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Focus on the Family Broadcast

Raising Kids With a Thriving Faith

Raising Kids With a Thriving Faith

Phil Vischer and Dr. Scottie May explain how parents can take a pro-active role in the spiritual training of their children.



Jim Daly: I’m Jim Daly here in the studio with Phil Vischer, who has some unique expertise and experience in teaching kids about God and about Christianity. And I’d like to put you on the spot here, a little, Phil. Why is sending our children to Sunday school not enough these days in terms of establishing their faith? Seems like the right formula.

Phil Vischer: It’s a good place to start. I mean, Sunday school is awesome, but it’s an hour a week and it’s information. You know, it’s instruction and we don’t just want to instruct them; we want to transform them. And to do that, we have to disciple them and that’s walking with them through life, not just sitting with them for an hour.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: A bit of a challenge from our guest and you’ll hear more from him on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and we’re takin’ on a sometimes scary topic for a lot of Christian parents today and that is, the spiritual training of our children.

Jim: John, we can already feel the waves of guilt and anguish many of the moms and dads are feeling about this. I am, too, because frankly, it is hard to do. And maybe this has been a bone of contention in your own home. But guess what? There is good news. Passing on your faith, discipleship or family devotions, whatever you want to call it, is not complicated and it’s not as complicated as we make it out to be.

John: Right.

Jim: And as we’ll hear from our experts today, there are some very simple, practical ways that you can have a tremendous influence on your child’s faith and values.

John: Well, you heard Phil Vischer just a moment ago. He’s with us. He’s best known as the creator of VeggieTales. And now he has an online media network for families. We’ve talked about it here before. It’s called JellyTelly. And he just completed a comprehensive review of the entire Bible for kids in a video series, What’s in the Bible?

Now Phil is joined by a very special guest, Dr. Scottie May. She’s a professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College and specializes in helping young children encounter God. And Dr. May also happens to be Phil Vischer’s mom.


Jim: Phil and Scottie, we are so glad to have both of you here with us today. I’m looking forward to that fun, Phil, of course, your work with VeggieTales and I guess vegetables in general—I’m not sure how that happened.

Phil: Through the years, lots of vegetables.

Jim: You’re kind of a crazy man.

Phil: I don’t know that I would use that word. (Laughter)

Jim: Okay, let me ask your mother. Is he a crazy man?

Dr. Scottie May: Yes, he is. (Laughter)

Phil: Aw!

Scottie: He was singing and talking the entire trip from Chicago to here yesterday. And we haven’t traveled alone together for many, many years and I didn’t realize he was that verbal all the time.

Jim: Did he keep askin’ you how long till we get there?

Scottie: No, no, not that.

Phil: Are we almost there yet?

Scottie: It was the constant soundtrack–

Phil: No, I sing. I worked with a guy early in my video production years and we would take a van and go out and do shoots together. And he finally turned to me and said, “So, when you’re not talking, you just put a record on.” (Laughter) ‘Cause I would always hum or sing or do something.

Jim: Some people are saying, “What’s a record?”

Phil: Yeah. (Laughter) You’re not knocking. You play an mp3.

Jim: That’s it.

Scottie: Well, we sang as a family a lot on our travels—

Phil: We did; we did.

Scottie: –a lot. But I didn’t know that carried over into his adult years.

Phil: I never stopped. (Laughter)

Jim: Scottie, that must have been fun for you as a mom. You have a doctorate in education—

Scottie: Right.

Jim: –specifically children education, right?

Scottie: Right, right.

Jim: You know, when you look at that and you’re kinda applying these things theoretically that you’re learning in school, at home with your son here …

Scottie: I didn’t know anything when he was at home.

Phil: Yeah (Laughter), she didn’t have the doctorate until I as gone.

Jim: Well, then she figured out she needed one.

Scottie: Yes, absolutely.

Phil: Yes, now she’s trying to do rehab. (Laughter)

Jim: You reduced her to a kindergarten education. (Laughter)

Scottie: So, grandparenting and great-grandparenting allows you to use what you learned after you were a parent.

