Odiase is one of two valedictorians at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.
There has been an increasing body of research over the last few years about the connection between mental and physical health. Here & Now has looked at mindfulness and how traits like curiosity and empathy can affect the shapes of our brains. Today we look at another aspect of that connection: spirituality.
Research shows, for example, that children who have positive active relationships to spirituality are 40 percent less likely to use and abuse substances, and have 60 percent less depression than other teenagers. There are also differences in the brain structure.
Lisa Miller, director of Columbia University’s Clinical Psychology Program, draws on that research, combining it with her personal observations, in her new book “The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.”
Spirituality, she tells host Robin Young, refers to the child’s relationship to a higher power, whether that be nature, God, the universe – even a tree. The key is that the force has a guiding and active place in the child’s daily life. She also cautions that religion without spirituality can have an opposite and negative impact.
Robin met up with Lisa Miller at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to discuss what it means to raise a spiritual child. Following their interview, Noah Aronson, the temple’s composer-in-residence, performed this untitled composition, inspired by the conversation. At the end, you hear the voice of Rabbi Joel Sisenwine:
Built for Spirituality
We stand chatting by our SUVs and hybrids, a half-dozen moms and dads watching as our fourth-graders finish soccer practice. We’re glad to see one another. The parents of my son’s teammates are terrific people: kind, dedicated to their children, generous in time and energy as volunteers in the community. Our conversation runs the usual course through everyone’s busy schedules, which are primarily organized around our children’s packed lives. Even the youngest siblings have preschool and standing playdates or afternoon lessons in foreign languages, dance, violin, or piano. These mothers and fathers are determined to give their children a competitive advantage in school and life. We all want our children to reach their full potential, and we watch to identify their areas of aptitude and natural strength, so that we may actively support their gifts.
We all want our children to reach their full potential, and we watch to identify their areas of aptitude and natural strength, so that we may actively support their gifts. We are good parents, loving parents, parents of the highest intention and unyielding commitment. Our conversations tend to focus on how we can prepare our children to be successful in school or on the team, or about their academic or other accomplishments. We care about their social lives, from playdates to prom dates, and we coach them day by day with hopes that they’ll make good friends, get along with their peers, and step up to do the right thing when the moment calls for leadership. We want them to be emotionally hardy and resilient, to know happiness and how to take setbacks in stride, to learn how to manage big feelings like anger and disappointment. When they do not get what they want, we hope that they will be able to successfully set a new course, readjust, “hit reset,” and move forward to succeed.
There is a bit of anxiety about admissions or placement tests for selective schools or programs, from preschools and child-care programs through high school and college. We’re also aware of the psychological toll on kids who are overscheduled and under chronic pressure to perform, and we want to preserve childhood as a joyful, explorative, and carefree time. Our children’s development means everything to us. We’ve read the books and listened to their teachers. We know that this formative age is the epicenter for opportunity, so we push on.
Like all parents, we have hopes and latent expectations, after all. From the moment our children are born, we imagine their future selves. Our hopes for our child-the young adult he or she will grow up to be-inform everything we feel and think and do as parents. If our baby throws a spongy ball, we hope-maybe dream-for the Dallas Cowboys. A clever discovery in the playroom translates into visions of our future inventor or entrepreneur. A love of books brings images of the future scholar or writer. We envision our young children as accomplished, impassioned adults who have achieved school, sports, or stage success and used it as a pathway to opportunity, to love and be loved, to have wonderful friends, and in every way to enjoy a good life and career. We gaze at our gurgling baby or adventurous toddler with love-and a twenty-year trajectory of aspiration.
We don’t just talk and dream, we also plan and act on our best intentions. And yet all of those conversations, elaborate schedules of extracurricular activities, and high aspirations often miss the single most crucial ingredient of all, the only thing that science has shown to reliably predict fulfillment, success, and thriving: a child’s spiritual development. It is important to take a moment here to precisely define “spirituality” as I use it in this book, and as it exists as a crucial dimension of spirituality in science:
Spirituality is an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding. The word we give to this higher power might be God, nature, spirit, the universe, the creator, or other words that represent a divine presence. But the important point is that spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with this higher presence.
Spiritual development, as I define it as a scientist and use the term in this book, is the growth and progression of our inborn spirituality as one of our many perceptual and intellectual faculties, from taste and touch to critical thinking skills. Spiritual development is the changing expression of this natural asset over time as new words, explanatory models, and ideas-whether theological, scientific, or family views-allow us to feel (or not feel) part of something larger, and experience an interactive two-way relationship with a guiding, and ultimately loving, universe.
The precise embodiment of that transcendent universe-the other side of the two-way spiritual conversation-comes in many different forms and has many different names. It can take the form of spirit, the natural world, God, or a sense of oneness with the world, the larger community of which we are a part. This two-way spiritual dialogue may or may not include religion. The connection can occur in meditation or yoga or in something as simple as your child’s relationship with family pets, backyard wildlife, or a beloved tree. Natural spirituality is a direct sense of listening to the heartbeat of the living universe, of being one with that seen and unseen world, open and at ease in that connection. A child’s spirituality precedes and transcends language, culture, and religion. It comes as naturally to children as their fascination with a butterfly or a twinkling star-filled night sky. However, as parents we play a powerful role in our child’s spiritual development, just as we play a powerful role in every other aspect of our child’s development.
