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Nurturing Awe in Kids

What do we really want for our kids? A sense of awe is a good place to start.

Like many, I consider the most important role in my life to be that of a parent. Although my 11-year-old and 9-year-old mostly are wonderful young ladies, I often struggle. Once in a while, I feel like I’m a good parent. More often than not, I feel completely inadequate.

From time to time, I reflect on the difference between those times when I feel like I’m being a good parent and when I’m not. There are many factors that seem to matter. One that especially stands out has to do with whether I am connected with what I really want for my kids for the long-term. When I am connected with what I want in this way, my parenting seems to be much more helpful and consistent.

I believe that many parents, myself included, would do well to regularly reflect on the question of what they really want for their kids. (Please consider commenting below with your ideas about what you want for your kids.) Among other things, I want my kids to be healthy, mindful, curious, grateful, and hopeful. Maybe most importantly, I want my kids to be “in awe,” the main reason being that research suggests that awe may be a causal factor in promoting many positive outcomes along these lines. (Read more about the effects of awe in everyday life.) This seems to be done less and less encouraged among parents. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "we teach the children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to wonder and awe."

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There seem to be three general strategies for promoting awe in kids.

First, adults can notice times when children experience awe. Hints might be they say they have “goosebumps.” They might be transfixed by something “great.” Perhaps you notice that their eyebrows are raised and their mouths are slightly open as they try to mentally “take in” something vast. Maybe they talk about their struggle to figure out how something new squares with what they previously thought.

For instance, I remember when my kids were younger, maybe 6 and 4. We were driving to our local hardware store during a rainstorm when, lo and behold, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and there was the most amazing double-rainbow I have ever seen. I heard one of my kids declare “Wow! Look at that! Why are there two rainbows?” I pulled my car off to the side of the road to take a closer look. With considerable enthusiasm, I tried to reflect my daugher’s excitement by expressing that “this is awesome!”

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A second general approach to nurturing kids’ sense of awe is to seek out opportunities for awe. This may be more difficult than it seems in that awe may depend on novelty and surprise. Still, there are some possibilities. Science experiments, art museums, musical concerts, religious services, and nature all provide good opportunities for awe. Travel, in particular, may provoke awe at times because of the potential to be exposed to stimuli that don’t fit preconceptions. For this reason, my family and I yearly take an “awecation” to somewhere that has a component of vastness. People who wanted to stay closer to home could explore a new location while camping at a nearby park. One key to all of this is selecting locations and activities that not only might evoke awe, but that also capture childrens’ interests, which likely depend greatly on age. (Please consider commenting below with your ideas about where you could take your kids to experience awe.)

Finally, a key to nurturing awe in children may be to encourage a more general sense of mystery. When answers are given too quickly and easily, awe may be squashed. Awe seems more likely to thrive in an environment of inquisitiveness and questioning. Thus, in the rainbow example above, rather than immediately explaining to my kids what may have yielded the double-rainbow, I asked them what they believed might have been responsible. Moreover, some things in life are unknown or unknowable, and being transparent about this around kids may encourage an awe-conducive mindset.

Unfortunately, much of the above is speculative in that good psychological research hasn’t been done to understand what specifically adults might do to nurture a sense of awe in children. Still, promoting awe in kids may be one of the keys to unlocking many of the outcomes that we most hope for as they develop.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., often writes about experiences of mystery and awe at a new blog devoted exclusively to these topics: Reflections on Mystery and Awe. His primary specialization is in the psychology of religion and spirituality.

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