Hardwired for Meaning

So what's the problem? A significant cause of this "crisis," the commission said, is that children and teens are experiencing "a lack of connectedness ... to other people, and [lack of] deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning."

Such connectedness is critical for developing children, because the report insisted that human beings, from their earliest years, are essentially "hardwired" to form close attachments to other people, beginning with parents, and then expanding to include a wider group of people as the child grows up.

Not surprisingly for Christians who believe that God has designed the human race for this sense of and need for community, the commission noted that this appears to be hardwired into the biology of personhood.

According to Shaw, however, kids are experiencing these connections less and less in modern America. He said, "I believe that the parenting trends that have evolved over the last 30 years promote the development of unattached, uncommunicative, learning-impaired, and uncontrollable children."

Calling these parenting trends "a prescription for disaster," Shaw said the lifestyle choices many parents have made have compromised children's "opportunity for the connections and rituals and nurturing that are so necessary to children's healthy development."

One of the biggest modern parenting mistakes, he said, is: "Not conveying to your child -- through both actions and words -- the moral, ethical, and spiritual values you believe in (or not having moral, ethical, and spiritual values in the first place)."

This means a growing moral vacuum in our kids that is eventually filled with the values implicit in the media and a consumerist culture. Even worse than a vacuum, however, is that Shaw said "our culture may well be breeding a generation of unattached, predatory children who are cognitively smart but lack the capacity to appreciate the feelings and positions of other people."

Morality was also one of the things emphasized by the commission's report. In fact, Hardwired stressed even more than morality -- it stressed religion. The commission said a significant body of scientific evidence is beginning to demonstrate that "we are hard-wired for meaning, born with a built-in capacity and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life's ultimate ends."

The report stated that the human brain appears to have a built-in capacity for religious experience. Using brain imaging, for example, scientists have discovered that such spiritual activities as prayer or meditation actually increase the activity in specific areas of the brain.

Many scientists still don't delve into those kinds of issues, but some are beginning to see the importance of religion. Psychologist Lisa Miller of Columbia University said, "A search for spiritual relationship with the Creator may be an inherent developmental process in adolescence."

While such science appears to be in the early stages, it does give some added weight to the theory that adolescents who are involved in religion are not simply responding to the way they were raised. As the commission put it: "[T]he need in young people to connect to ultimate meaning and to the transcendent is not merely the result of social conditioning, but is instead an intrinsic aspect of the human experience."

However, the importance of religion in the life of a young person seems to go beyond a mere quest for meaning. Hardwired also proposes that spiritual and religious beliefs strengthen young people and put them on a more positive path.

"Compared to their less religious peers, religious teenagers are safer drivers and are more likely to wear seatbelts. They are less likely to become either juvenile delinquents or adult criminals. They are less prone to substance abuse. In general, these young people are less likely to endorse engaging in high-risk conduct or to endorse the idea of enjoying danger," the report said.