Science now tells us that this spiritual faculty is inborn, fundamental to the human constitution, central in our physiology and psychology. Spirituality links brain, mind, and body. As we’ll see shortly, epidemiological studies on twins show that the capacity for a felt relationship with a transcendent loving presence is part of our inborn nature and heredity: a biologically based, identifiable, measurable, and observable aspect of our development, much like speech or cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. However, in contrast to these other lines of development, children are born fully fluent in this primal, nonverbal dimension of knowing. They need time to develop the wraparound of cognitive, linguistic, and abstract thinking, but young children don’t have to learn the “how” or the “what” of spiritual engagement. Bird and flower, puddle and breeze, snowflake or garden slug: all of nature speaks to them and they respond. A smile, a loving touch, the indescribable bond between child and parent that science has yet to fully explain, all of these speak deeply to them, too. Spirituality is the language of these moments, the transcendent experience of nourishing connection. Spirituality is our child’s birthright. We support their development when we read with them, talk with them, sing and play with them, feed and bathe and encourage them. Science now shows that the way in which a parent supports a child’s spiritual development has a great deal to do with how a child grows into that rich spiritual potential.
One great thing about our group of soccer parents is that we are diverse, hailing from many countries, many cultures: India, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Argentina, South Korea, China, and across the United States. We are also spiritually diverse: Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and spiritual-but-not-religious. When ideas of spirituality or religion arise in our discussions, we have a nice range represented. We hear about one another’s much anticipated family observances-such as Christmas, Ramadan, Passover, and Diwali-that bring the generations and extended family together around the dinner table or a special prayer service. Some of us have multiple religious traditions in our families and honor them all; others celebrate in secular ways.
In the midst of this diversity, we are struck by the remarkable commonalities in how our children experience both the wonderful and difficult parts of life. Regardless of religious or spiritual orientations, parents instantly recognize what I would call inherently spiritual qualities in their children-their open, curious, loving ways; their immediate instinct to respond from the heart. These often show up in the way the children interact with babies or older family members, with pets or creatures they find in nature, in their creative sparkle with friends, or perhaps in the way they come up with kind or generous things they can do to help or surprise someone:
“When I’m exhausted from a hard day, my son will come up and smile and give me what he calls ‘an energizer hug.'”
“My child can tell when our dog is scared, and he’ll go sit with her and comfort her-it’s so tender to see.”
“My father can be so gruff and irritating-it drives me crazy. But when he’s with my kids they don’t seem to mind. They’ve even told me, ‘That’s just the way Grandpa is; it’s okay.'”
The science of the past fifteen years explores these universal spiritual qualities and shows that in children and adolescents, natural spirituality emerges along with other developmental phases according to the same biological timeline. What we hear at the soccer field-and find in the families represented there-is a microcosm of what researchers are finding through studies of spirituality in children and families around the world: spirituality is inborn and emerges in sync with the biological clock of childhood and adolescent growth and development. Just as with other aspects of your child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, the spiritual faculty thrives in the light of your attention and support.
Hardwired for Spirituality: Use It or Lose It
Spirituality is a vast untapped resource in our understanding of human development, illness, health, and healing. Specifically, research in medicine and psychology has found that people with a developed spirituality get sick less, are happier, and feel more connected and less isolated. In the context of illness, people with a developed spirituality show positive effects for resilience and healing. We’ll delve fully into those findings in the chapters ahead, but in short, empirical evidence shows that natural spirituality exists within us, independent of religion or culture; it is as foundational to our makeup as emotion, temperament, and physical senses; and the benefits of natural spirituality are significant and measurable. Further, research shows that natural spirituality, if supported in childhood, prepares the adolescent for critical developmental tasks of that age. If supported in adolescence, natural spirituality deepens and can become a significant resource for health and healing through adult life.
How do we know? As scientists, we look for proof in corroborating evidence from many sources. For instance, we have identified a genetic contribution by using a rigorous study designed to pinpoint it. In neuroimaging scans, we have found synchronization of the regions of the brain when in spiritual or contemplative practice. In developmental terms, we look for parallels between spirituality and other developmental pathways (biological, psychological, emotional) that have long been understood.
Using a classic twin-study design to separate out nature from nurture and drawing from nearly two thousand twins in the Virginia Twin Registry, genetic-epidemiologist Kenneth Kendler has shown that there is a meaningful genetic contribution to spirituality. This is a finding replicated multiple times on different samples of twins. Neuroscientists including Andrew Newberg and Mario Beauregard have published numerous scientific peer-reviewed articles on the neural correlates of meaningful spiritual experience, personal prayer, awareness of a higher power, mystical experience, and confrontation with symbols of good and evil as identified through functional MRI (fMRI)-neuroimaging that measures brain activity by blood flow to a region. By tracking blood flow, these scientists have charted a neuroimaging road map of the brain that reveals the neurological design through which humans experience spirituality.
In developmental terms, the timing of change in developmental spirituality coincides, exactly, with that of other forms of development and appears interrelated; it emerges alongside secondary sex characteristics, abstract cognitive development such as meta-cognition and meaning making, and onset of fertility. This has been the focus of groundbreaking research in my lab, studies in which we have tracked the development of natural spirituality and its protective effects from childhood through adolescence into emerging adulthood.
