Guide to Being a Great Godfather

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 13, 2009 · 36 comments

in Relationships & Family

godfather

Image from JOnny_t

For many people, hearing the word “godfather” brings up images of Italian mob bosses calling in hits on rival mob families or snitches within their own ranks. But there’s actually more to being il padrino than granting favors and running a criminal organization. The reality is that taking on the role of godfather to a child is very big honor that comes with important responsibilities. Unfortunately, many men have no clue what exactly they’re supposed to do as a godfather. To help remedy that, we’ve developed this short guide to being a great godfather. Read it or you’ll be sleeping with the fishes.

History of Godfathers

The first step to understanding your duties as a godfather is to become familiar with the history of the position. The origin of godparents is distinctly religious. As infant baptism took hold in early Christianity, there was a need for someone to step in as a sponsor and provide the required confession of faith before baptism. In the beginning, biological parents often took on this role, but the Council of Munich in 813 required natural parents to pick other people to be godparents. In addition to sponsoring the child’s christening, the godfather was charged with the duty of overseeing the child’s spiritual instruction.

As with many Christian traditions, the role of godfathers went through some upheaval during the Reformation. Many Protestant sects continued with the practice but loosened up a bit on the pre-Reformation requirements.  The Roman Catholic church has pretty much maintained the status quo on godfathers up until the present day. In order to be godfather in Catholicism, a man must be a confirmed Catholic in good standing and not be the natural parent of the child.

The concept of godfatherhood isn’t exclusively Christian. In Judiasm, parents often pick a man to be the sandek at their child’s briss. The sandek holds the baby boy on a pillow while he is circumcised by the mohel. According to Jewish custom, the role of sandek is given to a single Jewish male, usually a close family member or some other man who is a good example of the faith. Also tradition dictates that a man can not serve as a sandek more than once. Like the Christian godfather, sandeks also have a responsibility to help guide the child’s spiritual upbringing.

Godfathers Today

For many people today, the spiritual aspect of being a godfather is still very important. But as Western society has become more secular, many families have held on to the tradition of naming godparents for their children, but have expanded the responsibilities beyond taking part in religious ceremonies or in the child’s spiritual development. For example, some parents ask that the godfather be a special mentor for their child or to foster their kids if they die. Most parents pick a sibling or close cousin to be the godfather. But it’s now not uncommon for a good friend to be selected.

Whether your role as a godfather is the traditional religious one or a more secular one, being asked to be a godfather is a big honor. By asking you to be a godfather, the parents are showing that you’re a man they can trust to help raise their child. Let’s take a look at a few tips on how to be the kind of godfather a kid will feel lucky to have.

How to Be an Awesome Godfather

Ask what’s expected of you. After you thank the parents for honoring you with their request, ask them what they expect from you as the child’s godfather. Do you need to be at the christening? Are you going to be the child’s spiritual guide or just more of an all around mentor? Are you expected to foster the kid if they should pass on before the child becomes an adult?

What should you do if the parents ask you to take on a  religious role but you no longer believe or aren’t very active in their respective faith? It’s a tough situation. On the one hand, you don’t want to seem like a hypocrite by making confessions of faith you don’t really believe, and on the other hand, you don’t want to offend your brother/friend by saying no.

There’s really no cut and dry answer on what one should do. My suggestion would be to thank the parents for the honor, but tactfully explain that you might not be the best person for the job because of your beliefs. Make the suggestion that while you might not/can’t participate in the religious aspect of being a godfather, that you’d be more than willing to take an active role in the child’s life and do all that you can to support the parents in raising him or her. Most parents will appreciate your candor and be grateful for your respect of a religious ceremony that means a lot to them.

Show up to the ceremony (if there is one). If the child is taking part in a briss or christening ceremony and the godfather has a role, be there. It’s always a good idea to be a familiar with your role in the ceremony before you show up. Talk to the parents or the respective religious leader to get the skinny on what you’ll do and say during the ceremony. If the parents aren’t the religious type, but are having some sort of welcoming celebration for their newborn, make an appearance. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately to show your respect for the occasion.

Parents usually have some sort of party after the child’s christening ceremony, and non-religious parents will sometimes have parties to celebrate their child’s birth. It’s customary for the godfather to give a small speech congratulating the couple on the child’s birth, thanking them for the honor of being the child’s godfather, and publicly announcing his support in helping raise the child. It’s sort of like giving a best man speech. So before you go to the party, make sure to have a few words prepared.

