FamilyLife Today®

Spiritual Life Skills For Kids: How Do I Build Habits That Last?

with Janel Breitenstein | October 4, 2021
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Are you looking for doable ways to disciple your children? Janel Breitenstein offers ideas to build spiritual life skills for kids and encourage their Christ-anchored identity.

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Are you looking for doable ways to disciple your children? Janel Breitenstein offers ideas to build spiritual life skills for kids and encourage their Christ-anchored identity.

Spiritual Life Skills For Kids: How Do I Build Habits That Last?

With Janel Breitenstein
October 04, 2021
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Ann: So I remember asking our kids one day—I think they were 8, 11, and 13—and I said, “Hey, guys, let me ask you this.”

Dave: You were always asking them.

Ann: I was. [Laughter] I said, “What do you think the values of our home are?—like, ‘As the Wilsons, these are the family values of our household…’”

Dave: I actually didn’t want to know. [Laughter]

Ann: I know! You wouldn’t ask these questions.

Dave: I was like, “This is not going to be what we hoped for. [Laughter]

Ann: That’s true.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.

Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at or on our FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

I was actually in an accountability group. We all decided, “Let’s ask our kids this.” I said, “What do you think the values of our home are?” And so here’s what they said: first son said, “Our value is sports.”

Dave: Amen! [Laughter] What is wrong with that?

Ann: My head fell down to my chest as he said that. [Laughter] The next son said, “I think our values are God and sports.” So my chin lifted a little higher. [Laughter]

Dave: He got God in there; that’s good.

Ann: The next son said, “Church, sports, and fun.” I have to tell you that kind of made me think, “Uh oh; we might need to change things around here a little bit”; and I’m blaming you! [Laughter]

Dave: I’ll tell you: I take full responsibility.

Ann: Oh.

Dave: I mean, in some ways, it was a great question to ask; but you’ve got to know, at that age especially, the answer you’re going to get is what you’re living.

Ann: Exactly.

Dave: They are watching mom and dad. It doesn’t matter what we say, because we would have never said sports should be number one.

Ann: No; that wouldn’t even have been in my values.

Dave: I would have said, “Sports should be 1a but not 1. [Laughter] No, seriously, we would have hoped that sports was not in the top three.

Ann: My hope is Jesus—like that’s my hope—so we came a little close on some of them, but that was eye-opening to me.

We have a guest with us—Janel Breitenstein—welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Janel: Thanks. I’m so excited to be here.

Ann: We’re excited to have you, Janel, because you’ve written a book called Permanent Markers.

Dave: Here’s another thing that some people probably don’t know. You’ve written a lot of things for FamilyLife.

Ann: Oh, yes.

Janel: That’s true.

Dave: I don’t know if the readers always know that you’re the one that have written them. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ann: Yes; and tell us some of the projects you helped write, here, at FamilyLife.

Janel: My husband and I were on staff for seven years.

My parents moved here when I was 15; they are now staff chaplains. I think one thing that they’re great at doing is listening to people, and hearing their stories, and receiving their pain. There are a lot of people who just feel very connected to them, because they have a deep emotional intelligence and a lot of ability to shepherd people.

Thankfully, this book is a lot of their legacy; because they’re really creative parents in the way that they taught me, and that’s while they were still growing in grace. My mom even just recently apologized to me for a way that they wished they would have raised me back in the day. To have your parents grow into that grace, that’s a gift. I hope I’m that kind of parent someday that can come back and circle back with even more repentance, and even more of God’s kindness, and an understanding of the gospel with my kids.

Ann: Sweet.

Janel: For FamilyLife, I’m actually a freelance writer now. I head up their “I Do Every Day” devotionals that you can get in your inbox every day. Several of those are mine; I write articles on a regular basis. I’m in charge of their upcoming online courses, and do a lot of marketing copy, and things like that. I’ve got my hands in a lot of pots that make me really happy with FamilyLife. I’ve actually gotten to edit a lot of Dave and Ann’s stuff for some of our upcoming online—[Laughter]

Dave: See! Thank you; somebody’s editing that stuff. [Laughter]

Janel: No editing—like I come up with the discussion questions—that’s my big contribution. So now I know that maybe Ann shouldn’t be trusted by houseplants; but other than that, I really love her. [Laughter]

Ann: That’s true, very true.

Dave: And you’re also, obviously, a wife and a mom of four?

