How Do You Nurture Awe in Children?

Parents are usually the first ones to help children identify emotions. “Look how happy you made your friend when you gave her a hug!” “See the little boy in our picture book? He’s feeling sad right now.”

Naming feelings helps children understand them better

There are the standard feelings we help our kids understand and recognize: anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, confusion, to name a few.  We invite them to notice others experiencing these feelings, and we often label feelings to help children better understand their own experiences.

By being able to name feelings, children can be more self-aware and empathetic towards others.

But how often do parents help children identify their feelings of awe?

An article in the October 9, 2016 Parade magazine focused on the feelings of awe and the impact of experiencing awe. The article shared that in 2013, psychologist Dacher Keltner from University of California’s Berkeley Social Interaction Lab kicked off Project Awe to study the subject of awe.

His research shows that awe, which Keltner defines as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things ” helps us see things in new ways, makes us nicer and happier and even alters our bodies. The team’s research showed that “Awe… strongly predicts reduced levels of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that’s linked to depression.”

The article goes on to describe taking underserved adolescents on white-water rafting trips in which they were able to get very close to nature. These teens who experienced the awe so often associated with exposure to the vastness, complexity and beauty of nature showed “ …measurable improvements in psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook.”

Seeing beyond ourselves

As adults, most of us know that experiencing awe allows us to see beyond ourselves and to embrace the many miracles of the world. Examples are the beauty in nature, or the overwhelming appreciation for the ways our bodies and especially our brains work, or the profound joy music can bring, or the humbling sense of realizing there are powers and forces much greater than our own in this world.

As I reflected on the subject, I was convinced that our children can benefit from being encouraged to understand and embrace the awe they feel.

When there are those magical moments when children look up at the stars and marvel at what they see or when they gaze across the ocean and feel so small in comparison, parents can teach them that what they are experiencing is awe. In this way, parents are enriching their children’s feelings vocabularies.

More joy and appreciation

Encouraging our children to breathe in their feelings of awe and enjoy knowing that we live in a world with so many breathtaking, awe-inspiring moments invites them to be more joyful, appreciative and humbled.

I have a little magnetic tile on my refrigerator that says, “Peace is seeing the sunset and knowing who to thank.”  For me, awe goes hand-in-hand with my faith and gives me a place to experience gratitude for what has been given to me, my children and the world.

For those who may focus more on the vast beauty of nature without a spiritual component attached to their experiences of awe, there still can be much joy, appreciation and humility that, as the research is showing, can improve psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook.

All of this improves our health, and even our immune systems, and has the power to do the same for our children.

And by the way, the term “awesome” is one that I think is overused and even misused.

Many years ago, I heard a sermon in which the minister shared that cheesesteaks really aren’t “awesome” in the same way that the universe is awesome. They may be fabulous, delicious, delightful, but not truly awesome.

Saving the word “awesome” to reflect on that much deeper, more profound emotion for appreciating that something is so vast and beyond our understanding, we are overwhelmed. In this way, we teach our children to differentiate between things that are good, fun, exciting and enjoyable and things that truly fill us with awe.

This allows us all to experience freedom and joy when we truly are in awe of something in this amazing world.

  Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think back to a time when you experienced the emotion of being in awe. What was it in that moment that caused you to have that experience? Can you remember how the feelings of awe washed over you and perhaps even brought you to tears?
  2. What are some ways you can invite your children to feel awed by something? What are some of the “goose-bump moments” they might experience and you might possibly orchestrate? Can you drive somewhere where there are no city lights and invite your children to gaze into the sky and experience the beauty of the universe? Can you teach them about how incredible their bodies are in terms of how all the systems work in harmony-the digestive, circulatory, nervous, muscular and immune systems? Can you share with them your own experiences of being in awe of something?

Note: By the way, for some additional help in helping children grow their feelings vocabularies, you can go online and find a variety of feelings charts [for example  offers more than 10 sample charts]

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network