The capacity to subscribe wholesale to the American dream is often thought to be exclusive to adults. We rarely stop to consider the effects of a performance-driven worldview on youth. Yet the insidious tendency to compare ourselves with others, self-identify with our careers and make self-worth contingent upon productivity is as threatening to children as it is to adults.
Lisa Miller, director of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, addressed this in a recent Time Magazine article, “Why Kids Who Believe in Something Are Happier and Healthier.” In the piece, she discusses that approximately 65% of teenagers struggle with depressive tendencies, substance abuse or severe anxiety. What is more, these numbers are often concentrated in middle-class and affluent families - spheres of life that we might expect to turn out happier children. In Miller’s research and in various scientific studies, it has been found that a performance-based framework for self-worth, catalyzed by and coupled with the narcissistic culture of consumerism, is directly correlated with social anxiety, dejection and general unhealthiness in children and teenagers.
Interestingly, Miller and other scientists have found what they consider to be a more fundamentally adequate predictor of happiness in children: spirituality. According to a new study produced by Columbia’s Journal of Religion and Health, belief in a higher power (by any name) and connection with the sacred world produce more happiness and health in adolescents. Miller says that the capacity for spirituality is inherent in the same way that the capacity for language or literacy is. When children are brought up encouraged to express spirituality and ask the big “why” questions, they are found to be more emotionally happy, physically healthy and interpersonally attuned.
Relief from anxiety, depression and self-loathing comes when our identity is found in the work of Christ.
I find this both fascinating and encouraging. I feel that Miller’s observation reveals two fundamental realities that are helpful for Christians to consider. First, the innate desire for spirituality affirms the doctrine of the imago dei and the desire for worship that grows from God’s image in us. By virtue of common grace in the world, when we subscribe to belief, even if that belief isn’t in Jesus, we experience the benefits outlined in Miller’s article. More, when we commit to a personal connection with the sacred world, we are positioning ourselves more properly toward that for which we were created.
However, the second reality that Miller’s article inadvertently discloses is that, although belief in a higher power benefits youth, the fundamental need for identity and purpose aren’t fully addressed. Miller touches on the fact that spirituality benefits children by relieving them of the achievement mentality. Yet I believe the need for identity is the root behind the struggles of self-worth. What our children need - more than a purpose that extends into some generic sacred space - is purpose rooted in the person of Christ.
The real relief from anxiety, depression and self-loathing comes when our identity is found in the work of Christ as perfect, comprehensive and performed on our behalf. There exists no release from achievement-driven living and the loss of hope that follows unless we understand that freedom from existential slavery is found in Christ’s living, dying and conquering death. He came to perform for us, precisely because we are incapable of the performance necessary to be accepted by a perfect God. When we - and our children - find the source of our worth and identity in Christ, the debilitating drive of the American dream becomes enveloped by the life-giving joy of being fully known and fully loved, even when we fail to perform.