Review of The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller, a game-changer
By David Cregg
May 26th, 2015
Dr. Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is not your typical Ivy-League academic. Sure, she has all the credentials of an eminent scientist: B.A. from Yale, PhD from the University of Pennsylvania under Martin Seligman, publications in top academic journals such as JAMA-Psychiatry and American Journal of Psychiatry, as well as numerous national television appearances on programs such as The Today Show and CNN. Yet there is something very unique about Dr. Miller: she has built a career on researching and disseminating information on the elusive yet crucially important subject of spirituality.
When Miller first began her work 15 years ago, there was little scientific information linking spirituality and health. Amid this scarcity of data and a culture of enormous skepticism, Dr. Miller braved the rejections, offended individuals walking out on her talks, and slammed doors during Grand Rounds medical presentations, in order to pursue an intuition that science had something fascinating to discover about spirituality’s role in health. Indeed, with the combined efforts of Dr. Miller and a few other maverick scholars throughout the country, spirituality and health is now a thriving field of academic inquiry. Contributions from psychology, sociology, genetics, and neuroscience have established the central theme of Lisa Miller’s latest book, The Spiritual Child: human development naturally includes a transcendent component, and when this natural spiritual capacity is fostered in children, it is the most robust factor currently known to science to stimulate flourishing and prevent mental illness. While this fact is increasingly gaining recognition in academia, there has been little effort to translate the research into the mainstream. Dr. Miller’s excellent book represents a culmination of nearly two decades of findings on spirituality, now presented in an accessible format for the public. Parents wondering how to sow the beneficial seeds of spirituality in children will find this book particularly compelling. In honor of Dr. Miller visiting Houston this Friday for our 60th anniversary lecture, I decided to read and review The Spiritual Child. I’m glad I did.
The Spiritual Child is organized in two parts. The first part focuses on the emergence of spirituality in childhood and the various ways parents may encourage this aspect of their children’s development. Dr. Miller begins by stating a working definition of spirituality: “an inner sense of living relationship to a higher power,” which may variously be conceived of as God, nature, spirit, the universe – whatever provides a sense of something outer and greater than the self. In providing such a definition, Miller conveys her inclusive sense of spirituality as something that is found both within and outside of religious traditions. She then lays out a persuasive framework for her argument that spirituality is a natural capacity in children, one that is strengthened many times by parental involvement. She cites several sources in support of this “natural spirituality” concept. One is the twin studies of epidemiologist Kenneth Kendler, who demonstrated that personal spiritual devotion (tendency for inner engagement with a higher power or spiritual practices) was largely genetically influenced, whereas adherence to any one particular religious tradition has little genetic contribution. Furthermore, a strong personal spiritual devotion was associated with higher optimism, education and income, and less neuroticism. She also references the work of psychiatrist Robert Cloninger, which demonstrates the existence of biological markers for a sense of transcendence. Taken together with these and other studies, Miller argues that spirituality is a biologically endowed capacity universal to human beings, one that if attended to will encourage flourishing.
Miller next highlights the vital role that family and other integral figures play in fostering a child’s spiritual development. She tells a moving personal anecdote of her first breakthrough in research. She was stumped trying to discern what protects genetically pre-disposed individuals from depression. Her answer came while riding the subway on a Sunday morning. Miller observed a disheveled, exasperated man desperate for attention and human connection yelling to the passengers that he would like to share some of his fried chicken with them. The passengers, uncomfortable with the scene, uniformly moved away and ignored him. However, the scene changed when a grandmother and granddaughter boarded the train, pristinely dressed in their Sunday best. When the man asked if they would like to sit next to him, they looked at each other, nodded, and without hesitation quietly took seats next to him. The man was shocked, along with the rest of the bus, and was greatly calmed and reassured that these two people did not treat him as if he were invisible. It was as if the grandmother exchanged a sense of spiritual purpose with her granddaughter through the unspoken nod. Inspired by the situation, Dr. Miller rushed to her lab and ran an equation testing the effect of “the nod,” a sense of shared spirituality and/or religion between mother and offspring. The result was the most protective factor against depression known at the time. Among families at high-risk for depression, a spiritually oriented mother or child alone only marginally protected them. However, when both the parent and child shared the same sense of spirituality, there was an 80% reduction in risk of depression. Miller takes this astounding discovery and expands its chief implication throughout the first part of the book: laying the groundwork for your child’s spirituality is vital for his or her lifelong well-being.
The second part of the book, Adolescence and Beyond, details the power of spirituality in helping teens – and parents – navigate the often stormy waters of adolescence. Miller shares snapshots of teens’ rapidly expanding views of the universe and their place within it, a process she terms individuation. Her anecdotes reveal adolescence as a quest for a calling and purpose in life, establishing autonomy and a sense of individual identity, all while trying to balance the stresses of school, sports, deep relationships, and sometimes family conflict. She supplements these portraits with nuggets of research that help us understand adolescent development, such as their rapid increase in both white and gray brain matter and heightened neural conductivity. All these changes, Miller argues, can open the path for a deepened spirituality. However, adolescence brings with it a host of risks as well: the incidence of substance abuse, depression, impulsive and risky behavior is all heightened among teens. In what I think is one of the most significant contributions of Miller’s book, she calls for society to reframe its view of these adolescent travails as spiritual problems, not merely as pathologies solely in need of medical treatment. Substance abuse and impulsive behavior are a teen’s desperate substitute for the natural highs of transcendent experience. And developmental depression, she argues, is often a natural way-station that comes with asking the troubling existential questions that may ultimately lead to a richer life. Miller gives the example of a young, intellectually driven college sophomore majoring in philosophy. After reading works from Plato, Nietzsche, and other timeless philosophers and theologians, she asked herself the question “What is the point of it all?” This existential anxiety initially led her to slump into a nihilistic despair, which earned her a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and months of psychotherapy combined with antidepressant medication. Yet it was not these treatments that led to her recovery – while walking along an ocean, she saw a light sparkling on the water, causing her to exclaim “Suddenly it all became clear to me. Of course there is the creator, and the world is bright and full of love – there is spirituality in everything!” It was the resolution from a long period of doubt and questioning. Her depression was the vehicle through which she arrived into the rich waters of the spiritual life.
Miller weaves such poignant anecdotes throughout the book, including many from her own experiences as a parent and clinician. One of the most impressive qualities of The Spiritual Child is its ability to speak to a wide audience. She seamlessly weaves empirical research into personal narrative, drawing from diverse sources from Buddhists and Christians to those who do not identify with any religion. She knows her audience and the sensitivity of the subject matter very well, and is equally capable of showing deference to the religious and non-religious, scientist and non-scientist, parent and non-parent alike. There is really something for everyone to appreciate in this work. These are exciting times for the field of spirituality and health. I expect this book will establish itself as a paradigm-shifter in American culture; only released 3 weeks ago, it has already earned top spots on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and bestseller lists on USA Today and Publishers Weekly. I could not be more excited for ISH to host Dr. Lisa Miller at the Wainerdi Wellness Institute this Friday, May 29th. Be sure to RSVP at the link below for this free presentation you will not want to miss!
David Cregg is the research and congregational outreach coordinator for ISH. He is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, where he studied psychology with minors in philosophy and religious studies.