What would you do if your kid said they persistently felt sad or hopeless?
Tragically, it’s common. The percent of U.S. high school students who say they feel this way rose from 28% in 2004 to 44% in 2021, marking a trend none of us want. We all expect life to have low moments. It’s how things go. But we shouldn’t expect these feelings to be persistent.
And our disconnected culture isn’t helping. We’re often walled off — from nature, from each other, from our inner compass.
At Uplift Kids, we believe that along with solutions like therapy, one of the best ways to reverse this trend is by fostering connection at home. We call this spiritual parenting.
Spiritual parenting is the practice of helping your kids connect to awe, love, and purpose.
- Connecting with something you’re in awe of, whether you call it Life, Aliveness, the Divine, God, Nature, Spirit, Source, Oneness, or something else.
- Connecting with family members and friends at the deepest level through vulnerable, heartfelt, and attentive conversations.
- Connecting with your authentic self and inner compass.
This is the heart of spirituality, a word that one neuroscientist helpfully defined as “the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness.” It’s also the heart of spiritual parenting.
Importantly, none of this necessarily hinges on belief or religion. Nor is it anti-science. In fact, the emerging science on spirituality shows promising results, with neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg demonstrating that “spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.” Other experts in neuroscience, including Sam Harris, Lisa Miller, Michael Ferguson and many others, show similar findings.
Put plainly, as we’ll explore below, spiritual parenting isn’t confined to any single religious tradition. It’s for everyone. We all want to overcome our feelings of separateness. We all want the same for our kids. That’s why spiritual parenting matters. It increases the probability of connection, and it decreases the probability of disconnection.
1. Connect with something you’re in awe of.
People around the world have shared stories about connecting to something bigger than themselves and feeling transformed in the process.
One such story from The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University, tells of a young woman named Kaitlin, who developed major depressive disorder after encountering philosophical nihilism in college. Then one day Kaitlin had a spiritual experience. She says, “I was walking along the ocean, headed out along the dock, and saw the light sparkling on the water. … Suddenly it all became clear to me. … The world is bright and full of love — there is spirituality in everything!” Miller writes that Kaitlin “felt a sense of peace, a calm reassurance that came from both within and beyond her, an uplifting sensation of sacred connection and certainty. It wasn’t a matter of belief or nonbelief; her experience was real and she knew it to be true.”
Another story from the same book tells of a neuroscientist named Stefan who recalled an experience from his childhood. He went out to the woods and sat on a rock. “While sitting on that rock,” he says, “I watched the pretty trees surrounding me. After a few minutes, I started feeling connected to the rock and the trees. It then appeared to me that the rock, the trees, and myself were part of a whole much greater than ‘Little Stefan.’ Following this experience, my purpose in life became clear: I would later become a scientist to demonstrate that the essence of human beings cannot be found in the brain.”
As you dive into such stories, you find that they tend to share similarities. They often happen in nature, often near dusk. They also happen when listening to music, dancing, sitting still, or in crowds united around a common cause.
From what we’ve seen, they tend not to happen in a messy, dim room while scrolling through social media on a smartphone — a common way that today’s kids experience disconnection. Technology can be a springboard to connection when it leads us to videos and words that inspire us to come alive. But when our relationship with technology becomes mindless or numbing (qualities that algorithms seem to incentivize), it walls us off from life.
The truth is that while we can’t control how or when spiritual experiences happen, we can make them more likely and notice when they naturally emerge. Spiritual parenting is about setting up the conditions that increase the likelihood of having and noticing spiritual experiences. And as psychologists from William James to Lisa Miller have shown, such experiences bear fruit including love, joy, and patience.
2. Connect with family members and friends.
The great irony of our times is that it’s easier than ever to connect quickly and more difficult to connect deeply. Conversations get fractured, riddled with interruptions from devices that ping for our attention.
For this and many other reasons, we’re lonely — with devastating consequences. As former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy writes, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. I found that loneliness was often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal.” He also found that loneliness carries “a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.” One review of 148 studies found that loneliness is more damaging than smoking or obesity.
At a certain level, spiritual parenting is nothing more than the practice of regularly having vulnerable, heartfelt, and presence-filled conversations. If you do this, you’ve got a good thing going on.
As it so happens, the Uplift lesson library gives families a way to start daily and weekly conversations. It includes a printable calendar and journal with daily questions, as well as weekly lesson experiences to help you connect about topics that matter.
It’s all about creating what Lisa Miller calls “a field of love” at home — giving your kids a deep-seated sense that the people in their life, including some who have passed on, love them unconditionally. By gathering together regularly and using phrases such as “I like you just the way you are,” you set the conditions to nurture this field of love.
3. Connect with your authentic self and inner compass.
Traditional parenting advice has often centered on set goals and outcomes. “You should do _______ so your kid will get into an ivy league school. Then you’ll be successful.” But that approach always centers on someone else’s definition of success.
Spiritual parenting is not about “fixing” your kids or expecting them to be different. It’s about allowing their true and authentic self to emerge and evolve. As a spiritual parent, you have the humility to recognize that you are also learning, healing, and evolving along with your child. Spiritual parenting is not about controlling outcomes, but about letting go of expectations and truly seeing and attuning to your child. Children have the right to be who they are.
It helps to know that there is no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect child — and that seeking perfection actually disconnects us from each other. When you embrace the imperfection and mess of family life, and relate from the heart, you give yourself and your child permission to be works in progress that are good enough. Good enough is its own kind of perfection.
As kids experience such an environment, they stop outsourcing their morality. It’s like when a kid trusts their own sense of when they’re full rather than listening to someone else tell them that they must eat more. The former sets a kid up to thrive in their own way, at their own pace. “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” Steve Jobs once suggested. “They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
To nurture this at home, make a habit of asking, “What does your inner compass say?” or “What does your heart and intuition say?” Encourage your kids to have the courage to follow through.
Above all, know that you are the expert. “Your own inner compass as a parent is the ultimate checkpoint for how to spiritually parent,” says Lisa Miller. “There is no expert in the world who has as deep a knowing of your child as you do.”
Make spiritual parenting a practice.
You might be the greatest parent in the world, but one day you will not be there for your kids. They’ll grow up and live on their own. By giving them a foundation of spiritual health, you give them the strength to carry on.
How do you do this? It can be difficult, especially if you’re striking out on your own. “Parents have told me they felt stuck,” writes Lisa Miller. “We have books, blogs, online sources, and other media advisers on nearly all sides of parenting, but not for this crucial inner resource of spirituality.”
We built Uplift to be one such resource. Our lesson library is an in-depth spiritual parenting resource, giving parents tools to make spirituality a habit in the home. “Uplift was an answer to what felt like desperate reaching,” says one subscriber. “The lessons are clear and digestible for our four-year-old and somehow also transformative and stretching for our thirteen-year-old.”
This is one way to build a culture of meaning and reflection at home, similar to how a child learns to play the piano or ride a bike or anything else.
Practice and repetition make spiritual health a reality.