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Q&A: Raising spiritual kids in a society that has forgotten how
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Today's moms and dads often treat parenting like a science, studying books, blogs and articles on how to raise well-adjusted and successful children. But, according to a new book, one important aspect of childhood may be getting lost in the shuffle: spirituality.

"The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving," published this week, presents lessons learned over Lisa Miller's 15-year investigation into the links between personal well-being and a relationship to a higher power. It argues that parents should nurture spirituality, just as they encourage participation in sports or high achievement in the classroom.

Miller, a professor of psychology and education and director of the clinical psychology program at Columbia University, Teachers College, offers advice for parents hoping to raise spiritual children. She shares stories from her own life (she's a mother of three) and conversations with parents across the country, illustrating how helping children find meaning in their lives can be as simple as starting conversations about gratitude, kindness and love.

Miller, 48, and her family practice Reform Judaism, but the book is not about formal religious beliefs. Instead, it focuses on "natural spirituality" and the way children's curiosity about nature, response to death and comforting presence signal an innate awareness of something bigger than themselves.

By helping that spiritual instinct become a guiding force, parents can raise children who have one more resource to turn to when tempted by drugs and alcohol as teenagers or faced with difficulties as adults, Miller argues.

"We want our kids to know that sometimes the questions you spend your whole life thinking about are the most important, and that it's OK not to know the answer right away," she writes. "Spirituality gives us the space to sit and hold the uncomfortable, to understand moral nuance, ambiguity and our ultimate potential."

This week, Miller spoke to us about why spiritual parenting can feel awkward, the loss of spirituality in the public square and the benefits of raising children who are open to the idea of a higher power.

Question: What's the goal of your book?

Lisa Miller: This is an opportunity to show parents the science behind what many of us have already known in our heart to be true and to support what perhaps many parents consider intuitive: the natural spirituality in our children.

Our job as parents, foremost, is to support the spiritual bedrock in child development. That's the deep motive.

There's also another piece which has to do with the flow of important information from science into the hands of parents and families.

For 15 years, I worked in my lab alongside labs across the country to discover that spirituality is the foremost source of health and thriving in kids. I saw this through multiple scientific paradigms: twin studies, MRI-studies, long-term clinical studies.

There are clear, actionable ways that parents can support spirituality in their children. And yet, as a parent, every day I went to pick up and drop off (at my children's school) and I could see that the information was not trickling into society, the information was not making it out of the scientific labs and into the hands of parents and families.

Over time, it became a point of great concern for me, so I decided that the only way to get the science out there would be to carry it, to be the runner. And that's why I wrote the book, so that parents would have access to the best science there is on child development.

Question: How do you define spirituality, and what are some of the ways spirituality has been shown to boost well-being?

LM: The cornerstone of personal spirituality is a direct, personal relationship with a higher power. No matter what language that is in or whatever tradition that might be in, a direct, personal, daily relationship with God, Allah, Hashem, the universe whatever that power is called is, in the eyes of science, the bedrock of spirituality.

It's a personal, transcendent relationship, involving turning to God in times of difficulty or decision-making. It opens up into a sense of a sacred world.

For a teen, spirituality brings meaning and purpose. They learn their deeper value beyond what they've done or not done on the athletic field or in the classroom. It's about thinking, "I have value well beyond my academic or athletic prowess. I have value as a soul on earth."

All of the work of adolescence, such as identity development and building relationships, looks entirely different from the seat of a spiritual self. The work becomes about calling, meaning and purpose, not just about outward markers of success. No one can take your place from a spiritual perspective, because you have a unique contribution to make. It's a very different view of the world, full of fulfillment, love, meaning, relationships and even outward success.

Parents worry so much about outward success and they think of it as separate from inner fulfillment, but actually the seat of both is a spiritual anchor.

Question: How did our society lose track of spirituality in parenting?

LM: Our society has, through religious traditions, held on to cultivated spirituality. It's also present in the arts and the humanities. But for a good, solid century, scientists went cold on spirituality. The keepers of spirituality were outside of science. Spirituality wasn't put into the center of the public square. That's where we started to unravel.

We have a real problem right now because we don't have spiritual values in the public square, and it's to the detriment of our kids. We deprive kids of their strongest footing in life.

However, there were some good things that happened (over the last century). We moved to religious pluralism. We moved to an embrace of many religious faiths in the United States and many forms of practice.

But our culture became so anxious about how to hold that discussion (about spirituality) that we stopped having it. And when we stopped having it, we threw the baby out with the bath water. By remaining silent on deep, personal spirituality, we hushed and started to ignore the real core of human experience, and the ones who paid the most are the kids.

Question: What are some key strategies to boost spiritual development?

LM: The core piece is that the child trust what a parent might call "direct knowing." It's the inklings of the heart, the whisper of intuition. It's spiritual communication. The child needs to know that's real.

In a day-to-day, positive way, parents can say, "Oh! Is that your direct knowing?" Kids pick that up right away.

Secondly, the spiritual compass is essential. Every child has a deep, spiritual compass that points to the truth. The child can gain that language early on.

Parents can call attention to good behaviors, saying things like, "I saw the way your friends were fighting over candy and you made sure everyone got an equal part. That was your spiritual compass telling you what to do."

When we use words, as parents, we make something real. And that leads to the third point: use a spiritual language of your own. It may be within a faith traditional or a personal one. Just like you teach "apple" and "banana," teach a whole language of spiritual life, from spiritual values like helping other people to a prayer life or meditation.

Question: Your book outlines several techniques for parents of young children, but do you also have advice for parents whose kids are already teenagers?

LM: You can hop in (to spiritual practices) at any time, any decade of life. The second decade is a prime, rich, fertile time to hop in.

There's an awakening with adolescence. The religious traditions have called that spiritual awakening. The science represents a surge of awareness and hunger to experience and understand spirituality.

The teen is waking up. They hunger and ask big questions about meaning and purpose. These are questions they can ask of the head for the next 70 years and find no answer unless we support them in the second decade in answering these driving questions of the head with the direct knowing of the heart.

And so the most helpful thing to do for a teen is to honor their questions and then invite them to know their own inner landscape, their own answers of the heart.

Question: When parents make a commitment to be more spiritual and to raise spiritual children, will it feel silly at first? Hard? Confusing?

LM: A parent may find that there is a path back in that maybe hasn't been trod in a very long time, but it feels like home. Spirituality may very quickly come right back.

But sometimes, things can be awkward. And that's fine, because, as a parent, you don't need to be spiritually perfect. You just need to be on the road.

Things may be awkward at first and then take on a deep significance for the family, like a gratitude practice or sharing a prayer of appreciation and thanking God for each child at the table each morning. Eventually, you'll think, "How could we ever start our day without this?"

The other piece is that the parent is growing spiritually, too. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to be transparent about our own spiritual road. Let them know how very important they are to the family's spirituality.

Question: How has researching this topic affected your life as a mom?

LM: The things that I write about in the book, we do these things at our house, including using spiritual language, giving thanks to God for the creation of a new day each morning and celebrating the life of each child at the breakfast table.

Basically, my kids when I'm not looking are doing it, too. Sometimes they join me. Sometimes they're silent. They're usually deeply respectful.

Every so often, they make fun of me. But that makes me think they're actually listening and working hard on their own spiritual life.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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