The Spiritual Child: Educating the Head and the Heart

by Lisa Miller
March 31, 2016


Lisa Miller, Professor & Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, discusses spiritual development as it pertains to children and adolescents.


In 1997, there was not a single peer-reviewed scientific article on spirituality in children or adolescents. And yet, every day, plain as day, I could see in the clinic that children who had a strong spiritual life, children who had a personal relationship with their higher power, had an entirely different course of recovery than a child who had no connection to their higher power. Spirituality is part of our core human endowment. This we know now from science. It is, for 66% of people in the United States, embraced by a rich faith tradition. Two-thirds of people in this country experience spiritual life through a religious tradition. About 30% of people express that they feel spiritually connected, but are not part of a faith tradition, although two-thirds of those people believe in a personal God. A small number of people will say, “Yes, I am religious, but I don’t know if I am spiritual. For me, religion,” that small number of people would say, “is about my community, my heritage, my culture.” Religion and spirituality are for most people overlapping. Spirituality is our natural endowment; our capacity for relationship with a loving, guiding transcendent. Religion is an embrace of our natural spirituality.

As you may be well aware, the rates of depression, the rates of anxiety, the rates of substance abuse amongst resourced communities—middle class, upper middle class—have surpassed the rates of suffering found in the inner city. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are more common amongst resourced communities and in good high schools, than in communities where the majority of the students are on public paid lunch. So this is the dilemma of our time. My dear colleague, Suniya Luthar, looked under the hood to try and understand why this might be.[1]She looked outside of New York, she looked outside of San Francisco and a few other cities and went into the suburban high schools and started to ask kids, “Tell me, who is really, really big stuff here? Who is popular here?” There was no question, all the students had the same answers. “Oh, well that group of boys over there, they are very popular. She is popular.” A week later, Dr. Luthar would go back and pull over some fresh kids and say, “Hey, could you tell me about that group of girls over there and that boy?” In this way she determined the behavioral correlates of popularity in well-resourced communities. This was not the story of how one becomes popular, but the actual lived correlates of what went hand in hand with popularity. What might you imagine was the number one correlate of popularity in girls? It was weight. Weight was the number one correlate, and the number two correlate? The number two correlate was actually mean girls. It was interpersonal aggression used to instantiate rank. In boys, it was not an identical story. The number one predictor of popularity in boys? It was substance use. The number two correlate was exploitation of girls. So popularity in well-resourced communities really constitutes what might be called an emotional penal colony. It was clear that, whether we were talking about children in under-resourced areas or children in well-resourced areas, a psychology that was silent on spirituality simply did not make sense.

We now have 15 to 20 years of good science, rigorous science, that puts mental health and spirituality together. In my eyes, science is not needed by any means to validate spiritual life. It is not a validation, but it is amongst our many forms of human knowing, a lens through which to witness spiritual life. We can have a witness when one person stands up and offers a testimony, and we can have witness when in chorus a whole group of people stand up, which is a study sample, a thousand people’s voices at once. I see science, and the social sciences, as a lens of witness. Through this lens, what has been found over 20 years? What we have seen foremost is what every parent and grandparent knows, that your child and every child is born a spiritual child. In fact, science says very clearly, when we look through the lens, the gold standard within science, at a twin study (twins raised together, twins raised apart) and factor out their degree of similarity as a factor of their shared genetic material, we see that the capacity through which we experience spirituality is indeed innate. IQ is about 40% heritable, temperament is about 60% heritable, and a capacity for a personal, spiritual life, a relationship with the transcendent, is about 30% heritable.[2] It is in us. We are born with this endowment and, by the time we reach adulthood, two-thirds of this capacity is cultivated through our community, through our socialization, and through the choices we make that bring forward the unique environment of our lives. This heritable contribution, like clockwork, surges in adolescence. There is a 50% increase in the heritable contribution from middle adolescence to emerging adulthood, which means from the inside out there is an awakening of spiritual awareness: a hunger for meaning and purpose, nagging questions of ultimate concern, and the desire for transcendence and union.[3] We see this in adolescence and every culture through time has known this to be true. Science now, through this lens, says that with puberty, biological puberty, there is a surge of spiritual capacity. Those in whom the spiritual core is formed in adolescence are 80% less likely to abuse substances, 70% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected relations, 60% less likely to have recurrent major depression.[4] These findings went through rounds and rounds of rigorous peer review in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Journal of Adolescent Health. It is not a matter of opinion, it is a scientific fact, that there is nothing in the clinical or medical sciences as profoundly protective against the most common forms of suffering in adolescence as a strong, personal, spiritual life.

