Venting on a grandparenting website, the mother wrote, "So here I stand being dragged back and forth into the courts. Is this what grandparents call fair? You have raised your children, so allow us to do the same...I would die for my boys, and I will not sit back and have someone drag them out of my arms kicking and screaming for mommy."
Down the street I live on, a grandmother has her own story to tell. She had cared for her 5-year-old granddaughters since their birth, she told me, while her daughter put her husband through school. But her daughter had recently abandoned her family to find happiness in Europe with a new boyfriend. Her humiliated son-in-law abruptly cut off all contact with his wife's family. "I took care of those girls from the day they were born--and now I'm not allowed to see them," this grandmother rails. "It's cruel to keep us apart."
To most grandparents, it's the most feared weapon imaginable. And the people who threaten to deploy it? Their own children.
The recent Supreme Court decision on grandparent visitation rights has pushed broken families into the public eye. There's no shortage of horror stories, pro and con: Drug-abusing kids who dump the grandkids on them--only to snatch them back years later and disappear. Grandmothers who bear a strong resemblance to Norman Bates' mother: abusive, controlling screamers who terrify the grandkids.
Most stories fall in between: Grandparents who refuse to respect their children's rules. Parents who use the children as hostages in a family war.
It's no small problem. In Colorado, for example, 5,600 grandparents have obtained court orders allowing them access to their grandchildren. All 50 states now have some type of "grandparents' rights" law, reflecting the political clout of America's seniors.
Last June's Supreme Court decision, Troxel v. Granville, may signal the first real cracking of that clout. The court decided against Washington State grandparents Gary and Jenifer Troxel, who were demanding more time with their grandchildren than their mother considered appropriate. "So long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family" when it comes to child-rearing decisions.
Parents of young children are cheering the ruling. But lost in the conflict over legal rights are the moral rights and duties each side has--rights rooted in religious tradition. Just what are those teachings--among Christians and Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims? How do grandparent visitation statutes affect families who take religious teachings seriously?
Among Orthodox Jews, divorce is extremely rare, according to Michael Medved, a writer and an Orthodox Jew, "In a typical traditional Jewish family, grandparents would be a regular presence in a child's life--and very often a resident in the home. So the issues of the Troxels would not even come up."
An unusual twist is the fact that in America, "a very high percentage of currently Orthodox people did not grow up in Orthodox homes," Medved notes. Thus, the older generation may be less traditionally observant than their adult children, which can lead to problems. But "even if a grandparent is unreligious, you still have to teach respect for elders," Medved says.
If a conflict arises, the Jewish parents' obligation to raise children in accordance with their faith transcends the parents' obligation to provide access to grandparents, he notes.
For Christians as well as Jews, the Bible supports the idea that grandparents have a definite role to play in the lives of their grandchildren. In the Old Testament, Moses tells the Israelites to remember all the things God has done for them, and to make them known to "your children and your children's children" (Deuteronomy 4:9). The verse is interpreted to mean that God intends grandparents to assist in the spiritual upbringing of their grandchildren.