Research results: spiritual development of children

The resulting extensive and groundbreaking research, advances in our understanding of brain science and the findings of neuro-imaging, lengthy interviews with hundreds of children and parents, case studies, and rich anecdotal material show that:

  • Spirituality is an untapped resource in our understanding of human development, resilience and illness, and health and healing. The absence of support for children’s spiritual growth has contributed to alarming rates of childhood and adolescent emotional suffering and behaviors that put them at risk. Knowledge of spiritual development rewrites the contemporary account of spiraling rates of depression, substance abuse, addictive behaviors, and other health concerns. 
  • Awareness of spiritual development creates opportunities to prepare teens for the important inner work required for individuation, identity development, emotional resilience, character, meaningful work, and healthy relationships. Spirituality is the central organizing principle of inner life in the second decade, boosting teens into an adulthood of meaning and purpose, thriving and awareness.
  • Spiritual development through the early years prepares the adolescent to grapple more successfully with the predictably difficult and potentially disorienting existential questions that make adolescence so deeply challenging for teens (and their parents). It also provides a protective health benefit, reducing the risk of depression, substance abuse, aggression, and high-risk behaviors, including physical risk taking and a sexuality devoid of emotional intimacy.
  • Biologically, we are hardwired for spiritual connection. Spiritual development is for our species a biological and psychological imperative from birth. The innate spiritual attunement of young children – unlike other lines of development such as language or cognition – begins whole and designed by nature to prepare the child for decades ahead, including the challenging developmental passage of adolescence.
  • In the first decade of life, the child advances through a process of integrating his or her spiritual “knowing” with other developing capabilities, including cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, all of which are shaped by interactions with parents, family, peers, and community. Without support and lacking encouragement to keep developing that part of himself, the child’s spiritual attunement erodes and becomes “disaggregated” in the crush of a narrowly material culture. 
  • The science of spirituality enables us to see adolescence in a new and more helpful, hopeful light: the universal developmental surge in adolescence, previously viewed as a fraught passage toward physical and emotional maturity, is now understood more fully to also be a journey of essential spiritual search and growth. This developmental phenomenon is seen in every culture, and research shows clinical and genetic evidence for this adolescent surge of spiritual awakening.
  • Parents and children share a parallel development arc in which a child’s need and yearning for spiritual exploration coincides with a similar “quest” phase in adult life. For parent and child, meaning and connection often lead to spiritual self-discovery. This mutual impetus means that the adult’s quest phase and the child’s can be mutually awakening and supportive. Our children can be our impetus for spiritual discovery, our muses or guides, and at times the source of illumination.

With these findings we can see the crisis in the making when spiritual development is neglected or when a child’s spiritual curiosity and exploration are denied. Yet a number of factors ranging from cultural to ideological to technological have made many parents reluctant, uncomfortable, or afraid to engage with our children in the spiritual quest. Now more than eve, in a culture when often enormous amounts of money, empty fame, and cynicism have become toxic dominant values, our children need us to support their quest for a spiritually grounded life at every age – and to discover or strengthen our own.

From “The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving” By Lisa Miller, PhD