THE SPIRITUAL CHILD: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving BY LISA MILLER, P


child development have been essentially silent

on the matter of spirituality in child and

adolescent development, largely due to a lack

of scientific research. With a relatively recent

wave of rigorous science in top peer review

journals, we now have a breakthrough wave

of science that shows us: 1) children are born

inherently spiritual, 2) this natural spirituality

can be supported by parents and caring adults,

and 3) if it is supported, it is the greatest source

of resilience and thriving known to the medical

or social sciences.

Spiritual Child

Just as the child is born with an innate social

sense or cognitive ability, every child is born

with a biologically based capacity for natural

spirituality. This natural spirituality, if it is

supported, is a tremendous resource for health

and thriving. The research supports this:

adolescents with a strong personal spirituality

are 60% less likely to suffer from substance use

and abuse and 80% less likely to engage in risky

and unprotected sex than adolescents who are

not spiritually oriented.

Natural spirituality is inborn, foundational

to our nature, and our birthright. It is

in our innate nature to seek and perceive

transcendence, a connection to a larger

universe. These abilities and drives can work

together to develop a two-way relationship with

a higher power – God, the creator, the universe,

or nature, for example. This relationship is

expressed in many different ways in different


Religion is an embrace of our natural

spirituality, as it is shared or transmitted from

a specific group of people and carried out in

specific traditions. Religion can cultivate

our natural spirituality, but so too can other

institutions and practices—yoga, spending

time in nature, and acts of service, for example.

A person can be highly spiritual and religious,

or highly spiritual without religion. Religion

traditionally offers a language and guidance for

spiritual growth and development, as well as asense

of community and relationships based upon spiritual values.

These are all critical elements of developing a personal

spirituality. Science has revealed a vivid picture of inborn,

natural spirituality in children, with clear implications for

how parents and other adults can support the development

of that spirituality. We know now that there is nothing

more profoundly beneficial to children than to foster

their innate spirituality. This is monumentally important

information for all parents to have and use. As a

scientist at the forefront of this research, I know that

personal spirituality is the greatest, life-giving

resource for children. But, in my day-to-day life as a

parent to three children, I see that this essential

information has not yet made its way into the culture

of parenting. When I talk to other parents about my

work at pick-up and drop-off, or on the sidelines of a

soccer game, they light up with recognition of the

idea they hadn’t previously been able to identify or

articulate: that children have a deep connection to

something larger than themselves.

The science I share with them

squares with their experience of their children,

and inevitably they share wonderful anecdotes.

But how to use this incredibly valuable

information as a parent or an educator is what

is missing in our literature. My aim in writing

The Spiritual Child is to lay plain the scientific

findings so parents can understand this great

resource in their children and learn how to

encourage and support it.

Our parenting culture is very good at

mastering new ideas that are based upon

science. For instance, take toddlers and the

“terrible twos.” When parents figured out that

two-year-olds must say “no” as a biologically

based developmental imperative – in order to

become their own personalities – we stopped

thinking that two-year-olds are simply defiant

or stubborn, or that we were doing something

wrong as parents. Once we understood the

developmental process, we learned to honor the

little person’s important work of individuation

and burgeoning sense of agency.

So too with spiritual development. With

the right road map to spiritual development,

we as parents are far more able to ensure

that our children thrive. For example, we

can foster spiritual development by sharing

our own spiritual experiences, questions, and

wonderings; by talking with our children

about their questions and experiences without

judgment; by building a spiritual practice

together; by nurturing active relationships

with creatures of all kinds and with nature;

by sanctifying family as a way of showing

that we all are part of something larger; by

using spiritual language on a daily basis; and

by striving toward a higher bar in our own

behavior and ethics.

Lisa Miller, Ph.D. is Director of Clinical

Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers

College and author of the New York Times

Bestseller The Spiritual Child; The New Science

of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.