Janel: Yes; but sometimes, it feels like six—but I think you know what that is—three boys and a girl—my oldest is now seventeen, going down to twelve. My hands feel really full. Now, looking at the content of some of the Permanent Markers from the perspective of parenting teens, just gives me even more reverence for the work we do with young kids that feels so thankless when we’re in it and feels so fruitless.

One of the things it reminds me of—there’s a scene in the movie, Taken, with Liam Neeson—his daughter’s about to be kidnapped, and she calls her dad. He’s able to give her a few instructions before she’s kidnapped by the enemy. Sometimes, we don’t know the battles our kids will face, whether as they’re teenagers or as adults; and what we’re able to input into them, in creative engaging ways when they are young, they will never forget. That’s the Permanent Markers’ part.

Every single one of my kids took to a table, or a wall, or something like that with permanent markers. [Laughter] This is not revenge for all of that scrubbing, but it is we want to write spiritual life skills on our kids’ hearts. That’s a large part of what we’re doing; we’re preparing them for what we don’t know.

Recently, I had a friend of mine who—

Dave: I’ve just got to say, before you tell us this story,—

Janel: Yes, please do.

Dave: You just won me over with a Liam Neeson movie reference. [Laughter]

Ann: We all understood what you were saying. [Laughter]

Janel: Yes!

Dave: “Way to go, girl”; you know? It’s like, “Wow!”

I know the Permanent Markers idea—here’s something funny—our youngest took a stone—which again. great parents; right?—we didn’t notice what he was doing for fifteen—

Janel: I know—boys!

Ann: He was in the garage, but I was outside.

Dave: It was probably ten minutes or so that we weren’t—

Janel: That’s all it takes. [Laughter]

Dave: He carved his name onto the side of our minivan/carved through the paint to the steel.

Janel: Oh! That’s an expensive ten minutes; isn’t it?

Ann: He went through a phase, where he was putting his name on everything. On his bedroom furniture, we would always see “Cody.”

Janel: Why is it always their name? [Laughter]

Ann: I don’t know; it must be an identity thing.

Dave: You talk about it in your book—it’s identity—whether it’s a stone or a marker.

We are trying, as you said, to build life skills into them that stick; right?

Janel: Yes.

Dave: I don’t know if you remember where you were going with that, but you were talking about some friend.

Janel: I do. I had a friend of mine, who just lost her husband—she’s my age—to cancer/to pancreatic cancer. They have three kids. Her mom is also a friend of mine; and she said, “You know what? I keep looking at my daughter and imagining her running around in footie pajamas.” She said, “I just didn’t know I was raising her for this.”

The reality is—when our kids are eight years old, or they’re losing their front teeth, or they’re carving their names into the side of our minivan—we don’t see what we’re raising them for: and the story, the pain, and the triumph that we’re raising them for. Ultimately, we’re raising them for the kingdom.

That’s not to put too much weight on what we’re doing so that, again, we’re waking around in fear. But instead, to ground ourselves so deeply in the message and kindness of Jesus Christ so our kids will draw from that for the rest of their lives, like that tree in Psalm 1.

Ann: Janel, I/my heart just resonates with you; because what we do matters—

Janel: It does!

Ann: —in the home. You feel like, “Does anything matter?” You feel like you don’t have a life as a mom; you feel like you’re just running on empty a lot; and the demands of life are just crazy because you’re packing lunches, and you’re running to practice, and you’re doing wash, and you’re going to work. There’s so many things going on.

But I think it’s really important, as you’re saying, to stop and recall/like: “These days in our home, they make a difference.” And to make these deposits in our kids, that’s going to be something you never regret. You’re not going to do it perfectly, but we can do some things that will really help. You’re going to help us with that today.

Janel: Man, I hope so; [Laughter] I hope so. I think that the cornerstone that I think you guys would probably come back to with me is ultimately the life that we experience in Christ ourselves, because we can’t roll out what we’re not experiencing.

Ann: Exactly.

Janel: You could do every single one of these today; and you could really miss that my message is not: “Try harder.” Moms and dads are exhausted; they are so tired. They feel so, at times, fruitless in what they’re doing. The reality is, if we think that we are more worthy parents because we’re doing any of this, we can get into a false gospel ourselves, where we are more worthy because of what we do. That’s just so different from the message of Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, the core verse for me in this entire book is 1 Corinthians 3:6, where it says that: “Paul planted; Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” It’s you—as a mom, and you as a dad, and camp counselors, and grandparents, and all those babysitters, and all those coaches—who are cultivating around us; but ultimately, it is only God who creates this in our kids. It’s Him we’re leaning into as dependent parents.