The confluence of evidence is clear. So to recap: biologically, we are hardwired for a spiritual connection. Spiritual development is a biological and psychological imperative from birth. Natural spirituality, the innate spiritual attunement of young children-unlike other lines of development-appears to begin whole and fully expressed. As the child grows, natural spirituality integrates with the capacities of cognitive, social, emotional, and moral development, as well as physical change, to create a more complex set of equipment through which to experience transcendence and spirituality. Ultimately, if maintained and integrated with these other aspects of development, spirituality supports the child through the challenging developmental passage of adolescence.
What does this look like in real life?
Let’s step back to the soccer field for a quick comparison. Your child is born with a faculty for physical movement that shows development in the progression of fine and gross motor skills. We see it clearly as our baby advances from pumping her legs and yanking her socks off, to picking up a single raspberry and squashing it between her thumb and forefinger. The next thing we know she’s crawling, then toddling, then running and jumping, then suited up for soccer practice (or gymnastics, ballet, or tae kwon do). All along, her musculature, strength, and stamina are growing; she’s learning how to move adeptly on the field, learning the skills and the language she needs to play with her teammates, to understand the coach, to respond to the coach’s guidance and her teammates’ calls on the field. She develops the confidence to ask questions that occur to her as her own experience deepens the way she thinks and engages on the field and at practice. She hones her skills, including her intuitive skills for discerning the many intangible, unspoken aspects of soccer and her life as a soccer player. Eventually, she is not only cognizant of the best form in her field skills but sees an even larger picture of interconnectedness. Should I stay up late tonight, watching TV with my friends? Not if I want to get enough sleep so I can play my best in tomorrow’s game and not let the team down. This fully integrated “knowing” informs her technically and athletically, but also socially and emotionally, down to how she feels about playing and her contribution to the team, and how she sees this part of herself in the context of her larger life. All of this is shaped by her ongoing inner dialogue and her interactions with all of us: coach, teammates, family, peers, and community.
Our child’s spiritual faculty likewise flourishes with support and encouragement to grow strong and to integrate with the rest of her developmental growth. This process of integration is also shaped by her internal dialogue and through interactions with parents, family, peers, and community. The practice field is everywhere, and it happens every time she has conversations with us about life’s big and little questions, such as about meaning and purpose, being good people, how to treat others, what it means to be empathetic and compassionate, and why we need to take care of the earth and our environment.
As parents, we can take those ideas into the playing field of daily life and show our children how we live and express spiritual values in everyday interactions with other people, with animals, with nature, with our own inner life, and with the life of the mind and big ideas. We can take our children to explore sacred places and spaces: a house of worship, a sanctuary tucked away in a hospital, a mountain, or a river. We can encourage (and model) acts of expansive love and kindness. This exploration cultivates spiritual knowing and attunement, a sense of the spiritual dimension that is always present and is deeper than superficial attributes and higher than competitive and materialistic priorities. Supported by this exploration, the continuing conversation with us, and by her own internal spiritual dialogue, she continues to define what spirituality is and what the journey is for her.
Without support and encouragement to keep developing that part of themselves, children’s spiritual development weakens under pressure from a culture that constantly has them feeling judged and pressured to perform, and that trains them to evaluate others the same way. Our culture has not necessarily been welcoming to spirituality and its questions. Our predominantly materialistic, 24/7 media-infused world is not set up for the introspective thought involved in spiritual reflection. We’re pressured to fill downtime with productive activity, and we often feel compelled to fill in any quiet moment with diversions. This is how we live and this is what we’re modeling for our children.
Anxiety, Ambivalence, Antipathy: A Generation of Wary Parents
One morning on a school visit, I stepped into the hallway to check for last-minute arrivals before starting my presentation. I had been invited to speak to parents on the subject of the science of spirituality. One mother stood in the hallway at a bit of a distance and I asked if she was looking for this room. She smiled and introduced herself, but she was clearly hesitant to step through the door. She said she had just dropped her children off for school when she had remembered she had seen a flyer for the talk.
“You know, I wasn’t planning on coming,” she said with a hint of apology. “It’s nice to meet you and I don’t mean to be rude, but I am just notreligious. I’m very spiritual, but not religious.”
I hear the same hesitation and explanation from many parents, emblematic of a broad shift in religious and spiritual life in the United States. National surveys have reported the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown in recent years such that about one-fifth of the public overall-and a third of adults under age thirty-were unaffiliated with a religion as of 2012, the lowest in the nearly three generations since researchers started tracking the numbers. At the same time, surveys also report a notable growth in the population of adults who classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” but do believe in God or a universal spirit. A Fetzer Institute survey in 2010 found that 60 percent of adults said they are now more spiritual than they were five years before.
A recent Gallup poll shows that more than 90 percent of Americans pray and believe in an ultimate creator. A poll inParents magazine in 2007 conducted by Beliefnet showed that a consistent 90 percent of parents “talk to children about God or higher power,” two-thirds say grace at meal times, 60 percent pray during the day, and half pray at bedtime with their child. A poll by Barna Research Group in Ventura, California, showed 85 percent of parents consider it their job to teach their own children about spirituality.
Yet, beyond this clarity on spiritual life, the same Parents magazine poll found parents face challenges to spiritual parenting, attributed by 33 percent to “society’s general lack of support,” by 25 percent to “conflict between practice and everyday life,” and by 24 percent to having “busy schedules.” When it comes to the fluidity of match between two parents on spiritual development in their children, 50 percent feel “in sync,” another 25 percent say they are “in sync but it’s a struggle,” and a quarter of parents feel at cross purposes, so they punt, argue, or quit the topic. The Barna poll also reported that through the week prior to the poll, the majority of parents did not open or direct a discussion of spirituality with their child (under the age of thirteen years).