What does that sound like? From the 10,000-foot aerial view, when we look at large samples of teens, we rely on their self-report. Other studies tell us that their self-report is pretty good. Those teens with a strong, personal spirituality say, “I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty. When I have a decision to make, I ask, ‘What would God want me to do?’ Relationships are spiritual events for me. Nature is sacred to me.” Teens who see daily experience as imbued with sacred presence, who walk on spiritual bedrock, live a different life. It is a healthier life, and it is a life far less likely to have the huge potholes that can really derail us in the second decade. The way, in fact, that we might describe our spiritual life senior year, over large numbers of people, all things being equal, tends to remain constant over the many decades of our life. If by senior year we have established a personal relationship with God, Allah, HaShem, whatever faith tradition we may have been from, a very personal relationship that is loving and guiding and positive with the transcendent, that lasts. We can have hard times, we can step to the side, but we always have somewhere to return. The road has been paved. Life looks different. In our follow-up study, I teamed up with Suniya Luthar and we looked at how her teens looked if they had a strong spiritual life, amongst that emotional penal colony.[5] Does anyone here in these well-resourced communities have a spiritual heart that feels connected? What we found was, painfully, only 15% of teens did. That is a quarter of the national rate. That is a lot of suffering. When we looked more closely at that 15% of teens, we saw that, indeed, they were inured from the elevated rates of depression and substance abuse. Not only that, when we followed up with them at mean age 26, nearly 10 years later, they still had a strong, personal relationship with a higher power, and continued to be protected against use of more frightening drugs like Ritalin, and other very dangerous drugs. They also had become members of communities of contribution. They had joined faith communities or done some sort of humanitarian action, such as Habitat for Humanity. They were people of contribution and people of spiritual values.

There is something else we found in yet another study:[6] a sustained spiritual life over time makes us look different on the inside. In maps of brains of folks who have for a decade maintained a strong core and turned to God for guidance in times of difficulty, the occipital, parietal, and precuneus regions showed cortical thickness. The cortex, as you may know, is processing power. Thick cortex is associated with high IQ, thinning cortex with Alzheimer’s disease. This cortical thickness is in 85% overlap with those regions where other studies previously have shown cortical thinness in people with recurrent, severe depression. This article, which we published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2014, made the very strong case through three rounds of meticulous peer review that a strong spiritual life is neuroprotective against recurrent depression. Just to be clear, it is not that there are happy, spiritual people that never get depressed, and that depressives have lost their way. That is not the case. It is that the very same mechanism, held up through the very same biological substrate, through which we experience transcendence and love and the buoyancy of spiritual life, also is overlapping to a great extent with how we can feel emptiness and the void. In fact, subsequent work has shown that for over half the cases of depression, we are not always looking at pathology, but in fact, the knock at the door of depression is a spiritual opening, part of a spiritual deepening.

What is this spirituality? What does the one-third that is heritable—the one-third that every human being on earth has, with or without the embrace of a faith tradition—look like? We set to conducting a global study into the expression, what might be called the phenotype, of innate spirituality.[7] What we found in India, and in China, and in the United States, were five common expressions of natural spirituality, the first of which was an awareness of oneness and interconnectedness. Everywhere on earth, everyone understands our foundational interconnectedness, our foundational oneness, physically and at the level of consciousness or spirit, that we are all part of one life force. We understand this with or without the free expression of religion, as in China. In fact, in China, the rates on all five of these phenotypes were higher than in the United States. The second phenotype was love; love, not merely as an emotion like happiness, but like a force, an ontologically real force. The other phenotypes were a practice of transcendence, prayer, a mind-body practice, meditation; altruism, which you might consider perhaps prayer in action; a sacred and an examined life, often within a faith tradition, although not always, with limits and a binding moral code of who we are in relationship to ultimate reality. These five phenotypes are found around the world, but there is an interesting catch. In every other country where we have looked, the more educated we become, the more years of higher education, the more spiritually aware we become across all five phenotypes. But uniquely, in the United States over large samples of people, the more educated we become, the less spiritually attuned and aware we become. This is the cultural tidal wave of our time. So what does this mean for adolescence?

Individuation, as we know, is the “me and not me,” the testing and inquiring and questioning all that I have seen and all that I have learned against the knowing of my heart. It is the primacy of direct knowing. Through spiritual individuation, the spiritual core is formed, from which all other lines of development seem to flow. Life is different with and without a spiritual core: life as a soul on earth, as compared with life essentially as a bag of parts. I am good at football, I am good at math, but I am not good at English, and I am so-so at tennis: a bag of parts, verses someone: a being, made of life itself, a being of inherent worth. A being of inherent worth, a soul on earth, as a teen searches for meaning, for purpose, for calling. All of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff I have been given are endowments toward fulfilling my calling. The day that I get a C, that is just noise in the overall trajectory towards fulfilling my purpose. The day that I get a C when all I am is good at math is a crushing day.

