“Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.” Those words, so familiar to my ears, bring to mind the wonderment of childhood, the magical time when the early question of “What is that?” slowly matures into the universal question, “Who am I?” This exploration of one’s self and one’s connection to the world is a hallmark of childhood development, and an important one that we must try to preserve in a world that is increasingly filled with fleeting moments of virtual connection.
Martin Luther King, Jr. described the two realms each of us inhabits as the internal and the external: “The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live.” The question for me is how do the internal and the external manifest in our own lives and in the lives of our children? And how do we honour and nurture a child’s internal realm in a world with growing external pressures?
This week, I reflected on the internal realm after reading a poem (ostensibly) written by a third-grade girl. I say ostensibly because in our virtual world of virally shared tweets, the origins of authorship are sometimes difficult to verify. But, regardless of the age of the author, the poem is beautiful in its transcendent perspective on a young girl’s construction of personal identity. It reads:
I am not sugar and spice and everything nice.
I am music, I am art, I am a story.
I am a church bell, gonging out wrongs and rights and normal nights.
I was a baby. I was a child. I will be a mother.
I don’t mind being considered beautiful. I do not allow that to be my definition.
I am a rich pie strong with knowledge. I will not be eaten.
I read this poem and marvelled at how skilfully and poignantly such a young girl accessed and expressed her internal realm. In creating this work of art, she put aside the external mechanics of a Grade 3 writing lesson, allowing instead her inner spirit to shine through.
As an educator and a parent, I have been privileged over the years to bear witness to such moments of extraordinary expression, when a child reveals wisdom and knowledge far beyond his or her years. I occasionally wonder, however, if such moments will become increasingly fewer and farther between as the anxiety-provoking pressure to succeed and our 24-hour connection to technology tightens its insidious grip on children’s wondering minds and spirits.
In the rush of modern day life, we seem to be increasingly required to focus on the external realm – the processes of performance, the mechanisms of success, the techniques that will guarantee advancement in a competitive society. We emphasize the external things in schools and in our homes because we don’t want our children to be left behind in a world that feels uncertain and increasingly unpredictable. We teach our children, test them, then test them again because we care about them and believe that honing their skills and building their knowledge base will ready them for life. But I wonder if in all our efforts to consolidate and strengthen their external realm, we fail to acknowledge and nurture the internal.
The inner life of a child is important. Born as innately spiritual beings, children come to view the world with wonder and awe. They ask questions that are profound in their simplicity. They search for answers with a curiosity born not out of a desire to be “right” but of a desire simply to know. For each child, the internal realm creates a sense of connection with their tiny but all-encompassing universe, and provides a reassuring order for them as their world expands with every passing year. An inner life that is nurtured over time builds a child’s resilience and mental health, and serves as a protective factor for years to come.
In her book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, author Dr. Lisa Miller explores the link between spirituality and children’s mental and physical health. In her work as Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University and as a clinician, Miller found that children whose spiritual life is nurtured are more resilient and less susceptible to difficulties later in life. According to Miller’s research, as these spiritually-connected children mature, they are 40% less likely to use and abuse substances, 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers, and 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex.
Such spirituality, according to Miller, can develop inside a family’s faith tradition, for example with God, Allah or HaShem, or outside a faith tradition through music, nature, mindfulness, or fostering a sense of connection to the universe. It is the strength and nurturing of this bond with something greater than oneself that offers children protection against a variety of life’s dangers.
I believe schools have a role to play in helping children make that connection to their inner realm. While ours is not a faith-based school, we nonetheless promote reflection, mindfulness, and strong connection with one another. We understand the need for children to feel safe in their world and strongly connected to a circle of care. Increasingly, we’re working to slow down parts of the day to allow for both joyful celebration and quiet contemplation. We believe that nurturing the inner realm of children will help them find that twinkling star that shines inside them.