Remember important events in your godchild’s life. Mark your godchild’s birthday on your calendar and be sure to send them a card every year. Godfathers usually give a little more money to their godchild at birthdays and Christmas than they do to their other nieces and nephews. It’s not necessary, but that’s been my experience. When your godchild has some sort of success in school or sports, send them a congratulatory card.

Be willing to take on parenting responsibilities if your godchild’s parents die. Traditionally, godparents are the individuals who have the responsibility of fostering a child if both the parents die. In the United States and the United Kingdom this is NOT a legal obligation. If the parents are really serious about you stepping in as the child’s guardian if they die, they’ll need to indicate so in a properly executed will.

Be a mentor.The best thing you can do to be a great godfather is to be a mentor for your godchild. For some men this will mean taking on the traditional role of being a spiritual guide for your godchild. For other men, it may mean being a mentor in other aspects of the child’s life. Either way, do your best to provide a good example to your godchild.

The mentoring relationship you have with your godchild will depend a lot on your geographic proximity to each other. If they’re near by, take them fishing, show them how to work with tools, or visit cultural events in the area. You’ll find moments while taking part in these sorts of activities to pass on some advice and wisdom.

If your godchild lives far away, keep in contact by writing letters, calling them on the phone, or sending an email every now and then. If you’re looking for inspiration on what sort of advice to impart in a letter, read some of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son or Teddy Roosevelt’s letters to his sons.

One good idea that was shared by Nic in the Community, is to give or send your godchildren great books to read. Don’t underestimate the power good literature can have on a child.

Refer to yourself as “The Don.” You’re a godfather. You’ve earned it.

Are you a godfather? Do you have a godfather? Share your experience with us in the comments.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Wood August 14, 2009 at 12:00 am

Am I the only godfather, or am I just the only one awake right now?

I was incredibly honored to be asked to be a godfather to our good friends’ daughter. They thought of it primarily as the designated people who would care for her if they were to die, but we’ve talked about it a lot and we are planning on being a constant presence in her life. She’s not even a year old yet, but we’ve already seen her several times.

I would say that using a video chat service like Skype is a good idea too, that way they can get to know your face and your voice even when they’re young.

2 Papamac August 14, 2009 at 1:13 am

Number 1 thing you can do (should do – it’s your duty as a godfather!) is pray for your godchild every day.

3 Rawb August 14, 2009 at 1:25 am

I’ve been asked to be my niece’s godfather, and now my nephew’s as well. He’ll be baptized in a few weeks. (I’m the ‘religious one’ of the family, so I get asked)

As a devout Catholic, this is not only a great honor, but a great responsibility. We just celebrated my goddaughter’s baptismal anniversary a few days ago actually. I made sure we marked the occasion. I also get my godchildren gifts on the anniversary of their baptism; a rosary, a prayer book, a cross, something religious. Yes, I do intend to teach them the spirituality of Catholicism too. My goddaughter is starting to learn the Sign of the Cross. Papamac is spot on – prayer for your godchildren comes with the territory.

How interesting to read a post like this on a secular blog. I think it helps point to the fact that a well rounded man doesn’t neglect relationships with his community and some sort of spiritual aspect of life. Great post.

4 Danny August 14, 2009 at 1:35 am

My brother asked me to be his son’s godfather. I’m not religious and neither is my brother. We viewed it more as a symbolic title, that I’m going to be officially there for his son. His boy is only 1 now, but I plan on having an active role in his life-taking him camping and to baseball games and stuff. I like the idea of giving him good books, that’s definitely something I’ll do too.

I think it’s a good tradition even for us non-religious folks and I was happy to see a post on it. Great stuff.

5 Kevin DuBois August 14, 2009 at 4:13 am

Good article, being a godfather (or godmother) is an important and often overlooked role. I’m grateful that my godfather (also my uncle) takes somewhat of an interest in my spiritual development.

As a side note, articles from your site showing up in my Google Reader is one of the things I really look forward to. Great site, great articles, please keep up the good work!

6 Mike August 14, 2009 at 8:17 am

Don’t forget to settle all family business on the day of the Christening.