I read these polls to suggest that there is often a strong spiritual life in parents themselves, and a loving intention to raise spiritual children. Yet, there is not a clear and certain understanding in our culture about the place of spirituality in child and adolescent development.
In my nearly two decades of conversations with parents about spiritual development-their children’s or their own-I have found that whether parents identify as religious, spiritual but not religious, undecided, or really anywhere on the spiritual continuum, they are unaware of research on their child’s inborn spirituality. Many are at a loss about how to help their children develop spiritually. Ambivalence runs deep. Challenges commonly arise for several sometimes overlapping reasons: when parents aren’t certain about their own feelings regarding spirituality, when one or the other had negative experiences associated with religion when they were young and don’t want to subject their children to something similar, or when complications about religious affiliation create tension in the couple or the extended family.
“It depends on how you define spirituality, and what exactly it means,” says Marcie, mother of Aiden, three years old. “It seems like ‘everything goes’-spirituality is anything that is different from the physical, more concrete realm.” Marcie’s spiritual ponderings have included whether her son “is just a happenstance based on the particular sperm and the particular egg that met and all the cells they created, or is there a sort of life, a soul, a spirit that would have come into his body regardless? I haven’t resolved that, but it’s that kind of existential question that I have thought about.”
Parenthood doesn’t settle existential questions for most parents-it only deepens them. The mother of a five-year-old daughter shared with me, “I’m not quite sure how I understand spirituality in my own life but I do wish that there was a God and that there was a heaven because I hate the idea that my daughter would ever suffer or hurt. So parenthood hasn’t given me faith where I had none, but it has made me more aware and philosophical about some of the existential questions and realities.”
Other parents describe a range of experiences and feelings: their faith, doubts, wonderings, and wishes for their children, whom they may or may not want to sway toward a particular spiritual path. Struggles also arise around differences with a partner or others involved in a child’s upbringing. A 2009 report by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that more than one in four (27 percent) American adults who are married or living with a partner are in religiously mixed relationships. If people from different Protestant denominational families are included-for example, a marriage between a Methodist and a Lutheran-nearly four in ten (37 percent) couples are religiously mixed. This survey found that people who are unaffiliated with a particular religion are the most likely (65 percent) to have a spouse or partner with a different religious background. Parents often are coming from families in which religious faith traditions were different or absent. According to a 2010 YouGov survey, commissioned by author Naomi Schaefer Riley, 45 percent of marriages between 2000 and 2010 were between members of differing faiths and denominations. This is more than double since the 1960s, when only 20 percent of marriages were interfaith.
So the ambivalence and the tension are greater than ever, and parents are struggling. The questions I hear show deep caring for their children’s spiritual development but also their own conflict or confusion about how to handle it honestly, responsibly, and lovingly.
“It feels wrong to choose one for her or to give one top billing. How do we figure out which of our religions to choose for Sunday school and which beliefs we instill in her?”
“He went to church with his friend and now that’s what he wants to do-he wants to keep going! But we have a very different belief system.”
“I didn’t have a good experience with organized religion when I was a kid and I don’t want that for my child. But I don’t want my child to have nothing.”
“I don’t believe in God but my son asks about it.”
Even parents who feel spiritual with certainty aren’t sure how best to pass that along to their children. “I want them to have not only good morals, but I want them to know that there’s a higher power that they have to answer to, not just me,” said the mother of three children, ages seven, ten, and fourteen. “I want them to know that somebody else knows even if I don’t.”
The mother of two children, ages one year and four years, struggled to reconcile her religious ideal of unconditional love with the everyday challenge of tending to a young child.
“Christ just loves us unconditionally and forgives us for our sins and so, certainly, if he can do that, can’t I help my son to see the same aspects of life? And if I can do that-love unconditionally-then holding a grudge because he spilled milk on the tabletop just seems unimportant. Being a parent does make your spirituality a little more in your face, as far as, do you really walk the walk and talk the talk-or are those just words? So, you know, it’s a struggle.”
Even if fathers or mothers aren’t clear on their own stance, they know that becoming a parent has affected their relationship to spirituality; it has made them think, yearn, love more deeply. “I’m not as spiritual as I would like to be, but it definitely feels like it’s there,” an expectant mother told me. “And I guess I can’t verbalize it that well because I’m not that spiritual-maybe if I were I would be able to explain it better. But it definitely feels bigger than myself, and that’s all I can really say.”
The practicalities of acting on good intentions regarding spirituality or religion can feel impossibly complicated, especially when Mom and Dad hold different religious views. “It was really important for me and my family to have her baptized,” says Daphne, mother of Julia. “My husband is atheist. He does not believe in God or religious structures so there was a little tension there. I think that motherhood has made me a little more spiritual, maybe less religious, but more spiritual,” she says, adding that since she became a parent it seems more likely now to her that a divine presence exists “out there.”
The difference between her and her husband’s views of religion also makes Daphne particularly sensitive to the need to respect each person’s own spiritual path-especially her child’s. “How do you do that? How do you guide a child and how do you not completely overwhelm them with your own beliefs about the world?”
