THE BLOG

The Science Behind Children's Spirituality

05/29/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

My 19-month-old daughter loves watching for school buses. She camps out on our couch, eyes eagerly scanning for any sign of yellow, and when one goes by, she squeals "Bus!!!!"

Her natural awe, curiosity and excitement simply amaze me -- I wish I got even remotely as excited about anything as she does about buses! But if you spend any time with children, you'll notice that they just seem to have an innate sense of what we might call "spirituality."

So how do we cultivate that sense of spirituality? And are there additional benefits that can accrue by giving our children spiritual language?

One person who explores the role and power of spirituality in children is Dr. Lisa Miller. Dr. Miller is a Professor and Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University's Teacher's College, as well as the Director of the Spirituality & Mind Body Institute. She is also the author of the new book The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.

I had an opportunity to ask her some questions about her work and her new book, and she was kind enough to respond.

GM: You talk about how important spirituality is for children. Yet "spirituality" can mean many different things to many different people. So how do you define "spirituality"? How is it different from (or related to) religion?

LM: We all are born with a natural endowment for spirituality.  Just as we are born with a sense of smell, cognition or emotion, science shows that we have the capacity of what I call natural spirituality.

Religion is an embrace of our natural spirituality.  Many people experience spirituality within religion. There also are many people whose spirituality exists outside of religion, in nature, through service, or in relationships with fellow people.

The questions I hear from parents revolve around "how do I support spirituality in my child?"  Religion provides enormous sweeping resources for spiritual growth in our children.  Religion holds a language for transcendence, practices through which to develop the transcendent relationship with a Higher Power, and a community based upon spiritual values, that includes the sharing of intergenerational experience.

Many of the 35 percent of American young adults who are "spiritual but not religious" had some whiff of religion as a child, enough to harness natural spirituality.  To cultivate religion in our children takes focus and effort, radically assisted by religion.

GM: There have been several books that explore qualities that are important for children's thriving -- Mindset by Carol Dweck, How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, and How We Learn by Benedict Carey. How does your research connect with theirs?

LM: I am delighted to join the parenting discussion based upon a new body of science1 that shows spirituality at the core of healthy development.

As a clinical scientist, I had focused for 15 years on investigating spirituality in the course of child and adolescent development, as a resource for thriving and as protective against common forms of suffering in teens.  The signal of sound in the data was so strong that it was piercing.  Yet, as a parent of three children, I saw that the science was totally absent from our parent culture.  By bringing forward the science, we can further craft the lens through which we see our own children.

Each of my highly valued colleagues whom you mention have helped to carve the parenting lens through which we can better perceive our own children's motives and heart's desire.  The science simply does not bust free from the Ivory Tower until someone feels the deep sense of mission to share the research with our culture, fellow parents.

GM: What are some practical suggestions you would give to parents to help encourage spiritual conversations?

LM: SHOW UP.  Parents do not need to have great spiritual knowledge or ultimate answers to support spirituality in our teens.  We just need to show up and pay attention. Our interest say that their spiritual experience is real, and that we view as a priority their spiritual life, the journey.  I found in our decades of research that many teens are feeling excited by inner spiritual discoveries, and equally surprised that nobody grown-up seems to notice or ask.  Just ask.  Even if you get a dead-end shrug, you have planted the notion that spirituality is real and worthy.

PAY ATTENTION TO DAILY SPIRITUAL LIFE.  A teenager may spontaneously share a spiritual question, or share a moment of great uplifting transcendence or a dream.  But then again, the less sensational events can be equally spiritually alive.  Often a teen is starting to talk about spirituality as told through the "meat and potatoes" of daily living. The daily questions, such as struggle between friends at school, hurt feelings over exclusion, ethics on a test, or life goals, often reflect spiritual values.  Go to the deepest level, or at least listen at the deepest level.  That is where the teen actually may find the greatest sense and meaning.

TRANSPARENCY.  Start a spiritual statement with "I" and you likely will see your teen's face become riveted.  A window into our own spiritual life as a parent is the greatest spiritual gift we can offer, next to our unconditional love.  Very often adolescents are hungry to know what you think about ultimate questions, or to have window into your inner experience of spirituality.   When you engage with your own transcendent relationship, do it visibly - pray out loud, offer your child a seat by your side when you meditate, or pull a quote of text from a moving poem or passage in sacred text.

TRIP AND RECOVER.  Spiritual life engages the real world, as we are, and as it is.  So allow your child to watch you trip and recover in your spiritual path.  Spiritual parenting is not being perfectly good all the time.  It involves leaning into the deep significance of our lives, and viewing our lives as sacred.

Science shows that a child's personal spirituality is more developed, and a greater source of thriving, when it comes through family.  Judaism certainly has much to share about passing the sacred torch through the generations.  From the perspective of science, the quality of spiritual engagement in our children hinges on the combination of our unconditional love plus our sharing of spiritual life.

Additional sources
1. Miller, L. (2012) Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, Editor, Oxford University Press; New York, NY

(This post first appeared on My Jewish Learning's Rabbis Without Borders blog)