It is not surprising, then, given the primacy of the spiritual path as opposed to being a bag of parts, that a strong spiritual core is associated with terrific character strengths and virtues. Daily spiritual experience for 84% of teens is predictive of all other character strengths and virtues.[8]They go hand in hand. We see that the child who has grit, optimism, and meaning is highly spiritually aware. The child with low grit, low optimism, and low meaning is not spiritually connected. There is an exception, but overall, the general rule is that a spiritual root in the core and character strengths and virtues go hand in hand. About 15% of teens and 20% of adults describe themselves as humanists. About one in five in our country are virtuous humanists. Getting back to our crisis in education, it is possible to envision a way of including everybody at the table and holding in an educational space a discussion of, “Who am I? What is my contribution in light of my relationship to ultimate reality?”[9] That includes the 80% for whom the character strengths and virtues are rooted in spiritual life, and the one in five who is a humanist. It is a way of moving into this cultural wave in an inclusive, open-armed format, and having a spiritually based discussion in publically funded places.

In the first decade, what do we see as the expression of natural spirituality?

A spiritual compass. Every single child knows right from wrong. It may be irresistible at any given moment. For instance, when the new baby came home, my beloved oldest child, Isaiah, was so excited. He bestowed great gifts upon the baby—his favorite blanket, his favorite foods, and his most cherished Thomas the Train. It wasn’t too long before I heard, “Mama,” and he was dangling Thomas the Train over the new baby. So he knew; his compass was intact. He was born with that compass and he had it. It was irresistible at that moment not to follow it.

Enthusiasm for prayer and ceremony. Every child loves prayer, loves ceremony, of all faith traditions. I met with a woman who taught Sufi prayer to children and she said, “Children, they are the best at it. They come right in and they start to sway and move,” which is so central to their prayer. Children love ceremony.

Relationships with all living beings. I wrote in The Spiritual Child about the time Isaiah was 18 months old and met baby geese. He was ecstatic and he ran up to the baby geese and they were still kind of yellow, which meant they were equivalent of 18 months. He was playing with them and with such joy and such enthusiasm that he had terrified mama goose and mama goose turned and she went, “hissss.” When she hissed, it was not at Isaiah. She had turned all that way to hiss at me, because I had violated the universal rule of parenting which is to watch my children to the safety of another, just like on the playground, we would hope that every child was watched and not hit our child, right? So this was an awareness on the part of the child that we are in relationship with all living beings. Geese, the family dog, and all other living beings are aware of this relationship. If you put a dog in an MRI, as was done at Emery, the dog has the same neural correlates of love as we do.

Family as a spiritual event, family as a spiritual absolute. The child will say, “Is everyone coming? Is Grandma going to be there? Will Daddy be back for this?” They feel the wholeness of family, the completeness of family. The child feels whole when we are whole.

Comfort in engaging life and death. The child, as we know, comfortably engages life and death. They want to know. In fact, studies have shown there are implicit spiritual cognition in children. Until socialized otherwise, a child sees into life and looks at us as having continuity of spirit after death. A child assumes continuity of spirit after death until socialized out of that. I will share with you this story. Again, it is an Isaiah story because as he is my oldest child, I was not yet exhausted when I raised him, so I have hundreds of stories about Isaiah. Isaiah was at the funeral of his great-grandpa, my husband’s grandfather: Pop Pop we called him. In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, you take a shovel of earth and you put it on the casket and it is a way of knowing through your very being that the person has passed. So little Isaiah took a garden spade and put earth on Pop Pop’s casket and he looked at me and he said, “The body goes back to the good earth, and the soul goes to God.” I said, “Yes, Isaiah,” and of course mirrored what he had said. A week later, we are outside in our backyard and he says, “Momma, momma, come here!” I race over and he says, “Look!” His eyes are sparkling, and there is a turkey carcass across our yard. “Momma, the body goes back to the good earth, and the soul goes to God.” He was sparkling and aware. The child is naturally capable and delighted in a very deep, moving, numinous way to know of life and death and continuity of spirit. Now, the decision to bring Isaiah that day was not the popular one. When we showed up, the eight other cousins had not come and I assume because they are a very loving family, it was for fear that it was traumatic to them. While every parent is an expert on their own child, there is a great capacity in childhood to embrace the truth of life and death and for that to be a spiritual awakening, a portal to a deeper spiritual knowing. In Isaiah’s moment, he was able to make a contribution to Pop Pop that was meaningful to him.

Spiritual agency. Children love generosity, right action, going to the homeless shelter, they leap around, they are so excited to bring clothes, to bring food.

