Back when I worked for the Department of Human Services, I was part of an early intervention team focusing on mental health and young children. We helped families sort through resources and develop plans for issues ranging from the stress that comes when a sibling is born to situations of trauma. The beauty of the approach was that it was interdisciplinary. We had therapists, counselors, doctors, social workers and physical therapists on the team. Thanks to this network, we were able to tap into a wealth of experience and resources for families. It was fullfilling work and a pioneering approach and yet, I often felt like we were missing something. While we were addressing physical, mental and emotional needs, we weren’t addressing the spirit.
Generally speaking, spirituality is perceived as “less real” than other human needs. Freud, for example, said that God was an illusion and that as people became more “psychologically mature” they would set aside their infantile faith in favor of reason and science. Whatever we might now think of Freudian psychology, he eloquently summed up a cultural view that pits science and spirituality against each other. While people aren’t always this extreme in their view of spirituality as a “real” thing, they’re often not much more complimentary, either. At best, spirituality is often viewed as a neutral element in a person’s life. It’s nice if it’s your thing, but not necessarily a benefit to overall health and wellness.
In more recent years, this mindset has began to shift. Researchers in the fields of psychology, education and health are investigating and taking seriously the benefits of spirituality. In America, this originally got a lot of momentum with the mindfulness movement but it’s exploded over the past few years as people have documented that various benefits of the spiritual life. Take these statistics from Dr. Lisa Miller, a psychologist and researcher whose book Spirituality and the Child curates her research as well as that of other medical professors and makes a compelling case for the importance of developing a spiritual life:
Drawing on a wealth of studies over the past 20 years, Dr. Lisa Miller says that spirituality “has a clear impact on our mental health and thriving…[it’s] associate with signifigantly lower rates of depression, substance use and abuse and risk taking…No other preventative factor known to science and medicine has such a broad reaching and powerful influence on the daily decisions that make or break health and wellness.” (I’ve cited Dr. Miller’s work before because her book is groundbreaking. She’s the only one doing research on spirituality and well-being but she does the best job of compiling and interpreting research data for those of us who love hard research and don’t have all day to sort through it.)
Although Miller’s work stresses the importance of spirituality for children and teens, it seems pretty clear that people’s spiritual lives change over time. James Fowler documented this well in his book Stages of Faith, which has long been the go-to book on the subject. However, in my work I’m particularly interested in how people of different ages support and aid one another’s spiritual journeys. For example, many teachers find great spiritual meaning in their work and report learning a great deal from children. (One reason I’m convinced that adults need to spend as much time as possible with the children, in relationships were the wisdom flows both ways.) Parenting, too, is often an amazing spiritual journey–which is why Christian tradition uses parent language so often as a descriptor for God.
At home, then, it’s particularly important that we find the spiritual practices that work for us and our families, whatever shape they take. The good news is that nearly anything can be adapted into a spiritual practice if we make the time and intention to do so.
So if you’re playing along at home, I’d invite you to think about what already has meaning in your life. What is it that you do that you find refreshing at the soul level? How can that be tweaked to be spiritually meaningful?
Here’s an example:
In my family, one tradition we developed is “family reading time,” which means that about an forty-five minutes before bedtime, my husband, daughter and the cats all pile onto a bed to read and unwind. This started several years ago, in the middle of winter when the days were short and we parents were exhausted from work and parenting and being cooped up. Inevitably, we’d look at the clock at 7:00 p.m. and wonder how on earth we were ever going to make it through the next hour before we could put the kiddo to bed and finally relax a bit. Luckily, our daughter loves to read so we the solution was obvious–we’d all just take our books for some quiet reading and cuddle time. It’s been a few years since we first started this practice and the purpose for it has changed. We no longer get to the end of the day and wonder how we’re going to make it through the next hour. Instead, we often get to the end of the day and realize we have way too much to do and we barely saw each other all day. Now, family reading time serves the purpose of bringing us together and provides the space we need to talk and share.
By itself, this practice is a lovely family rhythm and its important all on it’s own. However, in the interest of bringing more spiritual intention into our lives, we’ve tweaked this time in several ways. For example, it’s often the time when we practice meditation or centering prayer as a family. We’ve also used it as a time to explore sacred reading, a practice I invented/borrowed/modified from Faith Five. And sometimes we still just read together, which brings valuable connection time and the space to practice being unhurried, one of the hardest spiritual skills.
The point is, start where you are, whether you’re beginning your own spiritual practice, looking to deepen practices you already have or trying to figure out how to raise children to be spiritual. I know from experience that it is unsustainable to try to institute a completely new practice and expect it to be perfect from day one.
Looking forward to hearing more about what rituals and rhythms you’re tweaking in your life–and what meaningful practices you already have!