Parents aren’t alone with their questions or in not knowing what to do. We all want our children to be free, to follow their hearts in all areas. Parenting is hard and spirituality is a tough topic to tackle with fewer resources if you don’t have a handle on it yourself. This is the question so many parents feel with such great urgency: What should I do and how should I do it? As Aiden’s mom, above, said, after sharing her own status as spiritually “undecided,” whatever she may have felt about it before she had children, motherhood has only intensified that. “Before, I had questions that I thought about here and there,” she said, “but now they have become more real.”
Spirituality Is Bedrock for Thriving
Let’s return for a moment to that image you have of your baby grown up to be all that he or she can be, a shining star on a passionate path. The biotech entrepreneur, doctor, lawyer, CEO, or activist, the sports or film star, the leader. In this envisioned life of success your child probably does not struggle with anxiety or substance abuse. When you envision your grown child, there is not a dark and painful private depression. No tragic losses or insurmountable setbacks. We parents want deep inner peace and happiness so strongly for our children that we assume it when we envision our hopes and aspirations for their future. We assume a life of accomplishment that has a joyful and purposeful core. We assume that some grounding sense of themselves provides a strong anchor in a world that is for them primarily happy and fulfilling, with inevitable bumps, but overall full of love and connection to other people.
Looking more deeply into the image of your child’s future, what is that joyful and satisfying core made up of? Deep love and support from family. Good morals. Curiosity. Being healthy and comfortable in the world, and excited to learn. Now, nearly twenty years of scientific research shows that there is something more: a close, sustained awareness of a two-way relationship with a loving and guiding higher power that opens into a sense of a vivid spiritual world. Whether you call that higher power spirit, or the universe, or nature, or something else, it is through this relationship that children and young adults seek clarity or guidance during life’s challenging passages or openings of opportunity. In the course of child development, this dynamic two-way relationship constitutes the bedrock of spiritual life.
Whatever future we envision for our child, without spiritual development a full dimension goes missing from the picture. This is true not only at what we might consider the most abstract level of belief but also at a biological, even the cellular, level. And this is where science has grown increasingly exciting in recent years, shedding light on aspects of spiritual connection that have been beyond our ken since time began.
Today we have evidence-based research and imaging technology that show the effects of spiritual engagement on the brain, mind, and body. In scans and data we can now see the difference in brain structure and function in people for whom spirituality is the lead foot in life versus those for whom spirituality is not a strong presence. For example, in the spiritually attuned person we see flourishing, healthy, thick portions of the brain right where, in the case of depression, for instance, we would have expected to see the thinner brain. Also, in the face of stressful events, a strong personal spirituality regulates our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which if disregulated or at sustained high levels wears on brain and body and slows growth in children.
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This interconnectivity is precisely what we see in studies that show that spirituality has a clear impact on our mental health and thriving. From the perspective of mental health and wellness, spirituality is associated with significantly lower rates of depression, substance use and abuse, and risk taking. This includes sexual risk taking in young adults and exposure to STDs, along with thrill seeking, driving fast, and physical endangerment, especially in boys. No other preventive factor known to science and medicine has such a broad-reaching and powerful influence on the daily decisions that make or break health and wellness.
Other studies comparing the brain-wave patterns of monks in meditation with those of self-described spiritual people found that the energy given off by the brains of spiritually engaged people when simply resting with closed eyes is the same wavelength as that of a monk during meditation. It appears that their set point, or inner resting state of the brain, becomes a bright and peaceful state of transcendence.
Related research from the field of positive psychology shows that spiritual development is associated with positive emotions and qualities of thriving that include a sense of belonging, optimism, elevation, and a connection to “something larger” that gives purpose and meaning to life. There is nothing known to science as profoundly associated with thriving and success in our children.
Science Charts the Course Across Two Decades
Science from many labs and researchers demonstrates that spirituality is innate, that it is a faculty that grows with attention and can be stunted by neglect, and that there is no substitute for it. Reading about riding a bicycle is no substitute for riding one. No level of skill on the soccer field will help your child pass a math test. There is no substitute for spiritual development, but there are many different ways to support and encourage it. And without it a child’s robust developmental potential is diminished.
Emerging research has also mapped the developmental arc for personal spirituality, and it clearly shows differences between the first and second decades of life, as well as points along the way that have special relevance to the child or adolescent. We’ll explore these stages fully in the chapters ahead, but in brief, we see that the formative first decade of life is a period of natural spiritual awareness when a spiritual road map begins to develop-neurologically, psychologically, and embodied in everyday life.
Adolescence represents a crescendo, a developmental “surge” period for spiritual development, just as puberty creates a surge in every other aspect of your teen’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. This primed inner environment creates a crucible for spiritual growth and understanding, and the experience of oneself as a spiritual being. As adolescence brings your teen a newfound motivation to become his own person, he may revisit spiritual paths from childhood now open to new, more meaningful explorations. For instance, a childhood experience of closeness to nature or animals may draw the adolescent into a more deliberate engagement with nature as a way to connect with his inner life of spiritual dialogue, and, perhaps, to explore nature as a calling for his life’s work.
In broad strokes, we see a journey from innate and foundational spiritual knowing (the first decade) through a journey of engagement outward into the world of others in family, community, and culture (the second decade). With this journey comes the challenge to integrate new levels of experience, information, and understanding with the innate sense of connection to “something larger.” All of this happens simultaneously as language, cognition, emotional range, physical capabilities, and auditory and sensory development continually change a child’s capacity to interact with that external world, engage with it, and be shaped by it. Spirituality is in fact a strong organizing principle for all other aspects of your child’s development.