Jim: Well, and in some ways, it is a serious point. You have that perspective as a grandma and great-grandma?

Scottie: No, not great-grandma, yet.

Jim: Okay, I couldn’t believe that. I was gonna say.

John: Hopefully, grandma.

Scottie: Well, I could be, but I’m not and I’m glad.

Jim: And then, Phil, with all the work that you’ve done in the Christian sphere and beyond that really with VeggieTales and other things that you’re doing, we’re gonna talk more about that a little later, but how do parents catch the vision for teaching their kids spiritual truth? We’re so busy. And we have so many great excuses—

Phil: Right.

Jim: –“I’m too busy” being one of them (Chuckling). I’ll just leave that to Sunday school.

Phil: Yeah.

Jim: Why is that not a good idea?

Phil: We really need to start out as parents by saying, what is important to me to pass on to my kids? Because if we don’t do that deliberately, then you default into things. Well, it’s important that they, you know, play all the right sports. It’s important that they get the best grades possible.

But is that really the most important thing? You know, if your walk with Christ is the most important thing in your life, you want to pass that on to your kids first and that becomes the most important thing. So, you really need to stop, take a step back and kind of assess yourself. And this is my biggest point when I talk to parents.

You know, my biggest point is, I mean, the best way to teach kids is simply to live it yourself. You know, if you’re not living it, that’s where the problem is. Stop and say, why am I not living it? Why isn’t it the most important thing for me, my walk with Christ? And start there. ‘Cause when you get on an airplane, they always say, “If you’re traveling with small children, put on your own oxygen mask before you attempt to help them.” (Laughing) And I say this to parents, if you’re not breathing the right oxygen, you really can’t help your kids. So, it starts with you.

Jim: Let me ask you this, because I love that analogy. I think it’s brilliant. But again, we think about it maybe in too light of terms, to where it’s hard to be perfect, Phil. (Laughter) You know, so parents in that home structure, your kids are gonna see things that aren’t glorifying to God. They’re gonna see you lose your temper—

Phil: Right.

Jim: — when you do something silly or stupid.

Phil: Right and then they need to see what you do when you’ve done that.

Jim: And that’s the key.

Phil: And that’s the key, because if you’re trying to create the impression of perfection, you’re setting a bar that they can never achieve. You know, you’re setting them up for failure, because they will not be perfect.

Jim: You know, that’s so accurate and boy, it’s speaking to my heart, because I believe that wholeheartedly. Now let’s turn to the expert, your mother.

Phil: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: Is mom—

Phil: She can clear up everything.

Jim: –never an expert? But in this case, she is the expert, Dr. May. She’s now said to call her “Scottie.”

Scottie: Please.

Jim: It’s always a little—

Scottie: Yes.

Jim: –awkward, but—

Scottie: No, no, please.

Jim: –but let’s talk about the research. I’m fascinated in preparing for the program today, there’re stats that vary slightly, but something like 85 percent of people who follow Christ, made that decision between the ages of 4 and 14. That’s the roughly the idea, that most people who live a life for the Lord, make that decision at a young age.

You’ve given your life to that, not only with your own family, but in your pursuit of a doctorate and learning education, Christian education at that level. Talk about that, the importance of getting to children, your own first, obviously and then maybe even kids beyond your own kids.

Scottie: Well, that’s a very broad question and hard to get my head around and that research gives me pause, because it depends upon how the question was phrased. And often it was phrased in a way like, “When did you become a Christian?” And for some faith traditions, it’s not a point in time. It’s a process. It’s a journey. And so, the responses would be very, very different if that question was phrased differently.

So, I think to say 4 is the bottom age is a misnomer, because for me, spiritual formation starts in utero, in the womb, when Christian parents are praying over the unborn child, laying hands on the expanding belly. And you have in Scripture all these places where the Spirit of God interacts with the yet unborn or the just born child. There are eight different people where the Spirit of God interacted with that infant, including Paul. He was called by grace before birth. Whoa! How did that happen? What does that mean?

