05/05/2015 09:13 am ET Updated May 05, 2015

One Of The Most Important Things Kids Need Is Something They Are Actually Born With

Boy on tire swing
Boy on tire swing

Dr. Lisa Miller is Professor of Psychology and Education and Director of the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University's Teachers College. In her new book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, Miller writes about how to parent with spirituality in mind.

Miller's thesis is that children are born inherently spiritual, and it's how this spirituality is fostered and cared for by loved ones that helps the child to ultimately achieve a stable education, health and life of thriving. Throughout the book, Miller discusses ways for parents to inspire development in their children, such as using spiritual language, discussing their own spirituality and practicing spirituality together in nature and beyond. Miller also writes about teaching children multilingualism -- a.k.a. the importance of respecting people who might call God by a different name or have a different style of worship.

Below is an excerpt from a chapter entitled "The First Decade: The Education of Head and Heart."

The Best Education Builds Heart and Mind through Science and Spirit

When we talk about educational curricula intended to turn out a well-rounded child, no one debates the need for children to develop their core faculties in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Natural spirituality just isn't considered one of them. And outside of school, the once clear and unscheduled space in children's lives for quiet walks, solitude, reflection, and conversations about life's wonder, its mysteries and big questions, often becomes filled with places to go and things to do: playdates, sports practice, homework, TV, computer games, social media, and other online activity.

We do children a disservice when we teach them that rational conversation requires a split between logic-based learning and their direct experience and inner heart knowing. The split forms when we teach children that science and logic are the only sources of "real" or true information, and we dismiss personal experience or intuitive information as "unsubstantiated" and inferior. At the very heart of science and innovation is the passion to expand knowledge, explore the unknown, and draw from all possible sources of insight and information -- to think outside the box. Chance, intuitive hunches, and serendipity have always played a role in scientific discovery. Our children need to know that their emerging abilities encompass both the analytical and the intuitive -- head knowing and heart knowing -- and that both are important.

Neuroscience shows the implications for spiritual development at the most basic cell level. Neuron by neuron, the use-it-or-lose-it principle applies. The brain grows along pathways that are well used and it prunes away those that aren't. It is why your child speaks the language you do and not the ones she never hears. It works that way with speech development and language skills, as well as with cognitive processes that enable children eventually to work with numbers and abstract ideas. The same is true for the brain's mirroring system that enables the wordless bonding between a mother and her newborn baby: the more robust the interaction, the stronger the connection.

As your child develops her capacity to learn and question and reason, her brain changes. She changes as a thinker. It's normal and wonderful. And every bit develops even more richly if heart knowing stays in the mix. Intellectual rigor doesn't have to come at the cost of a vibrant inner life and keen spiritual sense.

How can we keep those neural connections strong? Language, our own actions, and love are our most powerful tools. Children naturally see the interconnectedness of all things, and their worldview, as young and small as it may seem, assumes love, protection, and care. This is how they have understood the world with us from birth -- as context of love and caring -- and this becomes the lens through which they continue to naturally see the interconnectedness of all things. We sometimes inadvertently chip away at a child's heart knowing when we create a distanced "about" or "as-if" quality to the experience or feelings of others that underscores the separation between us rather than the interconnection. In casting our child's concern for others as "none of our business," "not our doing," or "not ours to know," the take-away message becomes: Don't think about it.

"That's Charlie's problem, not yours."

"Homelessness is a very big problem and yes, it's sad to see someone homeless. But don't worry, you have a home and family that loves you."

This emotional distancing disavows a child's spiritual attunement right down to the neurological level. Maybe we say these things to be reassuring, or perhaps to avoid an uncomfortable subject, but this is neither helpful nor healthful because it fragments a child's natural way of knowing. When we steer children away from talking about their authentic experience, we curb their potential for heart knowing as they grow. They need to know that information doesn't always have to come through an external source or be validated by a group.

With all the talk today about the need for children to develop empathy, it's as if we believe this is something they must be trained to do. Many activities designed to "teach empathy" do indeed create opportunities for meaningful shared experience. But children don't start from scratch. The innate love and unitive empathy of a young child are inborn capacities that emerge naturally. Younger children not yet trained to tune our heart knowing "just know" some things on this deep level. They see a lone duckling in the park and wonder where its mother is, perhaps worrying that the duckling is lost or separated from its family.

As they enter school and their capacity for critical thinking, we teach them to ask themselves: How do you know? That's an important question. You want your school-age children to know where his ideas come from. They need to learn how to research something. But we don't need to do that at the expense of invalidating or tacitly shutting off their original channel of heart knowing and unitive empathy. They're going to need it for the rest of their lives.

From The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. Copyright ᅡᄅ 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.