Developing Spirituality in Children

By Rich Wilson

Developing children academically without developing them spirituality is a crime against nature. Children are born with an inclination toward the spiritual – an instinct about a guiding life force. However, if that inclination is not developed, the instinct withers when the child is confronted with the secular world.

One of the most profound books I have read about spirituality in children is Lisa Miller’s “The Spiritual Child.” I recommend it highly and will share some of her insights. She defines spirituality as an “inner sense of a living relationship with a higher power.”

Early in our country’s history, religion was “woven into the fabric of the country.” However, in the last 50 years, that spiritual structure has broken down. Spiritual teaching of children has declined and secular matters have crowded out practice of the faith.

While my spiritual life gives me peace, I never thought about it in terms of providing me a competitive advantage, but Ms. Miller makes the case that developing children spiritually gives them a competitive advantage in life. Children with a strong spiritual core:

  • Experience less depression, less substance abuse and fewer addictive behaviors.
  • Have a stronger self identity; their sense of worth goes beyond their academic and athletic achievements.
  • Have more emotional resilience because they are more reflective.
  • Live life with a greater sense of purpose and greater joy. Life has meaning beyond the acquisition of material things.
  • Are able to show greater emotional intimacy with others who are close to them.

Ms. Miller asserts that a “spiritual road map forms in the first decade of life…. Small children’s concept of God stems from how they are parented. The unconditional love of a child transfers to God’s unconditional love for us…. A newborn child is a spiritual soul. Our job as parents is to protect and nurture that soul.”

The attachment between parent and child develops the child’s natural capacity for compassion. Ms. Miller notes that children look for a spiritual parent in a relative or others if they don’t find it in their biological parents. Hence, the role of the parent is a sacred one.

The religious program in our Lower and Middle Schools focuses on ritual and prayer which have a strong appeal to children in this age range. Our emphasis on community, family and friendships cultivates the child’s spiritual sense. 

We are finding that the introduction of mindfulness in these children dovetails smoothly with their religious training. Mindfulness and prayer relieve anxiety and focus attention. Calmer children are happier children. Dr. Maria Montessori was adamant that the classroom be a place of calm and order. In a world where messaging is incessant, children need an escape, silence and reflection.

In the second decade of a child’s life, “spiritualism surges” as physical and cognitive growth surges in adolescence. “The surge of hormones ignites a search for meaning and purpose,” Ms. Miller says. “The habits we start in adolescence continue into adulthood.” She notes the teenage years are when children “build their spiritual house where they will live as adults. Without that, the house is colder and darker.”

In the turbulent teenage years, adolescents are looking for a state of calm, bonding and transcendence. Ms. Miller notes that the “genetic expression of spirituality surges during adolescence.” Without spiritual training, children may turn to drugs and alcohol in this pursuit. The effect is fleeting. Disappointment follows. She quotes from a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology that showed "children with a strong personal relationship with a higher power are 70-80 percent less likely to engage in heavy substance abuse." 

Developing a relationship with a higher power leads to closer human relationships. Humans are built to live in community. We look to hire teachers and coaches who have a steadfast interest and love for children and seek to create space where spirituality and bonds of community may form. We preach acceptance and inclusion rather than judgment. Everyone is worthy. "Narcissism and cynicism obstruct relationships," Ms. Miller points out. She goes on to cite studies showing cynical people having a higher likelihood of developing dementia and a higher rate of coronary heart disease. 

We seek to teach our students to listen to their inner voice not the voice of the group. Their time at The Summit is about connecting their brain with their heart. "The moral compass is built on the spiritual compass which finds direction from a higher self, guided by a transcendent relationship," Ms. Miller says. We need to help children find their own true north. Many schools produce students who are polished on the outside, but empty on the inside. 

"The more we can help the child develop a transcendent relationship, the more resilient, emotionally and physically they will become," Ms. Miller concludes. "With spiritual awareness the child believes, 'my life has value."' 

Children who attend our school are part of The Summit spiritual family. We are not related by blood, but by The Summit Way – a spiritual way that helps us live an inspired life and sets us apart from others. 

Reprinted from the Fall 2018 issue of The Summit magazine. Read more about how we teach faith formation in the magazine.