Dreams and mystical experiences. Of course we know children have profound dreams and mystical experiences. I can tell you at APA, American Psychological Association, I have been pulled way, way, way over in the corner by senior colleagues who say, “I have to tell you a story. I had the most beautiful spiritual experience.” They will go on to tell me something that is such a beautiful gift, a very sacred experience, and then they will say, “I have never told anyone that story.” I will say, “When did it happen?” They will say, “30 years ago.” It is put in a back drawer of their mind, this beautiful experience, which is a portal, it is an opening of a door. When our children come to us with mystical experiences, I do not need to be a great expert. I can simply say, “Wow, that is so beautiful. That is such a blessing that is such a bright, loving gift. I bet that might really open up in your path in life.”

What can we do to support natural spirituality? First is having a sacred language. Second is a practice of direct connection shared with our children. “Would you like to finish my prayer? Do you want to sit by my side while I meditate or do some reading?” Third is transparency into our own spiritual life. “Mommy was really aggravated today and grumpy. I am sorry. I am really sorry and I am going to apologize to you and I also want to apologize to God because today was a gift and I feel that somehow I squandered it. Will you join me in renewing us?” So the utter openness of our own spiritual life, even in my foibles and in my struggles, that includes going back to the checkout counter if I have lost my cool and apologizing in front of my child, as awkward as it may be. The child remembers it forever, and when we share the first person of our spiritual life, they are riveted. They are absolutely riveted. My mother was very explicitly spiritual. She prayed out loud and sang prayers out loud. My father was a very contemplative, quiet person, who was less explicit about his spiritual life, but the week that his mother died, he shared with me a dream. I was only nine years old, and we sat down side by side and he said, “I had a dream of Grandma Ellie.” He said, “Grandma Ellie came to me and we were walking down the street.” It was Grand Avenue, in Des Moines, Iowa where he had grown up and they had walked so many times. He said, “Grandma, who wore beautiful clothes, and loved to dress up, was actually in a very plain, simple gray suit. I took it to mean, as we walked side by side, Grandma in this ordinary daily suit, that she was my mother and would continue to walk by my side. She would always be my mother.” He did not have a theological interpretation of that. He shared his experience, and it was full and it was generous, and I remember it to this day. I think that those are the jewels that we give our children: our own moving, personal spiritual experiences. Those are the moments where we pass the torch. Our embodied spiritual life, science says, is the inroad to the child’s spiritual development. A child who receives spirituality, not from a book in his or her twenties, but as a lived experience from a loving parent, a loving grandparent, takes that in, in the very deepest of ways. For instance, spirituality passed through one generation is 80% protective against depression in offspring. Spirituality passed through two generations, grandparent to parent to child, is 90% protective against depression in offspring.[10] There is an interweave of the deep, authentic love of the parent and grandparent and child with the sacred presence. In The Spiritual Child, I speak of that as the feel of love, the inextricable deep love of the family infused with the transcendent, ultimate love. That is the passing of the torch. That is the formation of spiritual life within the child.

Most of all important is our crisis of spiritual multilingualism in this country. Mahzarin Banaji and her team at Harvard has found that by the time a child is six, a child thinks their name for the higher power is more real than the name ascribed by a family down the street of another faith tradition.[11] By the time a child is six, he or she is more likely to share their peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a child who uses the same name for the higher power. So the opportunity to say, “Yes, in our family there is a rich embrace of our faith tradition. Still, in my spiritual heart, I can feel the universal spiritual truth in the words of the family down the way. I can hear in their language and in their symbol and tradition, not just that they do things differently, but I can hear through their words and feel through their words, the illumination of my own spiritual heart.” That is an understanding of multilingualism. We have a world at war. We have a world war, and we have a divided country. I think that spiritual multilingualism is a tremendous, probably the greatest, educational opportunity of our time.


[1] Thomas J. McMahon and Suniya S. Luthar, “Patterns and Correlates of Substance Use among Affluent, Suburban High School Students,” Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 35, no. 1 (2006): 72–89.
[2] Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 54–60.
[3] Ibid., 64–72.
[4] Ibid., 209.
[5] Samuel H. Barkin, Lisa Miller, and Suniya S. Luthar, “Filling the Void: Spiritual Development Among Adolescents of the Affluent,” Journal of Religion and Health 54, no. 3 (2015): 844–861.
[6] Lisa Miller et al., “Neuroanatomical Correlates of Religiosity and Spirituality: A Study in Adults at High and Low Familial Risk for Depression,” JAMA Psychiatry 71, no. 2 (2014): 128–35.
[7] Miller, The Spiritual Child, 60–64.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. 81-84.
[11] Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (New York: Delacorte Press, 2013).