When I was invited to write an article about empathy, I immediately thought of an excerpt from ‘Song of Myself’, by the American poet Walt Whitman:

         I do not ask the wounded person how he feels,

         I myself become the wounded person.

In a nutshell, that defines empathy: to feel what someone else is feeling and to respect that feeling, regardless of our own thoughts and experiences around it.

Research suggests that empathy is like the glue that holds relationships together. In his book “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”, (1) Dr. Antonio Damasio discusses the importance of empathy in developing relationship skills.  According to his findings, if the part of our brain that experiences empathy becomes damaged, relationship building and maintenance becomes increasingly difficult, regardless of the abilities of other parts of our brain.

While we could manage on our own, more or less, we all have enough of our own experiences to know that playing well with others is a significant skill to have.

Now, think Emotional Intelligence, which Salovey &Pizarro(2) define as the ability to perceive and express emotion accurately and adaptively in a manner that makes emotion and emotional knowledge understandable. They go on to say that Emotional Intelligence involves using feelings to facilitate thought. Finally, Emotional Intelligence involves being able to regulate one’s own and others’ emotions.

Salovey & Pizarro’s definition of Emotional Intelligence sounds an awful lot like what Whitman was talking about in his poem. Artistic notions notwithstanding, science also indicates that empathy is a pretty important emotion to have. Luckily, most of us are born with it. Like everything else, though, we need a little encouragement to cultivate it.

So, as fathers, how do we ensure that our kids cultivate the gift of empathy?

Be self-aware

Consider how we interact with the world around us. If you’re like me, you were probably brought up to not ‘back down’. Empathy isn’t about backing down. It’s about considering where the person you’re interacting with is coming from, regardless of whether that person is our child’s teacher or our partner. We have it in us to build strong, meaningful relationships that will make our lives easier. Let’s look for the times when we are being empathetic and be aware of when we are not (and look at the difference in outcomes!).

Lead by example

Speaking of looking, guess who is always watching? Let’s face it, guys– this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is our time to shine. To be the example we want our kids to follow. When we show love, they learn that being loving is okay. When we show kindness, they learn that being kind is good. When we show empathy, they learn that their natural instinct to feel for others is valid. By encouraging this emotion, we are adding to our children’s relationship toolbox.

Give them the tools

Language is an important part of expressing emotion. By giving our children the words to express how they feel, we are giving them the tools to build their Emotional Intelligence. Give them words and context to flex that empathy muscle.

Practice makes perfect (more or less)

The world is a big place, with lots of opportunity for discussion. Why not hang out with our kids and encourage them to talk? Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them how they think someone else might feel in a given situation. We might be amazed at how big their emotions are and how comprehensive their understanding of the world around them is.

Reward their (and your) Efforts

It can be kind of scary for all of us when we put ourselves out there emotionally. High fives and big hugs all around for being courageous. In a world that talks about being ‘brave’, we need to remember that the bravest thing we can do (and that we can teach our kids to do) is to care about someone else. By working on that empathy muscle, we are teaching our kids to be the bravest kind of brave.

And we are being brave by showing our emotions to and being vulnerable for the ones that will one day need the gift of empathy: our children. By encouraging our children to empathize with others, we are encouraging them to create healthy, stable, and fulfilling relationships with the world around them. How great is that?

1 Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. (2006). S.l.: Vintage.

2 Salovey, P. & Pizarro, D. A. (2002). The value of emotional intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg, J. Lautrey, & T. I. Lubart (Eds.), Models of intelligence: International perspectives (pp. 263-78). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

About the Author

After fighting crime in Toronto for 30 years as a police officer and Detective, Desmond Ryan has traded in his memo book to write the Mike O’Shea crime fiction series. He lives in downtown Toronto near his old beat with his wife, two sons, and two dogs. Follow Des on Twitter @DRyan4006 and @desryanwriter.

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