By Lisa Miller
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.”
Read More Why Kids Need Spirituality — Science of Us.