With the significant increase in interfaith marriages, many grandparents are anguishing because their grandchildren are being raised with religious beliefs different from their own, or no religion at all. This can be both disorienting and disappointing to grandparents whose children intermarry with spouses from other religious orientations.

“I am a Christian,” lamented Alice, a 59 year old grandmother of four. “Although two of my grandchildren are being raised in a traditional way, my other two are not being given any religious training at all.” Alice’s daughter, Kelly, aged 35, a non-churchgoer, feels badly about hurting her mother’s feelings over this issue. “My mother is a great person,” Kelly said, “but I never liked the church life for a lot of reasons. Mom likes it and that’s O.K. for her. But I am not going to expose my kids to what I consider narrow thinking. My husband has no religious training at all but he would go along if I wanted to send the kids to church. It’s my stand here. To me God is everywhere and I don’t want the children to have to pick one religion over another and then be exposed to radical thinking that excludes other people.”

Saul, is a 72 year old Jewish grandfather whose family escaped Germany during the holocaust. Like Alice his religion is very important to him. His son, Al, married Cheryl, a Catholic. They have three young children. Saul, is distraught about the spiritual future of his grandchildren. “My religion is the center of my world. People have trying to wipe the Jews out for centuries but we have always endured. Our strength is in our religion and the Jewish community. Now it’s over because my grandchildren won’t have my religion and my family’s religious traditions are going to be erased.”

Saul doesn’t blame anyone. “My daughter-in-law, Cheryl, is a sweetheart. She is like a daughter to me. In fact I get along better with her than I do with my son. The funny part of it is that her parents and I have the same problem. They would like the children to be Catholics. I understand how they feel and the funny part of it is that we get along great! This is so new for me I don’t know how to work this out.”

“What will my ancestors think?” said Lee, a 64 year old Chinese grandfather. My daughter married an American who doesn’t have a religion and now my grandchildren won’t be raised in my religion and that is upsetting. Respect for elders and ancestors is woven into the consciousness of my religious teachings. So where will I be in their lives after I am gone. My ancestors are still alive for me, but I will disappear.”

It’s the Parent’s Call

Aside from making an impassioned plea to parents there is not much grandparents can do by themselves alone in such situations. The parents’ role in these matters is critical. Susan, Lee’s daughter, has “great respect and love for my father. But his religion has no relevance to our life today. My husband is a college professor, I am a physician, the kids are involved in their own world….I am sorry but my father’s religion just doesn’t mean anything in our lives.” Susan reflected for a moment. “But if the kids want to know more that’s fine. But not too much. I just don’t want Dad to brainwash the kids. They have other things to worry about and so little time to fulfill their obligations as it is.”

On the other hand Cheryl is open-minded and respectful, and tries to accommodate, both Saul’s, and her own parents, wishes to expose the children to their religious beliefs, and community. “Although I don’t want to attend a church or synagogue myself I do not object to Saul and my parents teaching the children about their religions.” Cheryl explained her equal opportunity policy. ” I want the children to understand the religion of their grandparents. So they attend Christmas at my parent’s house and Passover at Saul’s. When they come of age they can choose a religion if they wish.” Cheryl continued, “but I do have several caveats. No competition between religions, no saying this is the right one, and, above all, mutual respect. If the grandparents can do that, fine. In fact my parents have emphasized Christ’s Jewish origins to the kids.”

Although Cheryl’s mother, Sally, is not happy about her grandchildren’s religious upbringing, she makes the best of it.. “What can I say. It’s the parent’s call. The funny part of this is that my husband and I and Saul and his wife have become closer. In fact they are coming here for Christmas and we are going to his house for Passover. We know this is a great example for the kids instead of splitting them between us or having them choose one religion over another.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Besides, what can I do?”


There are no easy answers for what can often be a touchy situation. Grandparents whose children have married “outside of the faith” know there is nothing much they can do about passing on their religious heritage to their grandchildren unless parent’s agree. This is all the more unfortunate because this “spiritual” function is historically important for grandparents.

It is very important for grandparents to tell parents about their feelings in this matter. This should be done in a loving and uncritical way with emphasis on the profound importance grandparents place on transmitting their religious legacy. Then it’s up to the parents.

The best many grandparents hope for is the ability to expose the grandchild to religion as a didactic, rather than proselytizing exercise. Put this way parents seem to more easily agree. Equity is also important. When sets of grandparents are of different religions equal time should be allotted to learning about each religion. When this works, all family members are enhanced..

Here are some guidelines for grandparents to follow.

  • Respect that it this is the parent’s call
  • Parents and grandparents must respect one another’s beliefs
  • Have a family conference with parents to hammer out a family policy so what you do with your grandchild has the support of the parents. Explore many belief systems.
  • View exposure to different belief systems as education
  • Teach, don’t sell your religion to your grandchild.
  • Celebrate one another’s holidays and celebrations
  • Be an example to your grandchild of how you positively use your belief system to enhance yourself, your family and community. Demonstrate tolerance and understanding. That’s the best teacher. For more log on to www.grandparentsedge.com

Dr. Arthur Kornhaber


  • Arthur Kornhaber M.D. is a grandfather, clinician, researcher, medical writer, and the Founder and President of the Foundation for Grandparenting. A leading authority on the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, he directs, since 1970, the longest ongoing grandparenting research and information project and is the author of several internationally recognized books and numerous articles on the topic. Dr. Kornhaber writes articles, speaks widely, and appears regularly in the media, including Network morning shows (NBC, CBS etc.), to raise grandparent consciousness and to educate people about grandparent-related issues.