Ann: Well, Janel, since we’ve started here, talk to us about how, as a busy mom—you have three boys and a daughter, so you’re crazy busy—

Dave: Crazy ratio by the way—

Ann: Yes.

Janel: Oh, yes.

Dave: —boys and girls—wow!

Ann: But how, with that busy schedule, do you maintain that vibrant walk with Jesus?—and your husband as well?

Janel: You know, that’s a great question. I think it was so hard to make time for that when I was a young mom; because as soon as I got horizontal, I just wanted to sleep; you know? [Laughter] It got to the point, at some times, where I just wanted to check off the box. I think I had to get to a point in my relationship with God that He was my “get to,” and He was my “Me time,” and to properly look at Him to really see Him.

I don’t have to make time, in my particular marriage, for my husband because my husband is my “get to”; I want to make time. Date night is my “get to.” I think that’s an equivalent, as a mom or as a dad: “Can God become our ‘get to’?” “Can we get to a point—and sometimes that started out really just with very physical cues from me—I started doing things like: “I’m going to make a latte,” and “I’m going to put on my lavender lotion,” and “I’m going to soak my feet during my quiet time,” so that I could associate that time with nurture and see God as He really is through my senses. [Laughter]

Ann: That’s a good idea; I think that’s important too. I know that I had this woods and a path behind my house. In the summers, I would, every night, go just maybe a lap or two on this little path. It reminded me of Adam and Eve walking with God in the cool of the day, and I couldn’t wait to get there. It seems like, the longer we’re away from God, the colder our hearts get. So even if you can just get away for a few minutes—a few Bible verses—you know, when our kids are really little.

I’m telling you—that time in the woods on that path, if people saw me, they would think I was crazy—I’m singing; I’m dancing; I’m yelling, “Jesus!” [Laughter] Because in those laps, it’s like He filled me up enough that I had something to give out.

Dave: Ann, by the way, she would often say, “No; I don’t want you with me.” [Laughter] It wasn’t really a bad thing; it was like: “I need alone time, and I really want you to be with the boys.”

It was a moment where I get to be with the boys. I get my walk in the wood, which was totally different; I go play golf. [Laughter] But I mean, it really was—

Janel: —the woods. [Laughter]

Dave: —something that kept you sane as a mom.

Ann: Absolutely.

Dave: Yes, I heard you say that: “the woods.”

Janel: Did I get my sports reference credit?

Dave: Yes, that’s pretty good.

Ann: I like it.

Janel: I really appreciate it. [Laughter]

Dave: It’s more graphite than woods, but they call them woods. [Laughter]

Let me ask you this—as we started talking about the values we’re trying to instill in our boys when they’re little—and we asked them: “What’s important in the Wilson house?”—what are those? What are the permanent values you’re hoping to instill in your kids? You’re still doing it. What would they answer?—and are they going to answer what you’re hoping? I don’t even care what they’re going to answer. I want to know: “What are you hoping they would say?”

Janel: That’s a great question. I feel like, unfortunately, I’m going to give the kind of Sunday school answer to that. Ultimately, I hope it’s some form of the gospel. I mean, there are going to naturally be specific ways that my family leans in its subculture because of who my husband and I are. You’re sports. I mean, our versions of that are going to naturally lean in; but anytime that something gets added,—

Dave: Hey, I’m not just sports by the way. [Laughter]

Janel: “I’m more than a pretty face”; right? [Laughter]

Dave: Did you see her?—my wife is saying, “Yes, you are; it’s all you are.”

Ann: He’s—

Dave: —my wife is saying, “Yes, you are; it’s all you are.”

Ann: —and music—sports, and music, and Jesus.

Dave: Okay; go ahead girls. [Laughter]

Ann: Hey, I like this. [Laughter]

Dave: I’m feeling teamed up on here, but anyway.

Janel: Most of the time, when I’m asking, I’m trying to ask my kids heart-probing questions.

A lot of times, it boils down to: first of all, I hope the gospel, which I don’t want that to become a cliché or something that I can’t unpack.

But I also ask them: “Was this loving or unloving?” “Was this wise or unwise?” Because I feel like so much of Scripture is—I mean, Jesus says how we love is summed up in the first two commandments.

And how we apply Scripture—I think that wisdom is so much the entire book of Proverbs—right?

I would hope that those would be my first three values.

There’s this moment—I would work at FamilyLife one day a week when my kids were little just because it did make me a better mom just to be known by a different identity for one day a week. [Laughter] My mom would watch the kids. There was one morning when my mom anger—I’ve had a problem with mom anger for the majority of my kids’ lives. They can tell you exactly what my sins are; and hopefully, it’s because I’ve told them; they know what to look out for.

