She was a single mom, recently widowed--and her in-laws were playing hardball. Before his death, her husband had told his parents they could not visit their grandchildren unless they agreed to stop their heavy drinking and smoking around the kids. The grandparents angrily refused to do so, and now that their son was dead, they were taking their daughter-in-law to court, demanding visitation rights.

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.

Daniel Lapin, Seattle radio talk show host, Orthodox rabbi, and father of seven, agrees. "Regardless of what your parent does, you still have to retain loyalty to the Fifth Commandment [Honor thy father and thy mother]," Lapin believes. This can present a major dilemma when secular grandparents violate the teachings of Orthodoxy--such as feeding the child non-kosher food or taking him to a movie on the Sabbath, Lapin 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.

But the Bible also indicates that grandparents should take time to simply enjoy their grandchildren as well. Christian theologian T.M. Moore points to Proverbs 17:6, which describes grandchildren as "the crown of a hoary head," suggesting, Moore says, "it is their right to enjoy their grandchildren as a reward for their faithfulness."

These verses mean that Christian parents have a duty, not only to treat their parents with respect, but also "to make sure the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is a proper one," Moore adds, in which children benefit from their elders' wisdom. Christian parents have no business boycotting grandparents simply because those grandparents don't share their faith or because they have problems getting along, Moore emphasizes. A Christian response to grandparent difficulties should be to "minister grace, even if parents don't feel they can trust the grandparents alone with kids."

The duty to maintain an intergenerational relationship is taken seriously by Hindu families as well. Dr. Balaji Hebbar, professor of religion at George Washington University, says that in traditional Hindu societies, grandparents are regarded with great reverence. Because many Hindu families in America are first-generation immigrants from Asia, conflicts over access to grandchildren have not yet cropped up, he says. But he notes that this may change as Hindu families begin to marry outside their faith and absorb Western ways of thinking.

Muslims also value highly the bond between the generations. As Maher Hathout, a spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California, told Beliefnet, "There is an important statement in the Qur'an that says God made for you children and grandchildren. From this we conclude that grandparents have an independent relationship with their grandchildren, and hence, we believe that no one has the right to sever this relationship," he explains.

The only exception is when parents believe the grandparents might harm the child. "In that case, the general rule would apply that children would be protected--something that would apply to parents as well as grandparents," Hathout adds.

"There is nothing in Buddhist teachings that mentions grandparents," says Thanissaro Bhikku, the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, Calif. "But the Buddha did say that a child's parents are his or her first teachers. So by extension, the grandparents may be considered teachers, too." In Buddhist families, grandparents "are the devas, the most respected persons of the house," says Phra Arry Akincano, a spokesman for the Wat Thai Temple in Washington, D.C. They often live with their adult children and grandchildren, and take a major role caring for the kids.

Conflicts sometimes arise "when the grandparents spoil their kids," Akincano says. If the disagreements can be worked out, the grandparents continue caring for the children. Otherwise, the grandparents may no longer be asked to baby-sit but will certainly not be left out of the family.

Many applaud the Troxel decision as an affirmation of parental rights. But for religious parents, it should not be the last word. People of faith must remember that they are bound to a higher law than the Supreme Court--their religion's teachings regarding filial duty. For their part, grandparents must be sensitive to the beliefs of their adult children--and to the fact that the job of rearing children really belongs to the parents. Working together, people of good faith should be able to keep intact the relationship between grandparents and "the crown of a hoary head."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad