Alex Taylor gives his top tips for those asked to play a special place in a child’s life
Miley Cyrus has Dolly Parton, two Beckham children can rely on Elton John, 33 people can give King Charles a call if they need to. What do they all have in common? Dolly, Elton and the king are all godparents.
Whether you yourself have your own clutch of children or you are gloriously child-free, you might be asked to be a godparent by one of your friends or family. It could be that you are already an experienced godparent, managing almost as many children as Charles III; you might have just been approached to fill the role for the first time. So what does it mean to be a godparent?
Before we get into some ideas about ‘how’, let’s just cover the ‘what’. Your godchild’s parents will have decided to have a baptism, christening or dedication. There’s no real difference between baptism and christening – the baptism part is when the child has water poured or wiped on their head (older children or adults might be completely submersed in water). Whatever the word, the service is a time when children “are welcomed into the family of the church”. It also marks the start of a lifetime of discovery about the Christian faith and how life-changing that can be” (according to the Church of England website).
If you’re going to a dedication, then the experience will be a little different. There is no baptism element – if the parents have opted for a dedication, they have probably decided to let their child choose for themselves if they want to make the statement of baptism when they are old enough to understand what that is. The dedication service gives thanks to God for the gift of the child.
Depending on which kind of church and the kind of service you’re going to, what you do, where you stand and what you say will vary slightly. In all cases though, you’ll have to make some promises to God and the child to help in their spiritual upbringing. If you aren’t already familiar with these promises, it’s a good idea to find out so that you know what you’re getting yourself into – it is a lifelong commitment after all! There are some useful links at the bottom of this article.
Whatever your experience – whether you’re a Christian or not, whether you’re already a godparent or not – here are some tips for being involved all the way through someone’s life:
With the birth of a child, your friendship with the parents will change – they will have far less time to spend with you and their focus will be drawn inwards as they learn to be a family together. You will need to acknowledge this and develop a new relationship as a friend and godparent.
Your presence in a family’s life is perhaps the best gift you can give a godchild. Parenting can be difficult and an extra pair of hands can be a godsend. In addition to practical help, being a significant adult in a child’s life can be important for their emotional and spiritual development. Children are different with other adults than they are with their parents – there is a freedom to be who they want to be, rather than to be the role they have grown into over the years in their family. By being there, you can provide this outlet for a child’s development (as well as giving parents some time off!).
You don’t have to do everything
Being a godparent has the potential to be an expensive business, but remember, you don’t have to do everything. For example, with my godchildren, I buy birthday presents, but not Christmas presents. This means that I don’t have to find money for a lot of extra presents at Christmastime, and I can think about something personal for a birthday.
Find a way to spend time with your godchild
You might have interests that your godchild shares, but their parents don’t. One of my godchild’s parents are not really that interested in the theatre, so I have decided that I will take on that part of their education! This can be an expensive business, so I’m picking and choosing what to take them to, but as children grow up, you can replace a physical birthday present with an experience like going to see a musical.
If your godchild lives near you, this will be easier to do than if they live too far away for an afternoon’s visit. If you like baking, then invite them round to bake with you. If you support a sports team, take them with you when you go to watch the team play (minor league teams or minority sports are good for this, as they often have very cheap tickets for children). If you go to church, but the parents don’t, you could take your godchild with you (provided the parents are happy for you to do so!).
If you live far away, then you will have to put a bit of effort this, and your own time commitments and budget will play a big part in what you can do. If you yourself have children, can both families go on holiday together? Can you spend the odd weekend at your godchild’s home (perhaps staying in a hotel or B&B if there isn’t space in their house and you can afford it)? Can you arrange to meet somewhere in between your hometowns?
Do the little things
However far away your godchild is, you can still do some little things to be part of their life. Sending things by post – postcards, greetings cards, small gifts – is an excellent way to be part of a child’s life. And it is so unusual these days that it will be a special thing for a child to receive post.
If you call your godchild on the phone, you might not get very much out of them, but staying in regular contact with their parents – they are probably your friends or family, after all – is also a good way to fulfil your role as godparent. Being a listening ear can be a huge gift to a parent!
Be part of their faith journey
If you are a committed Christian, then you can also think about how to help the child meet Jesus and grow in their faith. This could be anything from buying them a Bible or other Christian books (such as Bible storybooks or fiction books), paying for them to go on Christian holidays or festivals, or being someone who will try to answer their questions. The role of adults who aren’t a child’s parents is key in faith formation, so you are fulfilling a vital job in doing this.
Here are some useful links to what different churches believe and practise around baptism.