So, for me, the act of helping my child grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, happened before birth. And there’s amazing research about the learning that happens before birth.

Jim: That is excellent and that’s a good reminder. The point I think there is simply to engage a child in that journey.

Scottie: Yes.

Jim: It starts Day 1 and maybe, you’re saying before, in the belly–

Scottie: Even before birth, yes.

Jim: –those prayers.

Scottie: Yes.

Jim: That’s certainly a wonderful story, where–

Scottie: So the formation—

Jim: –yeah.

Scottie:–starts when the brand-newborn infant hears mom and dad praying together, talking together. If they’re not believers, that infant always also hears that dialogue, the kind of language that’s used, the attitude–

Jim: Prayer.

Scottie: –yes, prayer or language used outside of prayer and when they talk to each other in relationships. So, that kind of relationship like Phil was just mentioning, begins actually before birth. The child picks that up.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Phil: And I think it’s dangerous when we, you know, ’cause part of my upbringing was trying to get kids to make a decision. You know, make a decision; make a decision. we always forget that the Great Commission wasn’t to make converts; it was to make disciples. You know, and disciples is [sic] about discipleship. And when someone became a disciple, okay, in the First Century world, in the ancient world, when they became a disciple, it didn’t mean that they went to their classes once a week. (Laughing)

Jim: Right.

Phil: It meant that they lived with them–

Jim: 24/7.

Phil: –actually 24/7, you traveled with your rabbi. You lived with your rabbi. You ate with your rabbi. You did everything and when you realize what discipleship looked like in the context of Jesus saying, “Go and make disciples,” you realize it’s not send ’em to Sunday school. (Laughing) It’s live this life together, you know, live the life of following Christ. And when you’re doing that with your kids, you realize it’s not nearly as important when did they make a literal decision? Was it at 2? Was it at 3? Was it at 4?

Jim: Right.

Phil: Was it at 5? It’s when did they start walking with Christ—

Jim: Right.

Phil: –you know. And there is a point where there is a verbal, you know, yes, I’m a follower of Jesus. Yes, I, you know, I recognize that I do terribly bad things and I do things that are wrong and that I need to be washed of that. But it’s the whole life journey of, you know, I’m following Jesus with you, mom and dad.

Jim: Right.

Phil: And I watched you do it and when our kids stop walking with Christ or stop walking in the church, we often forget that it’s because they’ve been watching us and that they’ve seen something at some point that maybe makes it not very compelling. You know, so I always have to look at myself and say, “How am I living out my faith that would make it not irresistible to my kids?

Jim: Well, boy, that’s a broader question for the culture. And—

Phil: Yes.

Jim: –what have we done wrong to make it not irresistible?

Phil: Yes, yeah, how have we changed the Gospel so that it’s not Good News anymore?

Jim: Let’s get practical for just a second–

Phil: Okay.

Jim: –or maybe for a few seconds here. You’re competing as a parent with an incredible media culture today with a child. I mean, my boys do that, too. I mean, we watch the games they want to play and we—

Phil: Yeah.

Jim: –limit their time and thankfully, it’s not a battle for us. They get it and they don’t really push us hard on it. But in the home today, the home today, not the world of antiquity, there’s a lot of—

Phil: Noise.

Jim: –noise.

Phil: Yeah.

Jim: And it can get pretty difficult when parents constantly have to battle the videogame thing and television. How do you do that in such a way that they’re not rolling their eyes that you want to teach ’em a little lesson?

Phil: Right, right.

Jim: You know, you say after dinner, “Let’s do a little Bible study” and the kids go, “Oh, no!” (Laughter)

Phil: Yeah.

Jim: What do you do—

Phil: I want to—

Jim: –in a practical way?

Phil: –hear my mom answer that question.

Jim: (Laughing) Yeah, okay, mom. What do you do in the practical sense?

Scottie: Well, I think what we have failed in this culture to realize that God speaks to us in the stillness. And if I, as an adult, want to engage with the Spirit of God, in the presence of God, I have to have that time and space for that to happen. And if I am doing that and I connect with God in that quietness, in that stillness, then I am modeling that for my children and they will catch from me that it’s important to have down time, stillness.

