Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University, writes about the intersection of science and spirituality — an emerging field with promising results. In her breakthrough book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science for Parenting and Lifelong Thriving, she outlines how to teach spirituality to kids so they find joy, purpose, and meaning in life.
“What our research shows,” Miller writes, “is that deliberately and actively fostering a child’s spirituality can have an incredibly positive impact in adolescence.” Citing original studies alongside third-party research, she writes that “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.”
Happiness, optimism, flexibility. Every parent wants these benefits.
So, how do you nurture spiritual health in kids?
Spark curiosity for life’s big questions.
When kids ask big questions, parents can go wrong in one of three ways: They tell their kids what to think (“The answer is ______”), they tell their kids what not to think (“None of it is real.”) , or they simply say “I don’t know” and leave it there.
In light of this, if one of your kids asks you about a big life topic (God, religion, death, etc.), avoid saying “People believe a lot of things, but the answer is _______” or “God doesn’t exist” or only “I don’t know.”
Instead, you might say, “I’m not sure, but I feel alive when ________. What do you feel?” Then you can listen with your full presence. Or you might say, “I feel most aligned with life when I believe ________. How about you?”
The point is to move toward opening a lifelong conversation rather than closing it down. This way you develop a shared journey and set your child up to live with integrity.
“A child’s questioning propels growth,” Miller writes. “Responding with an ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t know and nobody else does, either,’ often ends the discussion. Your child hears that spirituality isn’t worthy of pursuit, nor is it central to daily life.”
Help your kids align with their inner compass.
When faced with difficult decisions, Miller encourages parents to ask their kids, “What does your natural spiritual compass say?”
After all, so many decisions in life can’t fully be answered with reason and logic alone. We have to rely on intuition. Through this practice, kids learn to work with what Miller calls “head knowing” and “heart knowing,” which both lead to conscientious living.
As your kids align with their inner compass, they’ll find their spiritual path in life regardless of spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). On this note: Miller suggests that while religion can help kids experience spiritual development, it’s not the only way to go. She writes, “What our research shows is that deliberately and actively fostering a child’s spirituality can have an incredibly positive impact in adolescence. While religion is the traditional way to cultivate this, it can also be achieved with regular time spent in nature, in community service or with family—it’s about fostering the framework, language and practices for spiritual living.” The goal, then, isn’t merely to belong to organized religion or attend church and call it good. The goal is to help kids align with their inner compass.
Love your kids without conditions.
In her research, Miller found that “an unconditionally loving and reliable parent—mother or father—was associated with a strongly felt sense of an always present, accepting, and loving God.” This guiding power, however defined, serves to buoy kids up later in life during difficult moments by being a source of love itself.
The importance of this love can’t be overstated, especially in an era when kids frequently struggle with depression and anxiety. Eventually, your kids will leave home and you won’t physically be there for them. When you instill a sense of a guiding, loving power (again, however you define it), you give your kids a foundation for life.
Fred Rogers embodied this practice well when he said, “I like you just the way you are.” As kids internalize a statement like this, they sense that they have inherent worth — that they’re safe in what Miller calls “a field of love.”
One parent talked about how this principle saved his relationship with his son after his son suffered from an addiction to substance abuse. When the parent was able to fully love his son as he was, such that the son was able to feel that love, his son’s craving for substances dissipated over time.
Share spiritual experiences.
Miller tells the story of Kaitlin, a young woman who developed major depressive disorder (MDD) after descending into philosophical nihilism in college. She felt she was completely without hope when she visited the ocean. “I was walking along the ocean, headed out along the dock,” she said, “and saw the light sparkling on the water. … Suddenly it all became clear to me. Of course there is the creator, and the world is bright and full of love—there is spirituality in everything!” As Miller tells it, “She 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.”
Such experiences can serve as a foundation when all else feels hopeless. See our article “21 Examples of Spiritual Experiences” along with our lesson on spirituality.
Resources to Help You
“In the absence of sound knowledge and credible science, parents have told me they felt stuck,” writes 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 agree. We created Uplift because we searched for expansive resources to nurture the natural spirituality of kids and couldn’t find anything. So we built what we wanted in our own homes.
We have a series of free resources along with our lesson library and curriculum. Start a free two-week trial to get full access and nurture weekly spiritual experiences at home.
Image Credit: Wiki Commons