Get real about godparents
Is this a tradition worth upholding or are we just about paying lip-service to some special friend and keeping the aunties happy? 
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Holly Tyrer is a lucky girl. Unlike most children outside of storybooks, this two-year-old has a fairy godmother. “We didn’t really want to appoint formal godparents,”says her mother, Desiré. “This just makes it a bit more fun. I thought it would be nice to have somebody special like that, especially in a girl’s life, to spoil them.

“We are raising her in a Christian home, but when she’s at a particular age, she has to make the decision for herself what she chooses to believe.” The “fairy godmother” is Desiré’s best friend from Get real about GODPARENTS university. “As Holly grows up I will encourage them to build a friendship of their own so that Anja can also be a mentor to her in life.”

Right now, there’s no confusion about her role. A fairy godmother grants wishes, of course, waves her wand (aka credit card) and delivers splendid gifts, such as a pretty fairy dress, with wings and a giant Easter bunny soft toy.

The same clarity does not, unfortunately, apply to the term godparent. Few families now adhere to the original Catholic definition – someone who stands sponsor to another at baptism – and the concept has drifted out of the Christian arena and into secular culture. Being a godparent also no longer necessarily means being a legal guardian. So, is it a tradition really worth upholding?

Godparents then 

Originally, there were three reasons to have a godparent, says Murray Anderson, senior pastor at St Peters Church in Cape Town. “The first is – and this, I guess, is the main thing – that there’d be other people who would be involved in the spiritual growth and care of the child. Secondly, for those godparents to commit to pray for the child. Then the third thing is obviously just being willling to step in as guardians if the parents were to die. You can imagine centuries ago, when life was a bit more fragile, that was a more common occurence.”

Nowhere in the Bible does it say children need godparents, however. “It is a kind of tradition that we’ve started. I think to start with, it was fundamentally a very good tradition –there was good thinking behind it. But like any tradition over the centuries, it just starts to take on different forms.”

Godparents now

The job description is vague at best. And the matter is even more confusing for secular families who’ve taken the “god”out of godparenting.

Yet Pastor Murray believes godparents still have a role in today’s society. They can play an important role in a child’s spiritual development, he says. “If you think about it, we are so caught up in providing for our children in their education, their physical needs, that kind of thing, that it’s often the spiritual dimension that falls by the wayside. So there could be a special role there for godparents to play.”

His own three children each have godparents. “We asked them to be praying for our kids and keep us accountable for how we are doing in terms of raising them spiritually. They have also been great in giving things like Christian books or Bible story books as a gift.”

Filling the gap

Centurion psychologist Riana de Villiers works with gifted children and believes godparents can fill emotional gaps in our stressful modern lives.

Most working parents are guilty of rushing their children, she says, whether it’s to get dressed for playschool in the morning or hurry up and nish that story before 7pm bedtime.

Godparents can help by taking time to slow down, relax and “have little tea parties and whatever makes the child feel special”. “Emotionally, for the child it really enhances their self-worth,” Riana explains, “because somebody actually finds me important enough to spend time with me – and I’m special for that specific person. We want that within the house with the parents, of course, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Johannesburg educational psychologist Lee-Anne Eastwood says the support of a godparent can even help a parent to be a better parent. “A godparent can provide a listening ear and help when required,” she says. “Be it babysitting, play dates or just an adult’s night out, a godparent can help the parents by relieving some of the stress of parenting.”

Lee-Anne says taking some form of moral and emotional responsibility for your godchild is important. “The most important thing that a godparent can ‘do’ is to develop a safe and trusting relationship with the child. This can only happen through ongoing and consistent contact, preferably from a very young age. Ideally, a child would come to see the godparent as an extra adult there for them if they need help or to listen if they need to talk.”

Making the right choice

Several mothers admit to having had fallouts with their godparents. For example, one cites a close university friendship that didn’t survive the massive transition to motherhood.

To avoid potential hiccups, Lee-Anne offers the following tips: “Parents should choose someone who they themselves like and respect. Someone with whom they feel their child would benefit from having more involvement and over time developing a close relationship. It’s important that the godparent be someone the parent or parents feel that they can trust. It could also be an individual who the parents feel would complement their own personality or parenting style. For example, someone who brings a different personality attribute to the table that could benefit their child. If both parents are more introverted, they may choose a more extroverted friend to be a godparent.”

Cape Town counselling pyschologist Tanja Meyburgh has had a lifelong relationship with her godmother. “She and my mom remained friends, and I was always close to her children; she really has been that solid person that I know I can go to if I need someone. She spoils my son Aden and tries to visit regularly– taking him on kind of as a surrogate grandchild since her own grandchildren are in Germany. My mom is also her son’s godmother, and they were neighbours for many years, so I think that helps.”

Today, things are more difficult, Tanja says. “We don’t have such close-knit communities, and people’s lives are busy. We move across continents, and the old model of growing up in the neighbourhood playing in the road with the neighbours’ kids who go to the same school and are friends with mommy is virtually non-existent. Changing values, changing lives. Skype and techonology might make it easier.”

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