7 Skippy August 14, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Great article. I have two godchildren, ages 7 and 9. I don’t see them very often, as they live 400 miles away, so unfortunately my main contact with them is sending gifts (including letters) on Christmas and their birthdays. I attended both their baptisms, and gave them children’s rosaries (big multi-colored wooden beads), similar to the one my uncle/godfather gave me as a baby.

As a Catholic who tries to take his faith seriously, I try to take my role as a godfather seriously, but it’s been difficult. Their mother, one of my best friends, stopped going to church not long after the younger one’s baptism. She has less than zero interest in her children having a “spiritual mentor”. But from my perspective, the promise be a godparent was primarily made to God, rather than to her. So my dilemma is how to balance my own responsibility against the wishes of their mother, who is after all their mother and has every right to raise them as she thinks best.

The way I have tried to resolve this– besides praying for them, of course– is to be a good example and overall mentor to them, and trying to let them know that if they ever want to learn about the faith they were born into, they can come to me. I was wondering if there are any other godfathers/mothers out there in similar situations, or any other ideas people might have?

8 Bryan Entzminger August 14, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Thank you for posting this. It’s often forgotten in our society that we need spiritual men in our lives – a high and holy calling of God – and that it is not “un-manly” to be a spiritual man.

Very cool.

9 Torrey August 14, 2009 at 4:07 pm

It is important to ask what’s expected of you. Some do use it as a honor but others take it seriously and associate responsibilities. Be ready to step up when needed.

10 Terry August 14, 2009 at 4:22 pm

I too am a godfather and as a Catholic I take the responsibility very seriously.
Unfortunately my godson died before reaching the age of reason so now I ask him for help.

Skippy,

You’re in a difficult spot in that you are godfather to a friend’s children rather than a family member, so maintaining contact can be hard. I commend you for not letting go of your commitment. Have you tried to explain to your friend about the benefits of her children having a good spiritual foundation, how it can help them to make good decissions as adults? (i.e. Does she want to have to raise grandchildren on her own because her now-”adult” kids don’t have the maturity or interest to do it?) From what I’ve seen, she can invest the time in giving her children a good foundation now or invest the time in trying to clean up the mess when they are grown.

Explain to her how much it hurts you, as her best friend, to see her throwing away the gift of her Catholic faith.

Keep the lines of communication open to your godchildren though. It’s hard to be able to give them an example of what it means to live the Faith when you are so far away but do what you can. Pray to their guardian angles and especially the guardian angle of their mother that they may call her back to a renewed life in the Church. St. Padre Pio is another good source for help in situations like this.

God Bless,

11 Terry August 14, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Rawb,

You’d be surprised how many times postings from this blog show up on the New Advent web site. Check it out some time.

http://www.newadvent.org/

12 Jazzmaster August 14, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I am a Godfather… And I love it. My Godson is also my nephew (he’s 6 now).

Even though this position originates in Christianity, I think it’s important to note that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. The role of the Godfather is to help the child in a spiritual way. This does not mean an organized religion is required.

So, to Skippy, I would say… Lead (and teach) by example. Be the kind of man your Godchildren can look up to. Love them. Teach them to love, too. God is within each of us. Show them how to treat others as the spiritual beings they are.

They will love you for it.

13 Rawb August 14, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Terry,

Thanks for the link. I’m sorry for your loss. You have my sympathies. I am sure your godson is proving to be a most powerful saint in Heaven.

Skippy

I would recommend writing letters to your godchild, as you say you’ve done, and include Holy Cards in with them. I would also suggest maybe adding your cards and gift-giving to the anniversary of their baptism. That makes them remember the day and find out what baptism is – in particular probably from their mother. It is always helpful to inject a bit of religion into an otherwise secular life. Have you tried sending them bibles or catechisms? Or including Luke chapter 2 in their Christmas cards? Just some ideas. You, of course, know your situation best.

14 Skippy August 17, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Thanks, everyone for the great advice. I will have to give this some more thought.

15 Tim August 19, 2009 at 4:43 pm

I was asked to be the godfather of my wife’s sister’s children. I graciously declined since I am not religious by any means and actually dislike the idea of baptizing children, preferring that they are allowed to age before committing to any one belief. I would have agreed to be a secular godfather, though I see that as an oxymoron, because I believe that a mentor is beneficial to a child. However, they live a couple days away in another country anyway, and I would have to have lied about my non-belief if required to submit to a religious ceremony. That is not something I would do to appease such requirements.