We all lean in to support our children as they grow into their capacities for reading, writing, math, sports, and critical thinking-the skills that ground them in the world of everyday ideas and activities. But do we do the same thing for their spirituality? Too often we step back or actively discourage them from cultivating their spiritual selves, in essence train them away from the inquiry. Among the most common ways we turn off our children’s spiritual development are what I call the “seven avoidances.” We turn our kids off when we:
1. Ignore their spiritual awakening, questions, and experiences. Your voice makes an experience real for your child; if a child doesn’t hear a parent discussing a topic, then the child assumes that topic is not important.
2. Disavow their spiritual reality. A definitive, negative statement by you about your child’s spiritual experience can shut down your child’s exploration because it signals to your child that her spiritual experiences aren’t part of the parent-child connection.
3. Discourage spiritual discovery. A negative response to your child’s spiritual exploration is a lost opportunity, a moment when you could have, but didn’t, support your child’s tender, vulnerable, and emerging spirituality. You don’t have to agree with your child-you simply need to be interested, curious, and open to his exploration.
4. Quash questions. A child’s questioning propels growth. Responding with an “I don’t know,” or “I don’t know and nobody else does, either,” often ends the discussion. Your child hears that spirituality isn’t worthy of pursuit, nor is it central to daily life.
5. Base affection or discipline on performance-based values that don’t align with spiritual values of unconditional, noncontingent love, acceptance, and loving guidance.
6. Overlook the need for a spiritually supportive community in which children can discover their own identity and be accepted and appreciated for their spiritual selves.
7. Ignore signs that a community has punitive or other outdated values of conformity that twist spiritual values to serve dogma.
Shutting down spiritual development creates a developmental gap, much as we might see in a child who is three grade levels above his age peers in math and science but woefully behind the curve in basic social and emotional skills. Typically when we see a child struggling in the developmental gap we try to help: get him a tutor for reading or math, or work on social-emotional skills and how to see the cues in a classmate’s expression, body language, or tone of voice. We may help him learn to read his own cues so he can become better at managing his responses to people or situations that stress him out. There is no such broad understanding and enthusiastic support established in school or society to encourage spiritual development in childhood and adolescence. We tend to see a child’s struggles or missteps as flaws or errors to be fixed, whereas if we looked at them as challenges of a spiritual nature, our responses would be completely different and perhaps much more effective. Let me share two examples:
Drugs and Alcohol: Shortcuts to Transcendence Are Dead Ends
When a child reaches adolescence there is important work of individuation to be done, deciding what is “me or not me” in a way that provides a deep sense of self that is whole, is meaningful, and gives the teen direction. Erik Erikson, the grandfather within psychology of the notion of adolescent individuation, emphasized that a teen seeks to find an internal sense of consistency that drives purpose.
Individuation is crucial to the setup of our adult ways, particularly concerning our internal habits of thought and feelings. The habits we start in adolescence often persist into adulthood-this goes for habits of exercise, drug and alcohol use, and spirituality. In this brief window of development our inner blueprint, our core spiritual map of and approach to the world, takes shape.
Most questions of me-or-not-me return to a core sense of meaning and purpose, the nature of our deepest self, how we approach our work and relationships, and even our understanding of ultimate reality. These are profound and important questions, upon which the teen begins to build his personal spirituality: ideas of right and wrong, his place in the world, the meaning and purpose of his life. Because this work is so important, and so central to the individual, spiritual individuation is at the core of all other forms of individuation.
Spiritual individuation has a paradox. It is grueling, yet eminently satisfying, uplifting, and mind-opening. Because the road is sometimes so hard, and can be very dark, the teen often gravitates toward spirituality “shortcuts.” Drug and alcohol use can bring fleeting exposure to a counterfeit of the same kind of experiences that teens are working for in their biologically primed spiritual individuation: clarity, a sense of calm, a feeling of bonding with fellow teens, and love for the bigger world.
These shortcuts can cause big problems if they become the path of habit. The hunger for spiritual knowing, connection to others and to the bigger universe, the quest for transcendence-all of these can be found momentarily from the quick (and illusory) fix of drug or alcohol use.
Having been caught drinking, a teen might argue, “It was harmless; it felt as if we were all just one big happy group.” Or, “I could release all of my pressures and worries about college, I could just be.”
Without the lens of spiritual development, a parent’s logical comeback might be, “Can’t you find other ways of doing this-like playing sports?” Or, “What are you thinking? You could lose your shot at college if you’re arrested!”
But listening with the ear trained to spiritual development, we can hear something different. Go back to the teen’s words, and this time listen for the spiritual need that is falsely served by alcohol use. Feeling like “one big happy group” sounds like the desire to connect and escape isolation. Releasing “pressures and worries” to “just be” sounds like the state of peace that comes with mindfulness, meditation, or experience of sacred presence.
In a study of spiritual individuation published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, we found that a developed personal relationship with God (expressed in comments such as, “I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty,” or “When I have a decision to make, I ask God what I should do”) was highly protective against slipping from experimenting with to addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Our published findings showed that an adolescent with a strong personal relationship with the higher power, compared to an adolescent without this inner source of spirituality, is 70 to 80 percent less likely to engage in heavy substance use or substance abuse. There was no protectiveness at all related to the intensity of adherence to the family religious tradition. In fact, religion helped only when the adolescent had independently, working within their own faith, developed a personal transcendent relationship.