In the car, what do we do? Do we have to have music on instantly? Some of my research has been, what happens when we slow down, because we don’t need to hurry? When we’re quiet, so that we can hear the Spirit of God whisper into our hearts and then it goes to my head. So, I’ve worked with young children in doing that and I’ve seen incredible things happen with preschoolers when I’ve created an environment, in a scared space that was slow and quiet.

But if parents would do that at home, because their souls need it, what a difference that would be. The Spirit of God never yells. It’s always quiet and whispering. And if I’m in constant noise, I won’t hear that. So, creating that environment in my home on a somewhat regular basis for my soul will then help the children.

Maybe I go to a nature preserve or out to some beautiful place where God’s general creation is very evident and I’m just there with God’s Spirit, I will model that. My children will see that that’s important to me, ’cause when I return from that time of solitude, I’ll talk about it. “You know what happened to me when I was out there? I sensed God saying this. And I realize now I was wrong in what I said to you, ’cause God reminded me in the stillness that I needed to do it this way.”

Jim: Well, and it was so good and what you’ve done so well, Phil and I give you great credit, is to make Bible stories entertaining, able to educate, but doing it in a way that the modern culture and the modern children’s culture says, “Wow, that’s good.” We’ve tried to do that with Odyssey over the years–

Phil: Right.

Jim:Adventures in Odyssey and it’s done, I think—

Phil: And you have done that.

Jim: –reasonable well. But tell us what’s going on with JellyTelly” and how you approach—

Phil: Yeah.

Jim: –teaching kids.

Phil: Well, it’s interesting, because parents get so much pressure to, you know, you need to do this right. It’s all up to you. You need to do this for your kids. And so, here, do family devotions every night.

Jim: It’s like eating spinach.

Phil: I went to a seminar with a Christian leader on parenting and he was talking about, how every morning he got his kids up at 6 to spend two hours teaching them Christian worldview, you know. And I’m like, okay, that ain’t me! (Laughter)

Jim: (Laughing) Well, I’m glad for your honesty.

Phil: Yeah, I do not, because different parents are different. Not everyone is a teacher, a natural-born teacher. But kids learn more and that’s where we forget, kids learn more by watching you than by listening to you. So, it’s not about how well have you done family devotions in the evening? I mean, the two words “family devotions” for most dads I think, are the scariest words in the English language.

Jim: Absolutely because mom’s the one sayin’, “You haven’t done enough.”

Phil: Yeah (Laughing), sure. And that was one of the reason, you know, I make What’s In The Bible? And What’s In The Bible? is a series of DVDs. It’s 13 DVDs and goes through the entire Bible. Well, one of the reasons I made this series and it’s me teaching; it’s puppets; it’s animation, you know.

Jim: They’re really good.

Phil: It’s a fun walk through the Bible. But one of the reasons I did it was to help those dads who just don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to start. And it’s like, okay, here’s a new way to do family devotions. Sit everybody down; spend a half an hour. Watch this and then just see what questions your kids ask afterwards.

Scottie: Let me jump in here.

Phil: Jump in.

Scottie: I am so thrilled with What’s In The Bible? because it is a winsome, engaging way to teach the content of the Bible so they have that foundation to build on. And I think Phil would agree that knowing about God is a key, key piece, but that doesn’t equate with knowing God. And so, you have to have both. And the knowing God part is what happens in the stillness and the quiet. So, you couple those two things, knowing God and knowing about God and then you have a vital, vibrant pathway. So, if parents can do both, know God personally, relationally and know about God and pass that dyad onto their children, that’s fabulous.

Jim: I think the difficulty and it may be somewhat temperamental, like you mentioned, Phil, where you’ve—

Phil: Yep.

Jim: –got—

Phil: We’re all different.

Jim: –teaching skills and you can engross your child into a great Bible story two hours in the morning at 6 a.m. I don’t think my kids would be there.

Phil: No.

Jim: They’re not awake yet at 6.

Phil: No.

