Science and Spirituality – For Our Children

by Dr. Tamar Frankiel

Every once in a while, our deepest intuitions about things – intuitions we often doubt because they seem fragile in a materialistic world – actually get confirmed by science.

About a month ago, I was in Provo, Utah, with a couple of colleagues for an interfaith conference. By chance, at breakfast in the Faculty Guest House we met Dr. Lisa Miller, who was lecturing for a different group at BYU the same evening. Generously, she gave us copies of her new book, The Spiritual Child. I glanced at it on the flight home and thought, “Ah, a good parenting advice book – and some science too!” I made a mental note to check out the science later and also see if the book might be of interest to my children who are parents of young ones.

Last week, I got around to reading the scientific discussion and found a statement that totally astounded me. It had to do with relationships in which spirituality was shared between parent and child, and how those relationships protected children against depression. Here it is in her words, based on studies that began more than twenty years ago and continue today:

The joint effect of parenting and spirituality was the most profoundly protective factor in relation to depression ever to be found in the clinical sciences.

Read it again.

Spirituality shared between parent and child is protective against depression and, as she goes on to discuss, against substance abuse and risk-taking behaviors which destroy so many adolescent lives. One of the first studies she mentions concerned the likelihood of depression in the children of a depressed mother. If the child evidenced spiritual interests and behaviors, there was mild protection against depression; if the mother was spiritual, there was mild protection. But if they shared spirituality, the likelihood of depression in the child dropped by 80%.

This surprising result led Miller and others to more research, and the pattern persisted. Moreover, it became evident that the effect could be observed not only between mothers and children, but parents of both genders to children, and grandparents to grandchildren as well.

Spirituality, as she explains, included involvement in supportive religious community, but extended to parents and children whose spirituality was more unconventional or personal, such as a strong connection to nature, or an active love for people. The significant feature was that there was an explicit sharing – talking and doing things together that expressed the spiritual consciousness of the parent or grandparent, and demonstrating openness to the developing spiritual sensibility of the child.

We should have known, right? Why else does the Torah say four times, “When your child asks you,… tell her….” ?   Not just at the seder! When he wonders, “Where do puppies go when they die?” When she asks, “Why does grandma cry when she lights candles?”   And when they don’t know how to ask, we have to open the question for them. “I felt so happy in shul today, the singing was great. Was there anything you liked?”   “I had a weird dream last night. Do you have dreams?”

When we think about the future of the Jewish world, we often think of what “important” Jews are accomplishing, our celebrities and politicians and businessmen, or about how the world views Israel. But the long term future is really about our children’s sanity and resilience in a world we can’t imagine.   We worry about our kids, of course, but we are more likely to talk about transmission of trauma to future generations than the opposite: transmitting spirituality.

If you think you’re not religious or spiritual and can’t transmit any such thing, read Dr. Miller’s book. We can let our children in on our personal moments of radical amazement  We can make kiddush or havdalah with them, just because kids love ritual. We can enlarge what Miller calls “the field of love,” connecting to extended family or finding a warm, multigenerational religious community – especially if grandparents aren’t nearby. We can explore silence with them, sweet silence.

There’s a reason we say l’dor vador: not only to honor the ancestors, but to save the children. Thanks to Dr. Miller, her sensitive eye and ear, passionate scientific inquiry, and truly lovely book of guidance for parents and for everyone. Thank you for reminding us and offering new perspectives on ancient and profound realities.

Reference: Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Dr. Miller is director of the Clinical Psychology program at Columbia University Teacher’s College.

Tamar in office fall 2014Dr. Tamar Frankiel is Provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion California. She previously served as President of the school. 



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