We know that many adults get into rehabilitation programs only after years of substance abuse. Substance abuse beginning in adolescence can be the onset of decades of suffering; adolescence is the window of risk for a lifetime course of disorder with alcohol and drug abuse, often set in motion by unmet spiritual needs.
The escape and connection described by teens needs to be understood as a spiritual quest, inherently good and important. We as parents need to help the adolescent see that spiritual hunger is not met by alcohol or drugs. The illusory jolt from drugs does not last; it only jump-starts the physiology. There is nothing sustaining in it. Authentic spirituality requires reflection and the development of a road back to transcendence through the cultivation of our inner life, through prayer, meditation, or perhaps good works, intertwined with our general capacities of cognition, morality, and emotion.
We can say, “I appreciate the warm feeling of being connected. I know how good it feels to sense that you are part of everything. These sound like spiritual feelings. But now that the warm glow of alcohol has passed, can you get back there without the drink? If not, then it is not real, it is an empty jolt of the brain. Let’s talk about other ways to get to that sense of moving beyond daily struggle and finding connection.”
Girls: Impressive Development for Emotional Depth and Discernment, Not Drama
Adolescents, particularly girls, are often described as being “helplessly emotional” or “histrionic.” One exasperated mother described her adolescent daughter as “totally emotionally wrought, way over the top, gushing with emotion. And when she gets her period, she is like a ball of oversensitivity and tears.”
However, research on spiritual development shows that with the burgeoning of fertility in girls, specifically getting their period, comes the start-up of an augmented spiritual capacity. Many ancient traditions have built into female puberty ceremonies the interwoven expressions of fertility and expanded female spirituality. Now science has recognized a unified path of sexual development and spiritual development in girls.
In the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, I published with my colleague Merav Gur the results of an investigation of the benefit of personal spirituality in warding off depression in girls, before and after the onset of menstruation. We drew from a large sample of 3,356 adolescent girls in the Adolescent Health Survey, generously provided by the University of North Carolina.
Along with other forms of physical maturation, such as body curves and mature breasts, we found that the onset of menstruation was associated with an increased sense of a personal relationship with God, and the two together showed an increasingly significant degree of protection against depression. As compared to when she was prepubertal, once a girl has begun menstruating, a personal relationship with a higher power was even 50 percent more helpful in protecting against depression. Meanwhile, no such increase in protective benefits was associated with any specific family tradition or religion over another. This coinciding surge of spirituality and fertility comes from within the girl and is associated with physical and emotional puberty. Research shows this increased reaching for spiritual connection goes hand in hand with an augmented openness to experience, sensitivity, and perceptiveness. This means that with the arrival of menstruation, the full range of emotions appear bright and strong, and tears are part of this arrival.
Instead of saying “I think this is an overreaction,” or “this is not the end of the world,” or even “control yourself,” consider this emotionality part of an extraordinary increase in perceptual faculties, including the spiritual perceptual capacity. A response that honors this would be:
“You have the gift of a great heart, and the sensitivity to pick up on what is going on.”
“It can hurt at times, but ultimately, you are fortunate-when girls become teens, they become more spiritual, which means that you can feel all things more.”
“Because you can feel so intensely, you are able to know the full register of living, and to pick up on the deeper meaning in it all.”
Whatever the source of a misstep or confusion, you are never mistaken to support a child’s spiritual self. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. I speak with children of all ages in my school talks-from preschool to high school and college. To varying degrees of complexity, I share with them the new science that helps us “see” spiritual engagement. I explain to them the multiple levels of analysis in which our human engagement with spirituality is observable scientifically, including through MRI and EEG scans that show brain function and brain development. They understand. Typically what ensues is lively conversation and questions that range from goldfish to God to gluons. If, as French Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “the difficulty lies not in solving problems but expressing them,” then children are our born leaders in the spiritual realm. Children converge immediately on the big questions. They are not hesitant to challenge entrenched assumptions. They are endlessly eager to explore, experience, and express.
In an impromptu discussion session following my talk at a high school in the West, Morgan, a senior, described a moment in a hiking trip she had taken with classmates and a school counselor the year before. The semester had been a particularly tough one, academically and emotionally. The group made a physically grueling hike up a glacial mountain. As she hiked down, her feet aching and blisters burning, at one point the trail turned toward a lake cradled in the ice floe. Morgan described what was for her clearly a transformative moment:
I saw the light on the water of the glacier and the brightness and the beauty-it was like I could feel the beauty and I was part of it-and it’s really hard to describe, but it was like a real feeling. It felt sacred. And ever since then, when I’m stressed out or feeling really down, in my mind I go back to the mountain. I can take myself back to the mountain and that feeling is always there for me.
That is the language of transcendence, of an experience of spiritual awakening, a direct awareness at the deepest level of our inner wisdom. That moment was transformative, and she has carried it with her since. Her experience is now foundational-not just a place she saw or a feeling or a beautiful memory, but a transcendent experience to which she returns and which informs her view of a vital world. This is the kind of experience and knowledge we want to help our children seek and find.
