The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving

The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving

by Lisa Miller


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USA TODAY Bestseller
Publishers Weekly Bestseller

In The Spiritual Child, psychologist Lisa Miller presents the next big idea in psychology: the science and the power of spirituality. She explains the clear, scientific link between spirituality and health and shows that children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality:

* are 40% less likely to use and abuse substances
* are 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers
* are 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex
* have significantly more positive markers for thriving including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success.

Combining cutting-edge research with broad anecdotal evidence from her work as a clinical psychologist to illustrate just how invaluable spirituality is to a child's mental and physical health, Miller translates these findings into practical advice for parents, giving them concrete ways to develop and encourage their children's—as well as their own—well-being. In this provocative, conversation-starting book, Dr. Miller presents us with a pioneering new way to think about parenting our modern youth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250032928
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 9.40(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

LISA MILLER, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education, and Director of the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University, Teachers College. She is also Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. Dr. Miller's research has been published in journals including JAMA-Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. She has appeared on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Weekend Today as an expert psychologist. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

Read an Excerpt

The Spiritual Child

The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving

By Lisa Miller, Teresa Barker


Copyright © 2015 Lisa Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03291-1



Built for Spirituality

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.

Hardwired for Spirituality: Use It or Lose It

Spirituality is a vast untapped resource in our understanding of human development, illness, health, and healing. Specifically, research in medicine and psychology has found that people with a developed spirituality get sick less, are happier, and feel more connected and less isolated. In the context of illness, people with a developed spirituality show positive effects for resilience and healing. We'll delve fully into those findings in the chapters ahead, but in short, empirical evidence shows that natural spirituality exists within us, independent of religion or culture; it is as foundational to our makeup as emotion, temperament, and physical senses; and the benefits of natural spirituality are significant and measurable. Further, research shows that natural spirituality, if supported in childhood, prepares the adolescent for critical developmental tasks of that age. If supported in adolescence, natural spirituality deepens and can become a significant resource for health and healing through adult life.

How do we know? As scientists, we look for proof in corroborating evidence from many sources. For instance, we have identified a genetic contribution by using a rigorous study designed to pinpoint it. In neuroimaging scans, we have found synchronization of the regions of the brain when in spiritual or contemplative practice. In developmental terms, we look for parallels between spirituality and other developmental pathways (biological, psychological, emotional) that have long been understood.

Using a classic twin-study design to separate out nature from nurture and drawing from nearly two thousand twins in the Virginia Twin Registry, genetic-epidemiologist Kenneth Kendler has shown that there is a meaningful genetic contribution to spirituality. This is a finding replicated multiple times on different samples of twins. Neuroscientists including Andrew Newberg and Mario Beauregard have published numerous scientific peer-reviewed articles on the neural correlates of meaningful spiritual experience, personal prayer, awareness of a higher power, mystical experience, and confrontation with symbols of good and evil as identified through functional MRI (fMRI) — neuroimaging that measures brain activity by blood flow to a region. By tracking blood flow, these scientists have charted a neuroimaging road map of the brain that reveals the neurological design through which humans experience spirituality.

In developmental terms, the timing of change in developmental spirituality coincides, exactly, with that of other forms of development and appears interrelated; it emerges alongside secondary sex characteristics, abstract cognitive development such as meta-cognition and meaning making, and onset of fertility. This has been the focus of groundbreaking research in my lab, studies in which we have tracked the development of natural spirituality and its protective effects from childhood through adolescence into emerging adulthood.

The confluence of evidence is clear. So to recap: biologically, we are hardwired for a spiritual connection. Spiritual development is a biological and psychological imperative from birth. Natural spirituality, the innate spiritual attunement of young children — unlike other lines of development — appears to begin whole and fully expressed. As the child grows, natural spirituality integrates with the capacities of cognitive, social, emotional, and moral development, as well as physical change, to create a more complex set of equipment through which to experience transcendence and spirituality. Ultimately, if maintained and integrated with these other aspects of development, spirituality supports the child through the challenging developmental passage of adolescence.

What does this look like in real life?

Let's step back to the soccer field for a quick comparison. Your child is born with a faculty for physical movement that shows development in the progression of fine and gross motor skills. We see it clearly as our baby advances from pumping her legs and yanking her socks off, to picking up a single raspberry and squashing it between her thumb and forefinger. The next thing we know she's crawling, then toddling, then running and jumping, then suited up for soccer practice (or gymnastics, ballet, or tae kwon do). All along, her musculature, strength, and stamina are growing; she's learning how to move adeptly on the field, learning the skills and the language she needs to play with her teammates, to understand the coach, to respond to the coach's guidance and her teammates' calls on the field. She develops the confidence to ask questions that occur to her as her own experience deepens the way she thinks and engages on the field and at practice. She hones her skills, including her intuitive skills for discerning the many intangible, unspoken aspects of soccer and her life as a soccer player. Eventually, she is not only cognizant of the best form in her field skills but sees an even larger picture of interconnectedness. Should I stay up late tonight, watching TV with my friends? Not if I want to get enough sleep so I can play my best in tomorrow's game and not let the team down. This fully integrated "knowing" informs her technically and athletically, but also socially and emotionally, down to how she feels about playing and her contribution to the team, and how she sees this part of herself in the context of her larger life. All of this is shaped by her ongoing inner dialogue and her interactions with all of us: coach, teammates, family, peers, and community.

Our child's spiritual faculty likewise flourishes with support and encouragement to grow strong and to integrate with the rest of her developmental growth. This process of integration is also shaped by her internal dialogue and through interactions with parents, family, peers, and community. The practice field is everywhere, and it happens every time she has conversations with us about life's big and little questions, such as about meaning and purpose, being good people, how to treat others, what it means to be empathetic and compassionate, and why we need to take care of the earth and our environment.

As parents, we can take those ideas into the playing field of daily life and show our children how we live and express spiritual values in everyday interactions with other people, with animals, with nature, with our own inner life, and with the life of the mind and big ideas. We can take our children to explore sacred places and spaces: a house of worship, a sanctuary tucked away in a hospital, a mountain, or a river. We can encourage (and model) acts of expansive love and kindness. This exploration cultivates spiritual knowing and attunement, a sense of the spiritual dimension that is always present and is deeper than superficial attributes and higher than competitive and materialistic priorities. Supported by this exploration, the continuing conversation with us, and by her own internal spiritual dialogue, she continues to define what spirituality is and what the journey is for her.


Excerpted from The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller, Teresa Barker. Copyright © 2015 Lisa Miller. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I Childhood

1 Birthright: Built for Spirituality 23

2 The Science of the Spiritual Brain 51

3 The Nod: The Intergenerational Transmission of Spiritual Attunement 79

4 A Soul Arrives 102

5 Field of Love: Creating the Space for Spiritual Parenting 135

6 The First Decade: The Education of Head and Heart 160

7 The Six Spiritual Strengths 178

Part II Adolescence and Beyond

8 Window of Awakening: The Science of Spirituality in Adolescence 207

9 The Quest: The Adolescent's Search for Life's Calling, Meaning, and Purpose 233

10 Developmental Depression and Spiritual Awakening: An Epidemic of Suffering Among Healthy Teens 269

11 Healing the Severed Spirit: Two Portraits of the Adolescent Struggle for Spiritual Wholeness 298

12 Parenthood: The Spiritual Awakening 316

13 Seven Right Things: Opportunities for Spiritual Parenting 329

Acknowledgments 349

Notes 353

Index 365

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