How mums set children’s spiritual compass and why it matters

Religious identity used to be “inherited.” “Cradle Catholic” is shorthand for born into the faith; within Judaism, the faith is passed through a Jewish mother to her children unless they grow up to proclaim a different religion.

But children don’t just inherit parents’ spirituality, says psychologist Lisa Miller in her new book, “The Spiritual Child.”

She writes that the essential sense of a transcendent power in the world — one that will love, guide and accept them and wrap them in a protective layer of self-worth -– has to be nurtured.

And for that, call (and thank) your mom or grandmom.

Miller, professor and director of clinical psychology at the Teachers College of Columbia University, scrupulously uses the neutral reference to “parents” throughout “The Spiritual Child.”

But sorry, fellas, her research and narrative examples are replete with women in a book released just in time for Mother’s Day.

“Science shows women are central to the spiritual development of children and that their sense of connection to a God or higher power is the cornerstone of psychological thriving and resilience across their life span,” Miller said in an interview.

“Children get plenty of good things from dad, but it’s the mother whose spiritual practices and observances really impact both daughters and sons, particularly daughters,” she said.

Miller’s studies found children with a spiritual connection at a young age were “90 percent less likely to be depressed” as teens or young adults.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a forced march to a house of worship — which can be a complicated command for many interfaith couples who often compromise by making no religious choice at all.

Miller sees no advantages in organized, branded religions — particularly ones that minimize women’s roles, which her research showed “gave no benefit” to women’s spiritual and psychological well-being.

The key is to “figure out how you pray,” said Miller, with an emphasis on the personal.

“It’s less important which religious tradition you observe if your children hear you speak authentically about spirituality and your own relationship to the creator and you let them know the spiritual life is as real as the earth under our feet: We stand on it and we count on it,” said Miller.

Miller, 48, who is Jewish, said she grew up in the Midwest in a community where, she said, “spirituality was in the water. We knew we were born spiritual. It was based on love and on relationships.”

Even mothers whose religious lives were damaged by “bad messengers” can honor their children’s inborn curiosity and let them have their own spiritual pilgrimage, Miller said. Continue reading

 Lisa Miller is the director of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of “The Spiritual Child.” 

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