What are your earliest transcendent memories as a child? For me, they were in the woods or on the trail at camp with my counselors and cabin group. Sitting around the campfire feeling the warmth of friendships and listening to the rhythm of the crickets and bull frogs. Gazing in awe on wondrous wilderness from a lofty mountain peak. These were deeply inspiring and spiritual moments for me as a child, and I have always believed that my leaders and role models at camp were instrumental in helping me discover and understand my own spirituality. Today, Pam and I look forward to hikes and campouts in the woods with our nine-year-old son, Daniel, in the hopes of providing him with similarly inspiring experiences, and we have made it a priority to offer Daniel residential and day camp experiences since he was six, knowing that camp would offer him similar opportunities.
Last month I attended a fascinating lecture on spirituality by Lisa Miller, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Miller has published a New York Times best-selling book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (2016), about the science and power of spirituality. Her talk was life and career affirming for me as a camp professional. She presented a summary of empirical research around innate spirituality and how it is essential to a child’s mental health and wellness, especially as it develops in the first two decades of life.
The science indicates that opportunities for spiritual growth through parents and mentors in inspirational settings, like camp, mitigate depression, substance abuse, addictive behaviors, and other health concerns. Research shows that spiritual awareness prepares teens and young adults for important inner work that fosters individuation, identity, resilience, character, meaningful work, and healthy relationships.
I found it fascinating to learn that we are biologically hardwired for spirituality at birth and that science has now documented how developmentally essential it is that parents, youth leaders, and other role models foster a child’s spiritual connections. At camp, campers look to their counselors for what Miller calls “the nod,” which acknowledges spirituality and encourages exploration. Research statistically demonstrates that “a spiritual caregiver alone or a spiritually oriented child alone shows only marginal protection against depression, but if the two shared being spiritually oriented and the spirituality was something that had been shared during childhood, then the research shows a protective effect that dramatically lowers the incidence of depression by 80 percent” (Miller, 2016). I am truly excited that science is catching up with what camp professionals have known for decades — shared experiences in nature during our formative years are life-transforming. Camp gives kids a world of good by providing many opportunities for relational spirituality through experiences of transcendence through relationships with one another, with nature, and within themselves.
The Spiritual Child is full of useful knowledge for parents and camp staff alike. Not surprisingly, in my follow-up conversations with Dr. Miller, I learned that she attended an ACA-accredited summer camp in Bemidji, Minnesota, for eight weeks every summer in her youth and is eager to expand her research around camp experiences and spirituality. I encourage you to read this book and share its findings with your camp staff this summer.
Miller, L. (2016). The spiritual child: The new science on parenting for health and lifelong thriving. New York, NY: Picador. p. 87.