Childhood can bring a bounty of awe—the emotion triggered by mysterious experiences of things or ideas that we’ve never encountered before. For example, our children can feel awe looking up at a dark night sky that’s filled with more stars than they’ve ever imagined. Beyond the universe and nature, the arts, music, architecture, and other people can elicit awe in children and make them feel small in the vastness of expanded awareness.
But childhood opportunities to experience awe might be decreasing in our modern world. “One of the most alarming trends in the lives of children today is the disappearance of awe,” says GGSC founding director Dacher Keltner, a renowned scholar of awe and author of the recent book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. He explains:
Art and music classes do not make the school budget. The free-form play of recess and lunchtime is being replaced with drills to boost scores on tests that have only modest relation to how well kids do in school. Teachers must teach to those tests rather than engage students in open-ended questioning and discovery, where the unknown is the centerpiece of the lesson. Every minute is scheduled. And the natural world children are experiencing is undergoing mass extinctions. It’s no wonder that stress, anxiety, depression, shame, eating disorders, and self-harm are on the rise for young people. They are awe-deprived.
As parents, it’s deeply moving to witness our children’s experience of awe—their breaths taken away, speechless apart from saying “Wow!”—because we see how it enriches their individual lives. But research also suggests that awe is important for nurturing well-being beyond our individual lives—it can spark our children’s capacity to care for others.
Awe makes kids kinder
A recent study by researchers Eftychia Stamkou, Keltner, and their colleagues invited children between eight and 13 years old (mostly Dutch) to watch different videos.
In the awe group, children watched a clip from the movie Song of the Sea that features a child transforming into a seal and flying over a city. In the joy group, children watched a clip from the movie Fantasia that shows friends celebrating. In the neutral group, children watched an instructional video of a mundane activity.
Researchers measured children’s kindness toward refugee families by inviting children to support their food drive by spending as much time as they wanted on tallying donated items, to make sure refugees got access to the donated food as quickly as possible. They also invited children to donate the reward they earned from participating in the research (e.g., a snack or a museum ticket) to a refugee family.
Using electrocardiography (ECG), researchers captured the patterns of children’s heart rate multiple times throughout the study to measure the activity of children’s parasympathetic nervous system, a biomarker of calm social engagement.
The results? Children who watched the awe-inspiring video spent more time counting food donations and donated their rewards to refugee families more often compared to the children who watched the joy-inspiring and neutral videos. What’s more, researchers found that the children who experienced awe had greater parasympathetic nervous system activity compared to children who experienced joy.
“Although children from an early age are more likely to help in-group than out-group members, our findings show that awe can open them up to helping members of a national minority,” explain Stamkou and her colleagues. These findings highlight that awe-inspiring art can spur children to be compassionate toward people who have been forcibly displaced from their countries of origin—an experience of far too many.
How to cultivate awe in kids
Children can experience awe in many ways, including (as in this recent study) in the visual art of spectacular animated movies. As parents, we can also seek out everyday experiences of awe in our communities to share with our children, like murals on cityscapes or folk art. Awe can be inspired by music, like the harmonious sounds of an acoustic guitar or the pulsating beat of a drum. Awe-inducing architecture, like houses of worship, symphony halls, museums, or even features like staircases, can be a way to experience awe with our children.
In his book, Keltner also shares the insights of Rachel Carson, marine biologist and conservationist, on the importance of nature and awe for children. In her seminal 1956 essay “Help Your Child to Wonder,” Carson assuages parents’ fears and expectations that they need to be naturalists with a trove of nature stories and expertise before they can guide their children to feel a sense of awe in nature. She reassures us that what our children need from us is merely a receptivity to using our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch—to help them explore nature.
Inspired by Carson, Keltner suggests these everyday ways to help our children find awe in nature:
- Release yourself and your child from the pressure of hurrying up. Slowly look and listen to nature that is above, below, and around you—the mix of colors of clouds at sunset, the shapes of shells and rocks on a beach, the buzzing of bees and chirping of crickets.
- Be open and invite your child to be open to the measureless quality of nature. For example, Keltner suggests tracing nature sounds to their source, like the clicks of a hummingbird, or following the path of a radiating sunbeam that streams through gaps in clouds.
- Be wary of the impulse to constrain your experience to simply naming or grouping nature like a taxonomist. “Approach the natural world (and life) with this question: ‘What if I had never seen this before?,’” recommends Keltner.
- Let a sense of mystery lead you and your child to see interconnectedness and patterns within nature. For example, consider the metamorphosis of a monarch butterfly laying an egg on a leaf, hatching into a caterpillar and eating the leaf, becoming a chrysalis attached to a branch, and emerging as another monarch butterfly and embarking upon a wondrous migration across a continent.
“Childhoods rich with awe are good for the child,” explains Keltner.