“Let’s Go In!”: Children Summon Us for a Sacred Journey
Our children’s innate spiritual faculty is ever-present, accessible, and inviting us into the conversation of the most ordinary of everyday trials and triumphs. They will ask, “May I be in the choir?” or “May I sing with the rabbi?” They may ask to light a candle in the cathedral, to make Shabbat challah, or to visit a sacred site. The young child may ask if Grandma’s spirit will come back in a different person or if she is here now. “Is Grandma watching me, taking care of me even though she has died?” They will ask if God punishes people who are bad or forgives all bad people, even Adolf Hitler. The older child or adolescent may question, “Before the big bang, what was there?” Or, “How can we justify war-ever?” The questions evolve with age, and as with every other developmental passage with our children, we adapt our responses to meet them where they are. Whatever they may ask, they are not looking to us for specific answers; they are looking to be met for the journey of inquiry and discovery. No matter how well or poorly prepared we may feel, we have exactly what we need to meet our child on their journey.
Over coffee one morning, Fran, a colleague, told me that she and her husband, Nick, made a conscious choice when their daughter Maya was born not to affiliate with a particular religion. Fran’s parents had come from very religious backgrounds and were critical of what they experienced as limiting, dogmatic thinking. They had raised Fran and her sisters with great love and a zest for life and learning that emphasized a critical mind and included a cautious view of “organized religion.” Her father in particular had been explicit about his disdain for religion, citing the brutality that some religious people had inflicted on others through their institutions historically and currently and the religious teachings that many use to justify prejudice and wrongful acts.
“They saw the hypocrisy in it, but they didn’t necessarily give us a spiritual replacement,” Fran said.
My father said, “When you come of age you can choose, make your own decisions,” but he’d already made some decisions for us by saying “this isn’t for me … I’m not interested in it … I think it’s stupid. I think it’s a crutch.” I didn’t realize for a long time that when my child asks a question and I say, “I don’t know,” and just leave it at that, I’m actually stopping the conversation. That’s what my father did, and not by bad intention. They taught us morals, certainly. They taught us ethics. They loved us. But there was not a sense of what you can call God, or a larger “presence,” or even being part of a larger spiritual community. That sense of “something larger” was the baby that was thrown out with the religious bathwater.
Nick came from a similar background and, like Fran, didn’t want to expose their daughter to religious influences. Fran thought at times about what a “spiritual replacement” might be for Maya, but she simply had no answer. So there had never been any religious training or context at home for Maya. The family celebrated holidays-many kinds of holidays-in a nonreligious way, so Maya looked forward to family gatherings at Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, and Passover with a special sense of significance and excitement.
“We just didn’t talk about God in our household,” Fran said of Maya’s first four years.
By age five, Maya was a sparkling child: loving, adventuresome, curious, and delighted by life. One morning they passed by the towering church a few blocks from their house and across the street from the coffee shop that Fran often stopped in during their busy days of errands and activities. They had passed the church many times before and never entered. This morning was different.
“Mama, let’s go in! Let’s go in!” Maya said excitedly. Fran and I had talked about the crucial need for parents to support children’s developing natural spirituality, and since then she had been mulling this over. She had found the science fascinating and the evidence convincing. But what had struck her most of all was this new awareness of spiritual development as a foundational aspect of child development-Maya’s development-and all she had to do to support her daughter was to pay attention, welcome Maya’s spontaneous expressions of wonder or curiosity, respect her observations and questions, and share in exploring the ideas. There was no need to have “right” answers or detailed how-to instructions. All she had to do was join her child in the moment, let her child be her guide, welcome conversation, and leave the conversation open, rather than avoid it or shut it down.
“So when she said ‘Let’s go in! Let’s go in!’ what I really wanted to do was go get the grocery shopping done so I could get home and make lunch and do all the things we needed to do,” Fran told me. “But instead, I sort of gritted my teeth and took a deep breath and said ‘Okay, sweetheart,’ because if she wanted to go in then I should encourage it.”
Once inside, Maya led the way with her observations and questions and Fran discovered a new experience in viewing the moment purely through her daughter’s eyes. She was able to welcome Maya’s questions without feeling pressured to provide definitive answers. She was free to wonder aloud and ask Maya what she thought. It was, Fran said later, an exquisite experience.
Parents often hear spiritual questions as requests for answers or knowledge that they aren’t prepared to provide. But that’s a misunderstanding, or perhaps a reflection of our own natural anxiety to do everything right. We worry that we don’t know the right answer or that we’re dealing with something so big that we don’t want to ruin it or say the wrong thing. Or it may be that spirituality has not been something important in our own lives, or it isn’t a space in which we’ve spent recent time exploring, developing, and wondering. So it may be tempting to repeat what you heard as a child: Oh, we don’t do that. But the precious opportunity before you is that your child is giving you an opening and saying, Hey, come with me. You don’t need to know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there-you are simply being asked to go with her. Our children look to us, but not really for the answers. We’re being asked to show up. We need to show up, but we don’t need to have all the answers.
Like every other aspect of human potential, spiritual development and growth is part of our birthright. As the Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön wrote, “It’s as if everyone who has ever been born has the same birthright, which is enormous potential of warm heart and clear mind.” This is true not only for children but for parents, too. The moment we are “born” into parenthood, our child’s spiritual development-that cultivation of a warm heart, a clear mind, and the capacity for transcendence-becomes part of our shared journey and our birthright as parents. Following your child’s spiritual journey may transform your entire family.
You have the opportunity to hop aboard this journey with your child, and through your child’s journey, to travel on your own journey, as well. Say yes and see where you go.
Excerpted from The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, by Lisa Miller, PhD. Copyright © 2015 by Lisa Miller. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers.