When it comes to rearing healthy children, teens and young adults, experts often talk about the importance of instilling self-esteem and positive body image. We want children to feel good about themselves so that they have strong heads on their shoulders and are more likely to make smart decisions in the future. And we want them to be kind to themselves when they feel inadequate or feel like they have failed, so that they are able to bounce back and lead happy lives.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? When, rather than acting like grounded, centered individuals, adolescents think they are the center? According to a book review on The Road to Character by David Brooks in The Economist, on average, American teens have become more and more full of themselves. The reviewer notes that the rate of teens who considered themselves to be “very important” rose from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. For example, “On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as ‘I like to look at my body’ and ‘Somebody should write a biography about me’, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago.” This heightened self-awareness likely stems from our selfie-culture, in which teens are bombarded with technology and media that promotes the importance of image.
While it is important to love, take care of, and pay attention to oneself, it is another thing to become self-absorbed to the point of losing touch with others. When people are focused solely on themselves, they become disconnected, less empathetic, and less likely to help others.
Researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley have found that one way to combat this tendency for self-centeredness is to teach children to be “in awe.” According to Greater Good, “Since adolescence is a crucial period for identity-formation, some researchers have suggested that adolescence is a particularly important time to experience awe—it could help them see themselves as deeply connected to the world around them, not the center of it. Inducing the uplifting experience of awe could also be a positive way to keep narcissism in check.” When young people zoom out and experience something awe-worthy, it takes them to a place where they feel small, like they are a part of something much greater. It could also helps them become more empathetic and in tune with the needs of others. One study, for example, found that those who experienced something awe-inspiring expressed that they had more time to help others.
So, how can we foster awe-some experiences? Encourage children and teens to take in the world around them! Watch a meteor shower together, show them an amazing work of art, or teach them an unbelievable piece of history. As Lee Ann Womack says, “never lose your sense of wonder.”
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