Ann: And you probably apologized for them, so they remember.

Janel: Yes, many times; yes, that’s exactly it. I blew up at one of my kids; he was four. I decided to call him from work. I picked up the phone, not really ready for that call; but my mom put my son on the phone. I just said, “Hey, I need to apologize to you again. I lost my temper this morning; and it was not like God, who is slow to anger. I just lost it, and I’m so sorry.”

He said “Mom,”—he said—“that’s okay. I forgive you; and I want to let you know that, even when you do bad things, I love you. And even when you do bad things, God loves you.” I was like, “Whoa, my four-year-old just told me the gospel.” [Laughter] Ultimately, that’s what I’m saying when I think the gospel; that’s/even a four-year-old can tell us that.

Ann: So Janel, I know that, when you write a book, it really/you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears; it’s your passion. So when you wrote this, what were you hoping that parents would get out of it?

Janel: There’s so many different ways that our kids are entertained and engaged in our culture. Nickelodeon® is kind of one of our competitors for our kids’ attention, whether—or it’s an i-Pad® or something like that—our kids are engaged in every single space in their lives now. It’s a very kid-centric environment when they go to school.

I realized one day/I read a quote by a guy with the last name of Mercier; and he said, “What we learn with pleasure we never forget.” I realized that with my young kids; they were self-driven to learn whatever they were interested in. I had a kid, who wanted to be a zoologist while he was still kind of mangling his z’s. We had all of these thick animal encyclopedias, and he knew all the names of the birds in our backyard. This is a kid of four or five, and he was self-driven to learn what he was excited about. And that’s every single one of my kids—if they’re into dancing, if they’re into music, or whatever, if they’re into sports—they’re self-propelled; they do most of the work for me.

I thought, “Okay; if they’re engaged in every other part of their lives, but not engaged in that way with Scripture—and they associate Scripture with boredom; and they associate God with being stiff; and we do this grocery list of things, and everything is a checked box—are my kids going to be self-driven to explore their faith and to internalize it?”—they’re not! As a person, who’s—I have a couple of sons with learning disorders and things like that—I realized I had to work smarter, not harder, in order to engage those kids.

This book is about spiritual life skills and how we can write them on our kids’ hearts in ways that are engaging and fun. Your kids won’t even know they’re learning so that, hopefully, they get the bug for God. They’re excited because of the way we convey Him, and they associate God with pleasure.

Dave: So how did you do that?—you know associate God, or even getting in the Bible, with positive pleasure. Because you write about it, and I find that fascinating; because often, parents don’t do that. The church often can miss that; it’s like: “Read your Bible.” Its like a duty; its like a legalistic thing: “If you do this, you earn points with God,”—rather than—“I’m going to bring some joy to something that should be joyful.”

As a parent, we have the creativity to say, “I’m going to make this…” So how did you do that? How did you make it pleasurable, or fun, or joyful?

Janel: Yes; I totally see what you’re saying. I think God is sometimes the most boring parts of our kids’ lives if we’re not careful, which is such a travesty.

Dave: Yes.

Janel: The greatest wonder in the universe: we’ve reduced Him to the most boring thing in our kids’ lives.

Ann: That’s so funny; because Dave has always said—as a preacher and preaching the gospel—he would say, “If people are bored in your church, it’s not because God’s Word is boring; it’s because your preacher is boring.”

Dave: I would always say, “If people fall asleep during your sermon, wake up the preacher.”

Ann: That’s what it was.

Janel: Yes! [Laughter]

Dave: It’s the preacher’s fault. I mean, the Word of God is the most glorious, astounding, fun, incredible, life-giving—and again, we do that, as parents, with our kids, you know—“Sit down,” “Listen,” “Don’t say a word,” “You can’t walk around,” “You can’t crawl on my neck.”

It’s like, “No, no, no; this should be a joyful moment, even as we open the Word of God.” I’m just asking: “What did that look like in your home?”

Janel: I mean, I will say that, in Permanent Markers, you will find entire lists in each one of these life skills. There are sections of children’s book lists; there are sections of resources that you can use; there are sections of: “Here are games and things like that you can play with your kids to kind of make it exciting.”

But I think part of it—just as some overall principles—there are a couple of things. First of all, I think I’m aware—or I’m increasing in my ability to be a student—of my kids and how God has made them in their unique workmanship; because we want to dovetail with the ways they’re naturally made.

