At the UUA General Assembly in 2009, Rabbi Sasso shared her studies as part of the Sophia Lyons Fahs Lectures. She shared that though most youth believe in some form of divinity, only 14% value their spiritual communities. She shared that this may be a result of many adults who do not talk about spirituality with their children and youth. The attendance at UU churches by youth has declined over these years and many Directors of Religious Education are trying to determine why.
I just finished reading a book by psychologist, Lisa Miller. In her book, The Spiritual Child, Dr. Miller explains the 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 her research with additional evidence from her work as a clinical psychologist she illustrates just how invaluable spirituality is to a child’s mental and physical health, Miller translates her findings into advice for parents, presenting concrete ways to develop and encourage their children’s well-being.
Dr. Miller presents those moments we may have experienced on mountaintops or in art museums or even in prayer when you’ve felt that overwhelming sense of bigness and smallness all at once, the “awesomeness of existence”, the miracle and fragility of being human. She then discusses how we may turn that off. A busy life, work, TV, soccer, birthday parties and brunches can all intervene and all that reverence dissipates.
Dr. Miller states 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 traumas than those who are not.
Further, Miller argues, the downside neglecting your children’s spiritual development is huge. Miller even cites some evidence that supporting the spiritual development in teens creates more supple pathways between the front part of the brain, which is command central, and the intuitive, perceptual parts, building a more integrated person. “We can see the crisis in the making when spiritual development is neglected or when a child’s individual spiritual curiosity and exploration is denied.” Children imbued with spirituality grow into adults who can count their blessings, feel a sense of calling in their work, regard human relationships as sacred, and can see misfortunes as opportunities, claims Miller. Children without, build their self-esteem on achievement, are driven to please others, feel alone in the world, and are fatalistic about failures and setbacks.
In her chapters on adolescence, Miller presents evidence for the importance of a thriving spiritual life. Twelve-step programs require an addict to call on and submit to a higher power. But if, in adolescence, a teenager already has a developed sense of a higher power, the likelihood that he or she will abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place goes way, way down. In ongoing fMRI research, Miller and her colleagues have shown that an ability to achieve a transcendent relationship actually deactivates a brain’s craving mechanism, “reducing the draw of all objects of insatiable desire.” Brains wired to believe in something bigger and beyond than themselves can short-circuit the impulse to take substances.
Even the most disbelieving parents can help build spiritual children, she says, simply by being available to and interested in the spiritual journey that naturally occurs in kids, and not quashing it with cynicism or anxiety or impatience. She calls this role “the spiritual ambassador.” Mention your own spiritual feelings, tell your kids how much they mean to you, and encourage them to talk about it themselves. Help to provide moments of inspiration for your child, take time for trips to mountaintops, art museums, synagogues, mosques, temples and churches.
A full spiritual life, after all, is characterized not by knowing the answers, but by asking questions. Which is something a teenager and her parent might easily do together.