Parenting Conversation: Choosing a Godparent

Parenting Conversation: Choosing a Godparent

10th October 2022

Godparents, guardians, guide parents or squad parents: What does it mean to be a modern-day godparent?

The last century has seen a sharp decline in religious baptisms (in the UK especially) and an increase in the “Godparent.” What used to be a strict religious role has now morphed into an ambiguous term that means different things to different people.

It is common nowadays for the role to be ‘molded’ to the wishes of the parents, rather than that of the church. In fact, it is not uncommon for a child’s godparents to be from different faiths entirely or from no faith at all. This can create some confusion around what you may be committing yourself to; especially when you get that excited phone call from a dear friend asking you to step into the role as their child’s godparent. Whilst you may be flattered by the request, you may also be nervously thinking - “Does it matter that I don’t believe in God?” or “If something happens to the parents, do I have to take on their child?”

The term ‘God Parent’ is shrouded in religious obligations and was first introduced as a concept in the 2nd century AD when infants had to be ‘purified’ and socially initiated in the act of baptism. In this ceremony, there was always a ‘sponsor,’ first in the form of their own parents, and then in the form of ‘spiritual fathers,’ that were effectively the spiritual co-parents of the child. Later, it was common for women to have the opportunity to be godparents. Traditionally, the godparents were to witness the child’s christening and to become an active role in their religious education and spiritual journey, and in some cases, there were legal obligations to step into a parenting role should the parents neglect the child or pass away. But today, godparents are not legal guardians, unless special arrangements have been made. So no, if the parents pass on, you are not obligated to take on their child.

Today there are more fluid interpretations around the role of a godparent. If a child is baptized in the Christian church, the role can still be very traditional, with a godparent selected to oversee their religious journey. However, godparents are sometimes selected by parents who are not religious but wish for a unique relationship between their child and a special family friend, offering them the experience to have another adult that can provide guidance as a positive role model. Today we see many families making a ‘bespoke’ arrangement that fits the beliefs and traditions of their family.

What does matter, however, is that you make the effort to understand the wishes of the parents when they ask you to fulfill this unique role in their child’s life. It is also important to understand (if you don’t know much about kids or parenthood) that raising a tiny human is a big responsibility and can feel overwhelming at the best of times. There is nothing most parents wouldn’t do to ensure that their child gets the best out of life and the best support. Navigating the ups and downs of childhood, which may also include following a particular faith, can be a lot not only for a child, but also for the parents. This is where you step in…. as an extra ‘support’ and ‘guide’ that can be a positive role model for the child as they grow and develop.

“I like the term ‘guide parent,” says humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT, Greg Epstein. “Many people want somebody who they love and admire who will play a special role in their kid’s life…It’s essentially adding an extra role model for the child.”

So, when it’s your turn to select godparents, how do you know who should be your child’s ‘guide?’ It is important when selecting a godparent to consider the role you want them to play in your child’s life. If you choose more than one, then perhaps a selection of characteristics that you believe can enhance the growth and development of your child. Perhaps someone who you can count on in an emergency or in a difficult family situation? Think of who would step in and provide for your child? Or is it someone who is creative, fun, and playful and who can spend quality time sharing wonderful moments? Perhaps it is someone well read and philosophical with life experience, who can give sound advice when the child is facing difficult and uncertain situations? It is about having someone who can love your child and be there for them when things go wrong and celebrate when things go right. Whilst this overlaps a lot with the role of family members, with a godparent there is a unique bond created. The child has their very own ‘special’ person that is rooting for them, that is not Mum or Dad, or the rest of their family. It is a step ‘outside’ the family circle, that gives them confidence to develop special relationship beyond those of their home.

Whatever type of godparent you choose, it helps to select someone who will consider the role positively and commit with certainty. If there is a strong religious significance, then check with your church on what requirements are necessary. Normally at least one of the godparents needs to be a practicing member of the church. Make it special by arranging a lunch or dinner with the potential godparents, so they can understand the distinct bond they are entering into. For their time, love, and consideration, it is a nice touch to give them a thoughtful thank you gift. This could be a piece of jewelry or a beautifully framed photo of their godchild.

As life continues, there will be godparents that are more hands-on and present in the early years, perhaps due to their character or the ease of location. There may be a shift where other godparents become more present in the later years. Some are distracted with their own young family and the pressures of their own life, whilst others may be far from starting their own family and living a life far removed from your own. Whatever the situation, it is important to remember that being a god parent is an evolving role, that in moments when you least expect it, a godparent steps in to encourage and support. From helping with future career advice to teaching them how to climb a tree or experience their first theatre trip, there are numerous ways that a godparent can nurture your child and their own exceptional way.

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