So that son, who enjoys animals: we talk about God as Creator; and we talk about Him as engineer and architect, and how He made each of these animals; how He helps them to adapt and all these things.

We dovetail with their natural proclivities:

My daughter, who is artistic: “Well, let’s do your quiet time with a bunch of markers in hand,” “Let’s make some posters for Bible verses.”

If you love music: “Let’s make a worship playlist,” “Let’s make a courage playlist.”

We take things that our kids are naturally interested in:

If they’re into sports, we do games that involve their whole bodies.

Maybe they’re even just a kid, who wrestles with their dad: “You know what? This is how God loves us. He loves us with an all full-body bear-hug love,” and “He’s down on the floor/on the carpet with us.”

It’s drawing those connections.

Obviously, in your analogy of the preacher, with the congregation sleeping—if that’s happening—I think it’s the preacher, who needs to look inward about: “How do I see God?” and “How am I interacting with Him?”

So first, we start with our own passion; then we move out to our kids’ own passions. I think, connected to that, if you had a personal trainer, who comes alongside you—let’s say you’ve got two different persons the trainer’s training—they’ve got the person, who is the couch potato, who would rather have their hand in a bag of chips; and you’ve got the person, who will, when you give them 20 pushups, they’ll raise you 20 more.

I think, based on where your kids are at, we need to keep pace with God in our kids’ lives. Some of our kids are not going to be the kind of kids, who are going to want to do Scripture memory competitions; some kids are. “What are the ways that we naturally work with where they’re at in their spiritual fitness in order to creatively come alongside them and sensitively?” Rather than treating our kids like they’re pressed out from an assembly line, we’ve got to work with their natural bent like Proverbs 22:7 says.

Ann: I think that’s so wise. I think for every parent to give their kids a vision for what God has for them. Each of your kids—it will look a little different—and isn’t that beautiful? Because God is so creative, He has something so unique for each of our kids in their passions, in their abilities, and their gifts.

I’ve said this before—but when our kids were so little—and I would just say “I can’t wait to see what God has for you.” They really just thought it was a present. It really is a present when you discover who you are/when you discover—“This is what I was born to do,” or “I’m good at this,” or “I’m passionate about this,” and that “God made me in a unique way to do this thing on the earth,”—it could be an array of things. It brings glory to Him, and it brings satisfaction to my soul.

Man, that’s a gift we give our kids and something that they can anticipate, like: “God has something more for me,”—bigger than playing video games every day; not that video games are bad—but the enemy of our soul wants to put our kids in a mold so that they are not living out the potential of who God has made them to be.

Dave: And I do think, at the end of the day—and you mention this in your book—it’s really going to be an overflow from mom and dad. You can’t instill in them something that’s not in you. It’s Deuteronomy 6: these commandments are to be on your hearts, as parents, and impress them on your kids.

Janel: Yes!

Dave: There are parents, listening right now, [who] are like, “I don’t know if I can make it through today.” You’ll make it; your kids will. Hang on; get on your knees; find your strength and power from God, and take another step.

Bob: All of us are leaving a mark/an imprint in the lives of our children for good or for ill. As parents, our desire, our hope, our prayer is that we will be training up our children in the way they should go, according to the Scriptures/that we’re disciplining them well. I think, for so many of us as parents, we understand what the goal is; but to know exactly how to do it—to have the tools we need to do it—that’s where it can be challenging. That’s what Janel Breitenstein has provided for us in the book that she’s written called Permanent Markers. This is a book that is full of super-easy activities and ideas that will point your kids toward God. There are questions to kickstart some meaningful conversations. This is a practical guidebook for moms and dads.

In fact, we’d love to send you a copy. We’re making this book available to any FamilyLife Today listener who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation. Simply make your donation online at; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY, and we’re happy to send you Janel Breitenstein’s new book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts. Again, our number is 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-FL-TODAY; or you can get in touch with us to donate online at


Now, tomorrow, Janel Breitenstein joins us again. We’re going to hear about how important it is for us, as parents, to help our children understand where their worth and their value comes from—that it’s not in their performance—it’s in their identity. How do we drive that point home with our children? Dave and Ann Wilson will be here tomorrow with Janel Breitenstein. I hope you can be here as well.

On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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Episodes in this Series

FLT Podcast Cover 2
Spiritual Life Skills For Kids: What Am I Aiming For?
with Janel Breitenstein October 5, 2021
As Christians, we want our kids to love and follow Jesus. Janel Breitenstein encourages us to evaluate our parenting goals so that we may encourage lasting habits that prepare kids for a relationship with Him.
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