24 Aug 2022

How to be a good godparent

The road to godparenthood is littered with good intentions. Being asked to officiate at the font is highly flattering; it feels like an endorsement of your credentials as a respectable adult, a vote of confidence in your personality, morals, good sense and so on.

Unfortunately, the glow of self-satisfaction can mask some harsh realities. Are you actually prepared to commit to a (possibly arduous) programme of bonding with a small child? Many of us have a godparent who used to be great friends with our parents but who have been a fleeting presence in our own lives. Some of us are, or have been, that elusive godparent and should never have agreed to take the job in the first place.

Eighteen years of birthdays and Christmases stretch out before you; will you be able to stay the course? Do you suspect that greedy ulterior motives have informed your selection? Is your childlessness or wealth a factor that has been taken into consideration? (Better gifts, help with school fees and potential legacies all rear their ugly heads…) 

If you confront these issues head-on and still feel an overwhelming urge to say yes, then at least do it properly. Commit the child’s birthday to memory or note it in your diary or calendar – it will avoid embarrassing hints and nudges from the parents. If you don’t trust your ability to come up with the goods year on year, set up an annual standing order, or ask your wine merchant to set aside a suitable annual bottle, which will be available for drinking on your godchild’s 18th birthday (champagne will be a hit with both sexes).

Now comes the difficult bit. You really should make some effort to form a relationship with the child. Don’t panic if it doesn’t happen immediately – boring babies soon turn into chatty small children, and many people, especially those with no children of their own, will find that age is a definite improvement. If you really find face-to-face sessions with your godchild unbearably taxing, try and set up a relationship by letter or email – it’s better than nothing…

Eighteen years will soon flash by, and you may even find you have acquired a friend or ally. The demands on your bank balance are finite, but the relationship may prove to be lifelong.

The Debrett’s Guide to Godparenting

Traditionally, a child has three godparents; a boy has two godfathers and one godmother and a girl has two godmothers and one godfather. Nowadays it is possible to have several godparents and the mix may vary irrespective of the sex of the child. So when approached to be a godparent, the first question to ask is ‘why me?’

Understanding Parents’ Expectations

• Parents approach friends or family members to be godparents for many reasons and they often choose specific friends for different reasons. It is less likely today that, as a godparent, you will be expected to become the child’s legal guardian should anything happen to the parents. However, if this were to be the case, there would need to be a formal statement of the parents’ wishes to accompany their will.

• If the parents are religious they will be looking for you to provide spiritual and moral guidance: find out what that means to them in practice and check that you share the same values, not just on religious matters, but on wider moral or ethical ones too. If you don’t, are they happy for you to share your values with their child when they get older?

• If the parents are not religious, they are usually seeking a ‘mentor’ who will watch over their child and steer him or her through life with love and care. Most importantly, they may also see the godparent as the person who will be there for their child should relationships at home become strained.

• Parents usually select godparents who will complement, or compensate for, their personal characteristics or interests. What are you expected to bring to the mix – adventure, glamour, sporting prowess, culture, humour, sobriety, sociability? Make no mistake, they will have mentally assigned to you some aspect of their child’s development; are you able to deliver?

• In some circles, godparents are regarded as trophies and are selected on the basis of the social and career opportunities they may afford the child in later life. If you feel this is the case then beware: your life as a godparent will be plagued by requests for favours and you will be expected to spend a fortune on gifts and treats.

• Some adults collect godchildren like stamps; they end up with an impressive collection but never do anything with them. So if you haven’t got the time or interest, then be honest and decline the role.

Fulfilling Children’s Needs

Assuming that you do want and accept the role, here’s our guide to being a good godparent:

• Ñever forget a birthday, Christmas or other significant date: it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit late but to neglect the big days in the life of a child is unforgivable.

• Call them on their birthday or at Christmas: if they never hear your voice you will always be a stranger to them.

• Find ways of keeping in touch at other times: when you go away on trips, send them postcards; if you see something in a magazine that might amuse or interest them, cut it out and send it.

• Show them how you dare to be different: let them see they don’t have to follow the herd  and that it is alright to stand out from the crowd.

• Give interesting rather than expensive gifts: an unusual trinket from a foreign trip will be more meaningful than the latest electronic game or gadget – it’s tempting, but ultimately a bad idea, to splash the cash if you’re feeling guilty about neglecting your duties.

• If you have several godchildren, try and get them together once or twice a year so providing them with a ready-made circle of contacts and support for later life.

• Spend time with your godchild alone: do things which interest the child and give parents a break, that way you make friends with your godchild, who will return happy to refreshed and grateful parents.

• Never criticise or undermine their parents: it may be tough, but your job is to help the child understand their parents’ position and provide wise advice on how to deal with it, not to side with the child or deepen any existing rifts.

• When your godchild is old enough, share your mobile phone number and invite them to call you at any time for a chat.

• Try and be there occasionally for sports days, school plays, graduations: do not steal their parents thunder, but your godchild will appreciate your effort to be part of their life.

• Speak to your godchild as your equal: you have a unique opportunity to be one of their first grown-up friends who won’t judge or nag, and with whom they can share fears and doubts without looking silly.

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