Homo sapiens is the only species that can really use language. Some apes have learned to do a little signing, but we are the only ones that can create complex sentences that convey complex ideas. Our brains are wired to learn a language at a very young age, and if that opportunity is squandered, it becomes infinitely more difficult to learn to speak. There are terrible stories about children locked in closets for years who can only babble and shriek. If they don’t hear the spoken word at the right time of their lives, it’s a lot harder to acquire a linguistic ability.
We are also the only species that has a spiritual sense, and there may be a window of opportunity to develop it as well. Columbia University Professor of Psychology Lisa Miller points out in her book The Spiritual Child that these days, although an increasing number of parents are identifying as being “spiritual” as opposed to “religious,” many are clueless when it comes to helping their children develop spiritually. Within a religious tradition their job seems easier: send them to Sunday School, or teach them a catechism, practice rote prayers that have all the stultifying effect of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Maybe they’ll say a prayer of their own now and then.
Miller argues that spirituality is a dimension of our humanity that, if absent, opens the road to problems. She cites studies that show that developing a spiritual sense helps young people avoid depression, addictions, and other pathologies that prey on this generation of children. Her book is chock full of advice for parents on how to foster that spiritual life that seems so important to well-being. All of us can get on the path to transcendence, with a little help from our parents.
This is the point my book also makes. OK, so you’re spiritual, not religious, but what are you going to tell your child about death, right and wrong, and living together peacefully in a world that has gotten smaller and smaller? We all need some guidelines for living, and most of us can sense that there is something beyond the mere desire to eat, drink, and be merry. There has to be a moral code of some kind that we all live by and that is part of what defines the Spirit. For the freethinkers out there, it doesn’t have to be a deity in the traditional sense, a Creator-Father, someone to talk to and seek answers from. By simply seeking the answers to these spiritual questions and opening yourself to the wonder of it all you are partaking of the Spirit.
If we want to save the world, we have to start with our children, and with the allure of the screens pulling at them minute by minute. Unless parents take the time to teach spiritual intelligence, to wonder at beauty and ponder the mysteries of life, future generations will enter adulthood as disadvantaged as someone who never learned to speak.