My son’s school may be making parents more ethical. I’m a fan of Canadian journalist Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods which says kids should engage with nature. The school has an award-winning outdoor education program that provides parents with opportunities to sample what students do. With no experience necessary, and, in my case, no experience other than diving out of a canoe once and finding myself unable to climb back in, I thought I’d be ideal for the weekend kayaking expedition.
It was great. A dozen of us, along with an outdoor educator and a guide, paddled north through Pumicestone Passage between Bribie Island and the mainland. We set up camp, cooked our dinner, didn’t have showers, slept like the dead and then kept going. I only managed to bring about half of my stuff home, and that half smelled like creek mud, so I am never going to be able to yell at my son again for doing the same. But I met other parents and learned to stand up in a kayak without falling over. I also spent time in the natural world which was awesome, not as in really good, but as in the experience of the vast and great, of awe, in the face of which we feel smaller. It makes us more generous, and more ethical.
Behavioural psychology research shows that experiencing awe improves us. In one nifty experiment, half of a group of participants stared at the tallest hardwood trees in North America – Tasmanian eucalypts in California – and the other half stared at uninspiring buildings. When the experimenters dropped a box of pens, the tree people were more helpful and picked up more pens. In another experiment, participants who’d been asked to recall an experience of awe were more likely than those who’d recalled other positive feelings to say they’d return money if they’d been given too much change at a coffee shop. They cared more about others, and acted more honestly.
And while we’re at the coffee shop, research out of business schools shows that when employees have had coffee, they act more ethically too, and they’re less likely to go along with unethical suggestions from their bosses. The researchers posit that tiredness makes us poor thinkers and coffee provides needed fortitude to realise that wrong is wrong and say so. Caffeine is like a business ethics course then, only cheaper.
It follows that a school engendering awe while providing good coffee will have more ethical parents. We packed our lives into small boats and paddled two-by-two. We watched sea eagles soar right above us, and grieved a big old turtle that had come to its final rest on the beach. We sat by a fire telling stories while a waxing gibbous moon rose from the eucalpyts behind us and then slept in the arms of those Glasshouse Mountains that have their own stories to tell. I experienced awe. And in the morning, there was the other kind of awesome fair-trade coffee.