How to Help Our Kids Grow Spiritually

May 12, 2024

Most parents don’t feel like spiritual experts, so they outsource that to children’s pastors and various other experts. But a child’s spiritual formation is one that a parent needs to prioritize and be involved with. So how do parents actively and effectively participate in their children’s spiritual formation and growth? If our kids need to learn how to swim, we hire a swimming teacher. If they need help with math, we find them a math tutor. We live in a society where we are always looking for the experts in fields, especially when it comes to spirituality. A lot of research has been done on this and a majority of American parents don’t feel like spiritual experts. And so we live in a culture where you always go outside and try to find the experts to get the best teaching for our kids. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily work spiritually. So if we are going to be actively involved in our kids’ spiritual formation and growth, we have to be pretty intentional. 

So today we’re going to cover this in three different ways. Number one, we’re going to talk about why parents are so important in their children’s spiritual formation. Number two, we’re going to talk about who are our partners in our kids’ spiritual growth. And third, we’re going to talk about creating a spiritually vibrant home. 

Why do parents play such a vital role in their children’s spiritual formation?

Before I started Solo parent, I started another organization called iShine; it actually came out of my solo season as well. I left the music industry and became a single dad. I was at home with my three girls and realized how much they watched Disney Channel. I looked around for an equivalent in Christendom and I couldn’t find much so I started this organization called iShine, a spiritual tween mentoring/discipleship organization for kids specifically before the age of 13. The age of 13 is actually a very significant number. Research has shown that pretty much what you believe at the age of 13 is what you’re going to end up dying believing, and in other words, the worldview that you’re creating before the age of 13 will stick with you for the rest of your life. 

One of the great honors that I had in starting this organization iShine was I spent a lot of time with the leading researcher of faith and culture in America, George Barna of the Barna Foundation. It is the leading researcher on faith and culture. He wrote a book called “Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions.” And most of the things that I found came from some of the research. In fact, the research that I just told you about—found that 98% of the people in their 80s and 90s had the same worldview at the age of 13. Now they had gone through some changes, they’d gone through evolution, trying other things, but they always came back to what they believed when they were 13. And like you said, that can be interesting and also kind of scary.

Turns out there’s also a lot of history around the age of 13 and why this is so significant. WIth Bar Mitzvahs and all kinds of cultures, people celebrate the age of 13 as a coming of age. And in the research that George had done, when these 80 year olds were asked not just what they believe, but who formed that belief, 100% of the time it  was parents who gave the foundation. The whole point of his book and everything we were doing with iShine was to say, “We’re in this culture of farming out this responsibility of mentoring and discipling our kids to all the experts.”

We don’t feel equipped, but that’s not the way it was set up originally. God intended us to be discipling our kids. So this is a very big deal to me because he uses this analogy that before the age of 13, the cement is still wet. Once you turn the age of 13, the cement dries and it is pretty much in place. That’s why it is so critical to really mentor and disciple our kids. And it’s easier said than done. I want to take some of the shame off of parents and acknowledge we live in a society where we all just go, “Okay, our Sunday school teachers know more than we do, and so they’re going to learn what they need to learn from church.” It doesn’t mean they’re not good partners, but it starts and stops with parents. 

What about people who have kids over the age of 13?

So that’s the other piece. People do change, but by and large, the worldview is shaped by what they learn as kids. But mentoring and discipleship never should end. And we’re going to get into how to do that in just a few minutes. I think that the primary thing I want to emphasize here is: their worldview is foundational in every other aspect of their life for the rest of their life. If you’re not being intentional about that, I promise you someone else is forming that and that is not someone that you want forming that.

That’s actually really scary when you sit down and think about how many different sources have influence over our kids’ lives on any given day. They’re exposed to so much, whether they’re reading books at school or hearing things their friends or teachers are saying or they’re on social media or they’re just watching a movie. My son is a senior in high school this year, and I picked up a book he’d been told to read for English class. It caught my attention. I was at the table and I read the first chapter of it. And it was interesting because the man who wrote it was an individual who’d grown up going to three services every Sunday. That’s a lot of church. But his comment was, “I don’t know why people have to force the belief onto other people that there’s this God when all he did was turn water into wine.” So it really was trivializing the impact that Christ has significance and my entire value set about who God is. Because to me, Jesus’ miracle turning water into wine happened before he even started into ministry and it wasn’t really the biggest part. If you say that that’s who my God is, you’ve just made my God trivial. And so I called that out to my son. He was sitting there too, and I was like, “What do you think about this?” Because I wanted him to notice that there are other opinions out there, but it’s really easy for somebody to just kind of blow past things and then plant seeds of doubt like the devil with Eve and the garden. He didn’t come and say “God doesn’t exist.” He said, “Did God really say…?” And we have to be careful about that and make sure we’re the louder voice for our kids and we’re helping them process through some of that information. Otherwise it can start a trajectory that we’re not even aware they’re going down.

