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THE SPIRITUAL CHILD: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving by Lisa Miller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Hardcover, 374 pages, $32.50 (Cdn). Reviewed by Edwin Buettner.

Most books on spirituality are premised on the assumption that the spiritual journey begins after childhood and adolescence. In this groundbreaking book, Dr. Lisa Miller, professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, presents scientific evidence that spirituality is a universal natural endowment, biologically “hardwired” from birth. The author defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding.” The “higher power” is often referred to as “God,” though other words may be used to designate the divine presence (nature, spirit, universe, creator, etc.). Though it can and often does develop within the beliefs and practices offered by organized religion, adherence to any religion is not necessary for the child’s spiritual growth and development.

This book provides the reader with an in-depth integration of science and what is commonly understood as “faith.” Furthermore, it is expressive of Miller’s personal experiences as a parent seeking to nurture her children’s spiritual growth. As such, the book is replete with many day-to-day practical applications that support children’s emerging spirituality. For example, Miller discusses ways in which the child’s inborn generosity can be nurtured by simple gestures such as helping to deliver a food hamper to a homeless shelter. The child’s natural desire for prayer can be encouraged by giving him/her words to express appreciation for blessings within the context of a “larger world” or “loving world.”

Miller has identified what she calls a set of “natural spiritual qualities.” These include: a positive disposition toward prayer and ritual, intuitive abilities (“heart knowing”), empathy, a sense of “oneness with others,” “right action” (e.g. be helpful, share) and an “innate sense of the specialness of family.” Not surprisingly, Miller believes that parents serve a major role in actualizing these capacities, describing it as “providing a spiritual road map for living, along with a spiritual compass for doing the right thing.”

Given its well-known turbulent qualities, the time of adolescence is not typically regarded as prime time for spirituality. Yet Miller devotes much of her book to making the case that adolescence is actually a critical phase in setting a person’s spiritual path into adulthood. The stresses of this time of life (for both children and their caregivers) need to be understood as indicative of a profound spiritual struggle, what Miller refers to as “spiritual individuation.” Adolescents are “seek (ing) to find a deep sense of calling, to discover how to deploy their talents for a greater good and . . . (to) see their gifts as indication of an assignment for a higher purpose or from a higher power.”

Parents and religious educators will find affirmation, encouragement, as well as challenges within the pages of this book. However, it also has the potential of validating and/or awakening anyone’s spiritual quest: “We can let our children . . . change us by reminding us of who we really are.” A scriptural reference comes to mind: “unless you become like little children . . .” (Mt 18:3).