Awe makes kids more generous, empathetic, and content: 5 ways to help find more awe
By Linda Stade
Last summer I was alone on a remote beach in WA, on a stupid hot day. While I was sitting in the shallows enjoying the cool, a group of emus walked down from the surrounding bush. They ignored me and plonked themselves down in the water a few metres away.
I froze for fear of scaring them off… and because I was a bit worried. If you’ve ever seen emus defend their young, you know they are not to be messed with. They fight hard and dirty!
After a few minutes, it was obvious they weren’t concerned by me at all. They sat in the water puffing out their feathers, cooling off, and preening themselves. I was hypnotised and I couldn’t tell you how long we were there. I lost track of time.
It was literally… awesome.
You've probably had experiences like this, where you were overwhelmed by a sense of awe. Those experiences deeply impact and shape us, particularly in our early years.
Your awe-inspiring experiences may have been:
watching a dancer or athlete achieve something seemingly impossible
a musician performing a piece so beautifully that it transcends the here and now
the generosity and pure goodness of another human
the collective effervescence of a crowd appreciating an event together
mind-bending mathematics, or
the enormity of space.
For many, it is an awareness of a higher power whether that be in the form of God or the more general, ‘universe’. You know awe when you experience it.
Why do kids need to experience awe?
So, why write about emus and awe in a blog designed for parents and educators? Because of all the positive impacts awe has on a person, particularly an adolescent.
Kelsey Erdelyi is a member of the psychology team at Lourdes Hill College. She says, “Adolescents are at school every day in the same place with the same people, and they have been for years. Experiences of awe can change their perspective and help them zoom out and see themselves as part of something bigger. Those impactful experiences make the routine and minor dramas of school and social media come sharply into focus and lose their power.”
Moments of awe stretch our kids’ understanding of the world and their place in it. We can see it in their faces, they don’t just smile, their mouths literally fall open, as though they are swallowing it all up.
Experiences of awe have a positive impact on wellbeing. Perhaps they serve as a counter to our traumatic moments. Trauma isolates us from others, awe pulls us into a sense of belonging.
1. Awe contributes to positive mental health. Experts in the field assert that moments of awe can increase our mental health and sense of wellbeing. The experience of awe can make us feel content and connected.
2. Awe makes us more empathetic and less entitled. When we feel part of something greater than ourselves it makes us more inclined to truly see and care about others. It shifts the emphasis from us.
3. Awe alters our perception of time and makes us more generous. This is fascinating! Research shows that awe brings us into the present moment and creates the perception that we have more time. Participants in lab exercises reported that experiencing awe made them feel more patient, more willing to volunteer, less materialistic, and more satisfied with their lives.
Technology, kids, and awe
When it comes to experiencing awe, technology can be a massive help or a hindrance. A friend recently visited Egypt. She and her husband were due to take their 15-year-old daughter to see one of the Pyramids of Giza. When the time came, their daughter wanted to stay in the hotel room and watch YouTube. A heated argument ensued and eventually, they left her with her device. They were bewildered.
I understand that technology can provide a sense of safety and continuity for young people, but in this case, it blocked an opportunity for wonder and awe. I find the same thing happens when driving. As soon as the car starts, kids turn on their devices, and the passing parade of nature and people and connection to the world around them is cut off.
On the other hand, technology offers us access to so much awe-inspiring content. Take for example NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, the Antarctica site, and Archaeology and Ancient Sites on Facebook.
Technology can take us to natural wonders we would never have the funds or time to visit. It can show us elite sporting competitions like the Olympics, where humans perform at their best. Via devices we can access mind-bending science facts, music, and art. All grow our experience base and make us reimagine our place in the scheme of things.
How can we promote a sense of awe at home and at school?
When you have young children, awe comes naturally as everything is new and they live in the moment. With adolescents, you need to promote that sense of awe.
1. Give kids time. Slow life down. It is hard to explore wonder or be caught in a moment of awe when you are rushing from one activity to the other. Holidays are a great time to immerse our kids in nature and give them the time to stumble upon perfect moments.
2. Mind your language. Often, we are tempted to explain and label things for kids instead of letting them simply experience for themselves. It helps to be quiet. Let the experience of nature or art or music wash over them. Our language can sometimes limit that experience.
3. Promote curiosity with technology. I grew up with World Book Encyclopaedias in our home. When we asked questions, my parents would ‘look it up’ with us and we would disappear into rabbit holes of curiosity. Now we have the internet, all of mankind’s knowledge and experience in one place. Use it for good!
4. Promote cocurricular activities at school and beyond. Service programs, science clubs, and environmental groups can all provide opportunities for curiosity, wonder, and awe.
5. Appreciate greatness in your stories. In your home or classroom appreciate the greatness in other people, nature, arts, and sciences. If you speak with a sense of genuine awe about your experiences, you will prompt kids to look for moments of awe in their own lives.
I’ll leave it to Albert Einstein:
There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle. The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.