From "The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving" by Lisa Miller, Ph.D. (St. Martin's Press, 2015)
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 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.
Copyright © 2015 by Lisa Miller