16 Michael Traverso August 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Thanks for the posting. I’ll be godfather to my niece this Sunday. Good advice and historical notes.

17 Dustin | Engaged Marriage September 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Thanks for another great article! I’m a proud Godfather two times over. And we are practicing Roman Catholics, so I take this responsibility seriously in a religious sense….plus it is just cool to have that connection throughout the life of the child.

18 Keith October 8, 2009 at 9:47 pm

My good friend from college asked me to be the godfather of his new baby (who is now college age). I was so honored, I was so looking forward to the christening etc. Then later when I asked him about it, he said, eh, well, sorry, but you have to be Catholic to be a godfather. The priest told him that I couldn’t be a godfather to anyone, as an atheist. I was very disappointed and hurt by it. Needless to say, my opinion of the church was not improved either. I would have made a good godfather, by secular standards.

19 John October 9, 2009 at 10:20 am

I recently became a godfather to our friends dear little girl. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition it is a very high honor with great responsibility. At the Baptismal/Chrismation service the godparents are the ones holding the child. As we commune our infants it is the godfather/godmother’s responsibility to take the child up for communion. Our goddaughter was baptized during Holy Week and received her first communion during the Paschal (Easter) morning service. As my wife was unable to attend I took her up for her first reception of the Eucharist, It was an incredible moment. As she grows we will be responsible for her spiritual education in the faith. We love her as our own and I feel as though I am her spiritual protector. Pray for them always, keep them in your lives to the best of your ability, and remember special days in their lives (birthdays, names days , graduations, etc.) It is a great honor with tremendous responsibilities

20 Luke January 27, 2010 at 11:20 am

If your attending a catholic baptism (godfather or not) a great gift is to bring a “holy water bottle” and fill it with the water used to baptize the kid after the ceremony. Its unique, simple, and impressive.

21 YoHuckleberry June 21, 2010 at 1:35 am

I found out in March that my best friend and his wife are having a baby and I was truly overjoyed. Naturally the first thing I said upon discovering this was ” And may your first child be a masculine child.” He told me that it was good that I said that seeing as how he and his wife want me to be the Godfather to their child. I’m not a very religious man, and they’re not very religious either, so I’ve been wondering what it is exactly that I should be looking forward. And here it is, once again, on AoM. A helping hand in the raising of who is soon to be the most important person in my life. Brett. Kate. Thank you so much for all of this.

22 Bryan June 23, 2010 at 11:50 pm

What a great article and comments. My best friend and his wife asked me to be the godfather of their first son, born a few days ago. Having never had a god father myself, I was a bit at a loss of what was expected of me. The above comments gave me some great guidance on how to help this beautiful baby boy become a good man.

23 Lian August 2, 2010 at 7:53 pm

My wonderful godfather died 2 days ago. For 32 years of my life he has been a constant support, a mentor, a confident, a friend, filled in the gaps where my own father failed and also a godfather to my own son. This man never ever failed me, never missed any occassion and praised me through ever step and fall in my life. In the past 7 months he has been battling cancer and it took him on the 1st august / honestly I’m only 32 and have lost my biggest fan and a godfather who bailed me out, kept my secrets, ran errands, listened to my woes, proof read ever word I wrote in my degree, babysat my children, treated me, trusted me and phoned me every day. He never had children of his own, he never married – but he gave me everything he could. My heart bleeds without him, a remarkable man who can never be replaced and who did call himself ‘the don’ and did surpass his godfather role and made it his life to be the best ever – god I shall miss him.
I am planning my Reading for the funeral, I must do this man justice, it’s all I have left to do for him xxxxx

24 Jess August 15, 2010 at 5:06 am

I had a godfather who was wonderful until I was around seven, always sending cards and visiting to play with me and my sister. At that point he had his own children. I slipped his mind. Gradually he stopped seeing me and my sister altogether and I haven’t heard from him in years. It’s understandable (now that I’m older), but still sad.

25 EB October 23, 2012 at 8:11 am

When it comes down to godfathers….I got the say I got the world’s greatest godfather!!! He has been a major role in my life and has become my second father. He has his own children and still makes time for to spend time with me. I can go to him for anything, because he is always there to listen. And now that Im in college he is still there, we text on a daily basis. He is just the best. I love him!!!!

26 EJC November 16, 2012 at 4:51 am

Promising to pray for your Godchild everyday and DOING IT is an amazing commitment. I keep their names on my bathroom mirror, so that while I’m shaving or brushing my teeth in the morning, I remember to offer a little prayer for them. By the way, I’ve been a Confirmation sponsor a few times and I consider them my Godchildren as well, and they enjoy all the benefits.

27 Cody November 17, 2012 at 10:36 pm

When my godson was born I actually bought him a vintage copy (first edition, fourth printing I think) of Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters To His Sons. I’m holding it until he hits High School because I think if he just grows up with it in his room he’ll look at it as just another book on the shelf or just part of the scenery.Until then though, I’ll keep my conductor hat on and I’ll just let him tell me how fast to move Thomas The Tank.

28 James R Hubbard November 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I am my sister and her husbans daughters Godfather and I remember it clearly. When the priest anointed her head with oil she had been sleeping and then she REALLY woke up, kicking and screaming and when it came time for the holy water things got worse!!! My brother in law said aloud that he thought that this was a baptisim and not an exorsisim!!!! She is 2 now and whenever she sees me she runs up to me with her arms spread out screaming uncle James Uncle James!!!! . )

29 nk March 18, 2013 at 1:18 am

I know of Someone who has gone aheard and given the god child his last name. is that part of being a god father or this man is fathers to the Child.

30 Paul Durfee May 10, 2013 at 5:08 am

I am being considered to be the Godfather of my late son’s former fiance. My son was Baptized in the Church as his brother and I were. Barrett and I were extremely close Father and son. His Death almost brought upon my own. I turned from the Church and the ways of the Christ. My son passed from this world on 3/21/2009. His ex-fiance’s First Born, a son named Peter, was born on 3/21/2013. When Pete’s mom said their Familie’s were considering me for the role of Godfather, I fell to my knee’s and begged forgiveness from turning from The Christ, and if I were too be chosen to direct me in the correct path. I immediately felt a calmness that had left at the time of Bear’s death. I then began to find as much information of being as good a Godfather as I could. That led me to this site. I feel I have been in Spiritual limbo since Bear’s passing, but now I want to be this child’s guide and freind, as well as his dedicated Godfather. I even plan too become active in the Church again. The fact that the date of my son’s death and the date of my potential Godson’s birth being the same was a calling for me too return to Christ and pass on my experience and knowledge. If chosen, I will go to my knee’s before any interaction with this child, and become a better father to my own surviving son. My son’s death my have led to his father’s re-birth in my love of Christ, and renouncement of Satan and his attempt to place Bear’s death on my Lord and savior.

31 Basil M. Habayeb AKA Mylo J. Haba May 12, 2013 at 11:05 am

Thank you so much for such a great article.
My situation as kinda unique. I have been asked couple of weeks ago by my bro and sis in arms to be the God-Father of expected daughter.
Am an Arab man and living thousands of miles away. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to perform whatever my duties would be.
And I was completely afraid not having the correct understanding of the rule.

My God-Daughter is about to arrive with in the following couple of hours. And your article helped me alot.

Thank you again. Wish me luck.

32 Rocky Rhodes June 10, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Any advice on good gifts for godfathers to give their godsons? I want to start an IRA or college savings fund for my godson and contribute as I can every year. Any thoughts?

33 hector melendez September 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm

my best friend ask me to be the godfather of his daughter i know her since she was a little girl so i decide to be her godfather my best friend die 2 years ago since then i tried very hard to be her mentor helping her what ever i can she is now 17 and every time i tried to talk to her about her future (education etc…) she always tell me is not my bussines and every time she said that to me break my hart but im good when i give her money sometimesi want a give up on her please i need a good advice i saw this web site and ahope i find the answer thank you

34 Pius November 23, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Thanks for the article. I’ve been honored to be a Godfather and in a few hours, we shall go to church for baptism.

35 Jason January 15, 2014 at 3:41 am

In the US, if you are not religious, but are asked to be the godfather of your very good friend’s child, should you reject the responsibility due to not being a christian??? Or should you look past the religious aspect, and accept it??? Is the whole godfather thing viewed seriously in the US? The mother and her side of the family is christian, but I am not ( the father is not either). So I feel like I shouldn’t be able to be the godfather. But at the same time, I feel like beliefs shouldn’t really matter for being the godparent. I’m not sure what to do, but have been asked. They might not know that I don’t have any beliefs of my own.

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