Jim: So, applause for that person. But you need to think through how you can match your abilities with communicating to your children. Is that a fair way to say it? If you don’t—

Phil: Yes.

Jim: –have that—

Phil: Yes.

Jim: –skill set, I mean, we’re not Phil Vischers.

Phil: Well, and I’m not good at some things. One of the reasons that I make films is that I’m better explaining things in a film than I am staring at, you know, five 4-year-olds. You know, I don’t teach Sunday school and the people at my church that do teach Sunday school always think that’s weird. It’s like, “Hey, you’re the VeggieTales guy. Why aren’t you teaching Sunday school?” That’s not my gifting. I freak out, you know. (Laughter)

Jim: You’re afraid of these little kids! (Laughing)

Phil: Yeah, so you have to know yourself as a parent to know what you’re good at and then know what your spouse is good at, to know, you know, who can take what role? But even more so, you know, make it real in your own life. And I see that quite often where, you know, I know I’m not doing this. I’m not eating right, but I want my kids to eat right.

Jim: Right. How does a parenting couple, two different people who have this assignment now from the Lord to nurture this child and to teach, as you said, Scottie, from day one, how to teach this child, how do those temperaments, how do you come together? Do you have to actually sit down and create a plan? What do you do to communicate it with your marriage?

Scottie: Ironically, as different as couples are, the children are as equally different. And so, each one of us has a unique learning style, using the educator’s term and if I understand my learning style, there will be things I don’t like to do. And one of my children will love to do that. So, I need to have breadth in how I reach them. So, if I was an artist, I would communicate with God through art that I would draw. Then I would talk about that with my child, not expecting my child to draw, but I’d watch what my child was drawn to.

And if they’re musical, how can I affirm God speaking to them through their music? So, it’s understanding my child, understanding myself and the breadth of ways that we can present God’s incredible story and the relationship He wants with us. That the relationship is just not cognitive and our teaching role thinks it’s all cognitive, but it’s also affective and emotional and artistic and musical and spatial, so, all these different ways.

We can have freedom in expressing how we connect with God. And you look at Jesus’ life and how He taught. It was very, very diverse. So, Jesus asked questions when He was teaching. He had silence. He used stories and a wide variety. He wrote on the ground. He did all these things. And so, I think, feel free to teach and present God’s story in a way that will connect with every child.

Phil: Right, and we have to be away how different kids are—

Scottie: Yes.

Phil: –in the sense that, you may have three kids and you go to your church and there’s an amazing worship service and one of your three kids comes out and says, “That was so awesome. I felt so close to God.” And another kid says, “I don’t want to go back to church. I don’t like church.”

Jim: That was boring.

Phil: Yes and so, now your tendency is to say, “What’s wrong with this kid? What am I doing wrong with this kid?” Now you may take the same three kids out for a hike in the woods and that kid says—

Scottie: Right.

Phil: –“I felt so close to God there.”

Jim: Right.

Scottie: And what’s key as far as I’m concerned is, what I do as a parent to say, “What was happening inside of you when we were doing this? What was going on? How did you sense God’s presence?” “Well, I didn’t.” “Where do you go when you want to sense God’s presence?” And that gives me insight into the child.

I’ve done lots of work with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds and I provide a lot of materials for them to respond to God after they have heard the story. And it’s amazing what happens. I even had one setting where there was a prayer corner. And couple little boys always wanted to go in the prayer corner. And one day the little boy came out and said, “God touched me.” “Really? What happened?” “I don’t know; God just touched me.” We had done nothing but create a space for that to happen.

So, as a parent, I can do that and feel free that I don’t have to have the pressure that I’ve got to teach the Bible right.

Jim: Yeah.

Scottie: I can just make space for the Spirit of God to do the work.

Phil: There are teaching resources—

Scottie: Yes.

Phil: –that can help you do that teaching.

Jim: Yeah. (Laughing)

Phil: That’s not entirely your responsibility. Your responsibility is to live a walk with Jesus—

Scottie: Amen.

Phil: –in front of your kids.

