle changes

For many previously empty nesters, raising their grandchildren completely reshapes their lives. In one interview, the relative stated that they now had to make sure they were home in time to get their grandniece off the bus, whereas prior to that, they were able to work overtime or even go grocery shopping before coming home for the night. For many grandparents, what was leisure time now has new demands placed on it.

3. Schooling and educational gap

The average grandparent is years removed from their time in school, and so much as changed in the education system since then. Let’s face it, apart from that which is relevant to our lives and work, much of what we learn is forgotten because we just haven’t found much use for the Pythagorean Theorem in our lives after 10th grade geometry! One grandmother, who is 48 years removed from her high school experience, shared with me that she had to relearn advanced algebra in order to help her grandchild with math homework. As a result of this gap, many children raised by grandparents are behind academically.

4. Income

One out of five grandparents raising their grandchildren are living beneath poverty level. It is estimated that the unemployment rate of grandparents caring for their grandchildren is 41%. Since most grandparents raising their grandchildren are doing so on a fixed income, things like school clothes or even groceries can be a struggle.

The Local Church Can and Should Reach Out

I believe that seeking to minister to specific populations is something we should passionately engage in and something that will ultimately be in the Church’s best interest. Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren have not just taken on the custodial responsibilities of those children, but, in a sense, they also taken the abandoned spiritual responsibilities biblically given by God to the parents. With millennials becoming less religious and Generation X’s mass exodus from the church, Baby Boomers account for about 40% of most church memberships – and many of them are raising their grandchildren or bringing their grandchildren to church with them. More than 50% of these grandparents talk regularly to their grandchildren about their problems, morality, values and spirituality. Our grandparents raising their grandchildren (and others brining younger relatives to church) are a relational link into the lives of young people that we would otherwise be disconnected from. While each congregation has to look at this reality and what they can offer to these forgotten families, here a few things that I believe could be helpful to consider based on the struggles listed above and the conversations I’ve had.

  1. Homework help clubs with volunteer tutors at the church or a local community center.

  2. Sunday Breakfast program for children. Some parents use getting early up to make breakfast for children on Sunday as an excuse for not sending children to church, even if there is someone who is willing to bring them. (By the way, this idea was a hit when I was a youth pastor.)

  3. Help with transportation for mid-week age-specific programming and other events. Could parents of other children in youth ministry can help with rides?

  4. Assistance with school supplies or even an occasional gift card to a local grocery store to help offset the financial challenges.

  5. Quarterly workshops for grandparents or other relatives that inform them of the challenges their young people are and might be facing.

Gary Knighton is lead pastor at Faith Fellowship Church in Hartford, CT, and serves as a chaplain at the University of Hartford.

[1] PBS