“Have you ever had a spiritual moment?”
That was the simple question posed by Dr. Lisa Miller in a session with our Grade 5 and 6 girls. Dr. Miller is a Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University where she researches the relationship between children’s spirituality and mental health. She visited Trafalgar Castle last week to speak with students, faculty and parents.
The outpouring of stories from our youngest girls was humbling and moving. One by one, they shared sacred moments when they felt the presence of something greater than themselves. Often, they talked about the death of a pet or the passing of a grandparent as difficult times when they were comforted through prayer or reflection or a deep family connection. They described moments when they felt joy and awe upon holding a newborn for the first time or staring up at a star-filled night sky. What impressed me most was how intuitively these young girls knew what Dr. Miller was asking them, and how readily and openly they accessed and shared these memories and emotions. It was as if the quiet time and safe space we provided allowed an untapped spiritual spring to bubble to the surface. And in doing so, I believe our girls felt truly heard and connected to one another through a shared experience.
In her book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, Dr. Miller defines spirituality as, “… an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding. The word we give to this higher power might be God, nature, spirit, the universe, the creator, or other words that represent a divine presence. But the important point is that spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with the higher presence (p. 5).”
I wrote previously about Dr. Miller’s research showing that spiritually connected children were 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. This week, Dr. Miller shared with us additional research about students in highly resourced (i.e., affluent) communities.
Research on adolescents from upper-middle class families highlights elevated levels of anxiety, depression and substance use amongst these supposedly “low risk” affluent teens as compared to student populations typically considered at “high risk” because of socio-economic disadvantage. In trying to understand this phenomenon of privilege appearing alongside poorer mental health outcomes, styles of parenting were correlated with adolescent behaviours and beliefs. Researchers found that many parents of these affluent teens tended to place a high emphasis on their child’s achievement – the importance of winning on the sports field, earning top grades on AP exams, gaining entrance into the most prestigious university. These were not uncaring or irresponsible parents. They were well meaning and loving, and believed they were truly supporting their child’s aspirations. But through their actions and achievement-focused attention, they unknowingly and unintentionally conveyed to their child what Dr. Miller refers to as “contingent love” — a love that is perceived by the child as dependent upon how well she performs and how much she achieves. As a result, the child begins to derive her self-worth not from an internalized belief in her innate value as a human being, but from the sum of her achievements. A child who believes her value is determined by math test scores has a very different psychological response to temporary setback and failure than a child who believes that her high value as an individual is assured even if her mark on the math test is low.
How does spirituality factor into this? Dr. Miller reminds us that sadness and depression are normal in adolescence. Adolescents undertake a developmentally programmed existential quest that leads them on a journey of exceptional highs and sometimes frightening lows. Teens with a relationship to spirituality, however, are better equipped for that journey and, therefore, less likely to experience recurrent depression. They tend to be more resilient and more able to emerge from a depressive incident with greater strength and clarity, and better able to develop the tools necessary to ward off future bouts of depression.
I was recently asked why Trafalgar Castle, as a non-religious school, is focusing on spirituality. It’s a fair question, and one I’m happy to answer. As an educator, I am increasingly concerned about the struggle so many of our children and adolescents are having with mental health. It’s not enough, in my opinion, for schools to put supports in place. Supports are necessary but far too often reactive rather than proactive. I want us to do better than that.
I believe it’s incumbent upon our school to research proactive strategies that will address the increasing emotional and social needs of children and teens in a society that continues to rapidly change. As educators, we need to find ways to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of pressures and stressors that we know our students will experience. Strengthening our school community’s love and care for our girls seems like a good place to start, and we believe that acknowledging the spiritual is a big part of that. The research also bears this out.
There is no faith-based approach to spirituality in our day-to-day, although we respect and honour the many faiths celebrated within our community. Yet we acknowledge each child’s need for a deep and meaningful connection to life, and endeavour to help them find meaning and reassurance in our communal experience. We do this every day through many small acts – through mindfulness and moments of reflection, by saying grace before our shared meal, by sharing stories in Chapel, and most certainly through laughter and joy. We encourage our students to recognize the beauty of nature, to marvel at the science of the universe, and to experience the joy found in music and art.
Last week, as the Grade 5 and 6 girls walked back to class after their time with Dr. Miller, one girl turned to her teacher and said, “I’ve never felt that part of my heart before. It felt wonderful.” I think that simple comment alone is reason enough to honour the spirituality of every child in our community. Ciciolla, L. Curlee, A.S., Karageorge, J. Luthar, S.S. (20017). When Mothers and Fathers Are Seen as Disproportionately Valuing Achievements: Implications for Adjustment Among Upper Middle Class Youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. May;46(5):1057-1075.