Jim: Let me ask you this. And I think, Scottie, for you as mom, I need to ask this of you. A lot of us and I see this for Jean and I, our boys are 14 and 12. So, you know, sometimes when it’s not goin’ the way we want it to go, I wouldn’t say panic, but a bit of concern can seep in. And now you’re looking at your son, Phil, who’s a grown man most of the time. (Laughter)

Phil: More or less.

Jim: More or less. But when he was that 12-year-old, that 15-year-old, did you go, “Uh-oh, he may not be getting it?” And we need that honesty because—

Scottie: All right.

Jim: –I think a lot of moms particularly, dads—

Phil: Was he getting anything?

Jim: –here we go, but dads, too, we can panic as Christian parents going, they did this and now they don’t know God at all.

Scottie: Yes.

Jim: And we have failed.

Scottie: And I think as I’ve understood the development of the child, we go from a phase of having them dependent on us, to a phase of being independent before they become interdependent. And I think that happens spiritually.

When Phil was that age, I was a single parent. And I could’ve chosen to panic and say, “I can’t do this. What’s going on?” But for some reason, the Spirit of God said, “Okay, you can’t do this; trust Me. Let Me do this with you.”

And so, my three children all went through rocky times, including Phil, didn’t want to go to church, didn’t want to be part of youth group. But I felt my responsibility was to walk faithfully and obediently with my God. Did I almost force them to go to church? Yes, because that’s part of what we did. We went every Sunday whether they–

Jim: It’s part of our heritage.

Scottie: –yes, whether they wanted to or not, we went. But I couldn’t force obedience on them, but I prayed and let God do the work. And God is faithful. I can trust my children to God who loves them more than I ever can.

Jim: And that’s good advice right there. I do want to come back, just to make sure we put the frosting on the wonderful wisdom nugget you just gave us. But for that mom and I think both moms and dads, but moms tend to carry a heavier burden in this area. For that teen or that 12-year-9-old, who’s not doing what they would like to see them do, that bit of hope, what would you say mom to mom?

Scottie: Mom to mom, I say, “Let go. Don’t be stressed over this. Trust your good God who cares for your child so much.” I work with college students every day. I see them wrestling with who they are. Let them go. Let them fail. Let’ them get to the bottom of themselves and God will catch them and carry them through and just trust your God, walking faithfully and obediently yourself, intimately with the Lord Jesus.

As a mom, know who you are in Christ. Know your “belovedness” and then you can let your children go, because they’re beloved to Him and He’ll faithfully walk with them.

Jim: Hm.

Phil: I worry more about the kids that have never gone off the path—

Scottie: Yes.

Phil: –honestly, the kids that make it to adulthood having never panicked their parents. Something’s (Chuckling) not right.

Jim: Well, and usually what’s happening there is, they’re going to college, many of them.

Phil: Yes.

Jim: And they lose it.

Phil: Yeah.

Jim: And they may or may not—

Phil: That—

Jim: –come back.

Phil: –they may have been going through the motions to please their parents. So, the ones that say, “You know what, dad? At this point in my life, I am not buying what you’re selling.” Do you know what that tells me? They’re thinking.

Jim: Hm.

Phil: And that is awesome. You know, now my wife is panicked. “Wait! You know (Laughing), they’re supposed to be buying what we’re selling. That’s our job.” I say, “No, our job is to deliver them to adulthood as thinking adults, who have seen people model the love of God.”

Jim: Well, and to what your mom just said, put the exclamation point on this, the panic that does set in. How does a parent relax? You talk temperaments again, when you’re that panicking mom, how do you actually relax and say—

Phil: You can’t–

Jim: –“Okay, Lord, You got it.”

Phil: –you can’t look at the middle of the story and say, “I know how this ends; it ends horribly.” No, the middle may be one thing that’s completely different than the ending and God sees the whole story. So, God has your kids on a journey. And this is the most important thing. It’s their journey. You cannot own your kid’s journey. It will only be as rich as you allow it to take place when you take your hands off and let your kids actually ask their questions, have their doubts. You know, try differ

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