Why Kids Need Spirituality

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Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand --- Young boy sits upon his fathers shoulders.
Photo: 13/Jason Hosking/Corbis

You are Jewish; your husband, a lapsed Catholic. Neither of you believes, much, in God, although occasionally you like to meditate and you both would go hiking more if you could. You’ve had those moments — who hasn’t? — on mountaintops or in art museums or even in prayer when you’ve felt that overwhelming sense of bigness and smallness all at once, the awesomeness of existence, the miracle and fragility of being human. But it’s easy to switch the channel. Life — work, TV, an alluring new bar — intervenes and all that reverence dissipates.

And then you have kids. And that existential shoulder shrug becomes a way of life because … What are you going to do? Entrust an unknown priest or rabbi to teach your children things you’re not sure you believe yourself? Besides, there’s soccer and birthday parties and brunch. But this spiritual apathy nags at you. This isn’t how you (or your parents and grandparents) were raised. And a tiny voice inside you insists on wondering whether you shouldn’t be teaching your kids something about the importance of holiness.

Now a new book by Columbia University psychologist Lisa Miller (no relation) commands that parents heed that little voice. The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving is an exhaustive and compelling compendium of recent psychological and neurological research, all of which points in the same direction: Children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not. Teenagers, in particular, are exponentially better off if they’re in touch with their spiritual sides — less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, to engage in risky sex, to cope with depression. “In the entire realm of human experience,” Miller writes, “there is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality.”

Further, Miller argues, the downside to continuing to neglect your children’s spiritual development is huge — more catastrophic than failing to eat organic, or to prep properly for the SATs or to diligently attend soccer practice. Spiritual stunting can perhaps damage a child forever, creating a brittle sense of self and a lack of resiliency. Miller even cites some evidence that supporting the spiritual development in teens creates more supple pathways between the front part of the brain, which is command central, and the intuitive, perceptual parts, building a more integrated person. “We can see the crisis in the making when spiritual development is neglected or when a child’s individual spiritual curiosity and exploration is denied,” she writes. “In a culture where often enormous amounts of money, empty fame, and cynicism have become toxic dominant values, our children need us to support their quest for a spiritually grounded life at every age.”

Children imbued with spirituality grow into adults who can count their blessings, feel a sense of calling in their work, regard human relationships as sacred, and can see misfortunes as opportunities, claims Miller. Children without build their self-esteem on achievement, are driven to please others, feel alone in the world, and are fatalistic about failures and setbacks. Not since Paul Tough declaimed on the importance of “grit” in his 2012 best seller How Children Succeed has a book made a bigger argument on behalf of an amorphous personal quality without which children are sunk. Miller even believes that “grit” derives from spirituality. “Kids who are high in transcendence are also high in grit,” Miller told me in a phone call. “And, oh, by the way, they will also be more successful.”

Stakes like these create angst for parents like you. You want to give your kids everything, obviously. But how do you support children’s spirituality when you yourself aren’t sure about belief? When, truth be told, anything that smells like religion makes you squirm?

Miller is herself an observant Jew and mother of three, but she acknowledges that organized religion isn’t for everyone. Even the most disbelieving parents can help build spiritual children, she says, simply by being available to and interested in the spiritual journey that naturally occurs in kids, and not quashing it with cynicism or anxiety or impatience. She calls this role “the spiritual ambassador.” Spiritual capacity is partially hard-wired in people — twins studies show that 30 percent of a person’s sense of connectedness to a higher power is inherited — so even if you’ve never been in a church but regularly get that “oh wow” feeling at dusk on Cape Cod, you can pass that “oh wow” capacity on to your kids. That’s transcendence, and according to Miller it can be just as salient a spiritual heritage as, say, a weekly trip to mass. Miller says you should get over your own squeamishness and embrace instead your inner earnestness. Mention your own spiritual feelings, tell your kids how much they mean to you, and encourage them to talk about it themselves.

So many of the things that children do are naturally spiritual: They can gaze at ants on an anthill for hours. That’s mindfulness. They feel a sense of despair when they see a homeless person. That’s compassion, or mercy. Elementary-aged children are profoundly concerned with fairness, or justice, and they feel lifted up by helping other people. That’s charity. The Judeo-Christian tradition has long taught that a parent’s love for children is a metaphor for the way God loves people; Miller advises talking to children about family love as sacred: “Even when you’re away at school we stay connected heart to heart — that’s forever!”

Language like this may set your teeth on edge — and there’s a lot of it in this book — but in Miller’s telling, a spiritual parent-child bond is protective. Her own research has shown that in families with a propensity for depression, the incidence of depression in children is reduced by 80 percent when the child shares a spiritual outlook with the mother. When teenagers have harsh or judgmental parents, the effects of that kind of parenting are mitigated by as much as 70 percent if the teen can call on some kind of direct, personal relationship with a higher power.

In her chapters on adolescence, Miller presents the most compelling evidence for the importance of a thriving spiritual life. Twelve-step programs require an addict to call on and submit to a higher power. But if, in adolescence, a teenager already has a developed sense of a higher power, the likelihood that he or she will abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place goes way, way down. In ongoing fMRI research, Miller and her colleagues have shown that an ability to achieve a transcendent relationship actually deactivates a brain’s craving mechanism, “reducing the draw of all objects of insatiable desire.” Brains wired to believe in something like God can short-circuit the impulse to take substances.

The rage of teenagers is like the rage of the prophets, Miller told me on the phone. As part of becoming individuals, they insist on having their own visions of the world and they specialize in sniffing out hypocrisies, especially those of their parents. This is where a parent, especially one who is not sure about religious belief, needs to be scrupulously honest. In the process of finding out who she is, a teenager may veer wildly between alienation and connectedness and joy. Shushing a teen, telling her that her perceptions are out of proportion to reality is like “silencing a mystic,” Miller told me. The better course is to follow her lead: “Stay with her,” says Miller. “Her perceptions are real.” A full-throated spiritual life, after all, is characterized not by knowing the answers, but by asking questions. Which is something a teenager and her agnostic parent might easily do together.