I was brought up in a missionary family, and I often say that if you’re a missionary kid, you don’t have a choice in whether you’re a Christian or not—you just assume. And as much good foundation my parents tried to instill in me, there was still this performance piece. Spiritual formation with our kids as a parent is not just saying, “Are you going to church enough?” And that is kind of how my parents measured my spiritual formation verbally. We have to be careful about making sure we plug in and have spiritual conversations with our kids, our primary responsibility. We’ve also got to [be cognizant] in what we say to them: “Are we going to church this week? We’ve got to go to church.” We need to be careful and not take what Jesus represented and turn it into regulation and ritual. 

Some of our parents may not have been Christian, and so we didn’t give a lot of spiritual formation. One of the most resounding bits of research that was done is that it’s not necessarily what parents say, it’s what they do. So if you have a radical transformation and find Christ later in life, and your kids are a little bit older, your kids are watching and they are picking up on that and trajectories can change. It’s not that once it’s set, they’re just gone. They’re toast. Thank God. I didn’t do everything and I need a lot of grace. Spiritual formation is not academic. It’s not just what you say. It is how you live your life. And so that rests 100% on a parent’s shoulder.

Who can we partner with in supporting our kids in this area and how can we join together with those people?

I think this is one of those things we’ll never be able to do on our own. It’s way too big. 100% first and foremost, God comes into the picture because he does want to train our children. There are verses all over, “Train your child in the way he should go” and “Write verses on your heart.” Jewish tradition teaches scripture better than we do today. So God is ultimately that number one source for information. 

For myself, it was probably about the time my oldest turned 13. I had been raised in a house where my dad would sit us down and we’d have family meetings, which would really be about two hours of lecture. But I had this idea that it was the dad’s role to mentor my children. My husband passed away when my oldest was 10 years old, and that seat was vacated. Who’s supposed to do this? I had to realize, “Wait a minute, I am the only parent now and this is my responsibility.” I actually had a commentary my mom sent me and I was like, “I’m going to sit and read this to my boys.” It was 500-something pages and I thought, “I have a 13 and 11-year-old kid, there’s no way they’ll sit through this.” And I read through eight pages on Genesis that first day. I had no idea my son was even struggling and that section spoke to him. So the very next day when I said, “We’re going to do this again,” they said, “Okay” and sat right down. Then they started asking for it because they were hungry for that information: “Help me understand what this church is that you’re dragging me to all this time. If it’s that important to you, help me understand it.” And so I did use some books. We’ve actually since veered out to read the New Testament but getting that perspective has been helpful. And I will tell you that recently I’ve been reading through the Bible every year and this past year I went to my kids and I said, “Hey, would you do this with me?” And my oldest was ready to do it but I could tell my youngest was hesitant, so I may have bribed them. They have started this habit where they have literally been reading through [the Bible]. We’re in 1 Samuel now, but I said, “Are you doing that because of the bribe or because you look forward to what you’re reading?” And my youngest said, “Oh well I forgot about the bribe.You owe me money.” He’s just doing it because he wants to. So I think there’s a lot of expectation that kids would not be interested or would not want to read it, but just find some of those resources out there. There are a lot of ways to read the Bible all the way through. There’s podcasts like The Bible Recap. Some parents may say, “Hey, I’m from this denomination—do I have to be reading everything within that denomination?” I think one of the nice things about reading this with my kids is I can stop and say, “Hey, how do I feel about that? Is that something that’s actually legitimate?” And so we’ve had times when I’ve completely disagreed [with the commentary] and we’ve sat down and had a 20-minute conversation about how somebody may have that opinion, but maybe that’s not our opinion or maybe that’s not our read on it. It becomes a good way to say, “I don’t have to know all the answers.” What I’m trying to do is open up the conversation and say, “Okay, somebody does know more. What can I learn from them?” 

What I love about what you’re saying is you are not teaching your kids something; you are exploring something with them. When you think about laying down spiritual formation and foundation, my mind typically goes to “What am I going to teach my kids?” as opposed to “Let’s explore this together.” What you’re talking about is so important —in not thinking that you have to verbally teach everything, but just making it a priority. When we’re talking about other partners, I think there are others that we could just name off fairly simply: Sunday school pastors, youth pastors, all of that. The point here is they are partners; they’re not taking the lead. But that does not mean you shouldn’t reach out to people like youth pastors and say, “Hey, what are you hearing kids are going through right now?” “What are you teaching in Sunday school that I can echo at home?” If you have Christian-believing faith family, then bring extended family into that. I had three girls, so I intentionally found Christian women that had similar, if not the same beliefs as mine, to spend time with them. As a single, it’s important to have someone that is the same gender as your kids to impart some wisdom especially as they get into teenage years and are wrestling with certain things they may not want to talk to their parents about. And so that is another partnership that I think is very valuable.

I was part of Young Life in my high school years and I spent a lot of time with my Young Life leaders and had a lot of those conversations. So just know that even if you have older kids who are in high school, Young Life is a great organization.

I would encourage you too, that if the first person you go to says no, keep looking. When my husband passed away, I said, “Hey, I need help” to a children’s pastor and he was like, “Well then you need to move back home.” That was not the answer that I needed. I still do not live back at home with my parents. My dad steps in, my mom steps in as they can, but I did not give up because that’s not an excuse to say, “Oh, well if the pastor won’t help me…There are a lot of overworked pastors out there right now. There’s a lot of need. So keep looking. 

How do we create a spiritually vibrant home? How can we be intentional? What are some key things that we can be doing to build that while we are taking the lead in spiritual formation?

The big thing I want to say is that it’s okay to not have it all together. And I say this from a place of very genuine authenticity because this is where I live. I do not have it all together when it comes to this and everything you guys are talking about. I would love to be more intentional in different ways, but I really more so rely on my own experience with God and my testimony. The wonder, the mystery, the discovery. I love what you talked about, Marissa, with the exploring together versus feeling like you have to have it all figured out because I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t know that any of us ever will. I grew up in a home that was so black and white, shoving it down my throat. And it didn’t leave a lot of room for the wonder, for the exploration, for the questions, for the doubts, for all of it. And as a child and even as an adult, I have to be able to ask those questions. I have to be able to wonder. I have to be able to sit and think about it and ponder it. And so I want to give Jax my son the freedom to do that as well and to be able to talk to me about it. And so for me it’s knowing that I don’t have it all figured out and being okay with that and allowing for conversation.

Because I think sometimes if you step into this acting like you’ve got it all figured out, it creates a disconnect between you and your kids. They think in order to have any kind of spiritual conversation, they have to say the right things, do the right things, or perform in a certain way. That’s not the walk that we have with Christ. We are very frail and we don’t know everything. And certainly God can step into our doubt and I think a lot of times as parents we are afraid to go there. One of the things that George Barnes shared with me once is the importance of testimony and how you can’t refute testimony. And I mean sharing the doubts, sharing the fears, sharing the things that are going on in your life with your kids and saying, “But we’re going to bring this to God and we’re going to pray about this together.”

When starting iShine, I had a vision and was looking for money and investors. I’d just come off a winning streak professionally and had a lot of really good relationships with [wealthy] people and thought it was a no brainer. And nothing happened. Nobody came through. Everything that I thought was going to happen didn’t happen. And I remember getting together with my girls and sharing with them this vision and that I needed to get the money in order for us to do it. It was down to one other opportunity with people that I didn’t know in another state. It was unlikely. I didn’t know these people from Adam. And I decided to tell my girls that. I remember saying to them, “This is the plan. I’ve got one more trip and I believe this is what God has for us and our family, but if this doesn’t happen, we might need to adjust some things in our living arrangement. We might need to move. I’m not freaked out about it, God is going to be with us. I believe that if God laid this in my heart, he’ll provide.” They were awesome. They were like, “Dad, I don’t care if we live under a bridge, we’re going to be fine.” We pulled into a parking spot right next to a beautiful little Porsche Cayenne, and written on the driver’s side window in white ink was something along the lines of “Those who God has put their foot upon a rock shall not be moved.” And from the backseat, Zoe was like, “Dad, I think God is trying to tell you something.” Fast forward one week later. I had this meeting in North Carolina and within a week of praying that prayer with my girls we were fully funded with money in the bank.

And that testimony, seeing I don’t have all the answers but God does, was one of the more significant things for my girls from a spiritual standpoint, especially about the importance of prayer and the validity of God who answers prayer. It had nothing to do with me teaching a Bible story and had nothing to do with me rehearsing or reading a commentary. As much as those are valuable, it had everything to do with showing up in authenticity and sharing that I don’t have it all together. But you can’t refute my testimony, we lived it. They saw it, I saw it. And that’s so much of what the Bible is, it’s testimony. As single parents we think that we have to have all the wisdom in the world, all the answers. And it really is about walking with our kids and bringing the spiritual aspect of our lives into focus with them so they’re a part of that. Fast forward 18 years later, my youngest daughter made me a Christmas present. She painted the car on it. They remember that God showed up for us and it had nothing to do with what I taught them. 

I love that so much because Jax can hear about my experiences and I can share those with him—but how can I help facilitate his own experiences as well? So that he sees God showing up for him in his particular life, not just witnessing God showing up for me or showing up for other people in the Bible. The way I was brought up, where I wasn’t given my own experiences, actually created a lot of fear and shame. I was never taught to experience God in that way. Jax has dealt with some anxiety and there have been specific instances where it’s like, “Hey, why don’t we pray about that?” And the first time that he prayed about it, he came back to me and said, “Mom, it worked. God heard me. It helped me so much.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” For him to have his own experience and to witness God moving and working in his life, that’s just such a gift for us to be able to give our kids.

I think raising our children to have that curiosity to say, “Where do you see God showing up in your life today?” is incredibly important for them. One morning my son came to me and he said, “Mom, you’ll never guess what happened. My alarm didn’t go off and I was going to miss the bus. But I was woken up by a phone call from the neighbor saying, “Do you want a ride to school?” There was that simple excitement when you realize how God does take care of you even in those little details. And then when you get to see that in your child’s eyes when he understands that —it’s so beautiful. 

That is a gift you can cultivate and it doesn’t even take a long time. And the more we can see God’s hand at play and be in awe of a richer life, the more full life we are given. And we are giving our children a chance to live that rich full life, to see something beyond whatever is in front of them or the problem of the day. And I think that’s one of the things that from a Solo Parent perspective, we have a unique opportunity. Let’s be honest, with being a single mom or dad, there’s all kinds of struggle, unknowns, and difficulty. There are a couple of things I think we’re prime to learn during this solo season. One of them is intimacy, understanding how to know somebody else and how to really connect. And we walk through that with our groups all the time. I think secondly, it is a perfect opportunity to continually bring your request before God. It could look big like the funding of an organization. It can look small like waking me up or getting rid of anxiety, but making sure that is a part of your day-to-day conversation. If we are focusing on the spiritual foundation of our kids, we are in a prime position to do that as a single parent because there is so much struggle. It’s so hard. It’s just an opportunity for God to show up. One of the quotes that George says that I think really wraps this up is, “Simply getting people to go to church regularly is not the key to becoming a mature Christian. Spiritual transformation requires a more extensive investment into one’s ability to interpret all of life’s situations in a spiritual term.” That, to me, is what we’re talking about here. Taking everything that we’re dealing with—the good, the bad, the ugly, and putting it in spiritual terms. There is irrefutable evidence of God’s faithfulness. And there’s nothing too big for him if we believe that. Let’s share that with our kids. 

1. The foundation of our kids’ beliefs happens in the first 13 years of their life, a time where parents are a huge influence. Side note, it can happen after the age of 13, as long as we’re being transparent with how God is showing up and we’re sharing that testimony with our kids.
2.  Even though we are the main influence on our kids’ spiritual growth, we can’t do it without the support of others. Don’t try to do this alone. 
3. A spiritually vibrant home is important; go to church, read the Bible, and share your testimony. Put everything that you’re dealing with into spiritual terms and share that with your kids and watch the foundation be set up, not because of everything you’ve taught them, but because you guys have lived it.

Listener Question: What personal traits do you hope you’ll pass down to your kids?

I really hope that Jax picks up open-mindedness and wonder and curiosity—not seeing things in black and white because sometimes our fear can get us trapped there. And I hope he’s just able to wonder and be curious and learn.

I think on top of that, critical thinking skills that say, “Just because I’ve heard it doesn’t make it true.” I don’t want my kids to be doubters, but I want my kids to learn to formulate their own opinions and to know why they believe and what they believe instead of just saying, “Oh yeah, I read that in a book somewhere. So that must be right. It was put in print.” For every book, there’s a book that counters it. Even dealing with numbers, there’s a way to do an analysis and there’s a way to do an analysis wrong, and they’re both the same. I’d like for them to have a drive to be motivated. I think I want my kids to understand how dependent we need to be on God and how faithful he is. And if there’s a trait that I’ve come to experience as a result of my solo season, it’s that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can imagine or hope for. And I have seen that over and over in my life, and I believe that with all my heart. So I hope that they hold onto that same belief that God can do immeasurably more than we can hope or imagine.

If you want to send in a question, please do. Go to our website and you’ll find directions on how to call, email, or leave a voice message. You can also message us on Instagram or Facebook.