Parents: Our First Empathy Teachers

The best time to start learning about empathy is when we are young.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

Seventy-six years ago on this day, my father landed on the beaches of Normandy. I grew up hearing his stories about D-day +3, the third day after the initial invasion. He was part of the anti-aircraft division, training guns on enemy planes. He used to laugh and say their instruments were so imprecise that he is not sure whether they ever actually hit a plane, but he was confident that they contributed as a deterrent. Even though he was behind the infantry, he saw the war up close. Close enough to be captured during the Battle of the Bulge on December 21st of 1944. He told lots of stories about that too and his time as a prisoner of war.

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

My father was a great storyteller. Throughout my growing up, he shared his experiences fighting in World War II. When I got older, I discovered that not all WWII veterans were able to talk about their experiences, in fact, many never said a word. My father was the opposite. I think he needed to tell those stories to deal with the trauma and to teach us lessons. My father was my first teacher of social empathy. His stories were lessons about helping others who were different, the historical context of political differences and war, and the gravity of public decisions like starting wars. He was able to tell his personal tales and interweave the larger socio-political realities that put his experiences in context.

The experience also profoundly impacted his beliefs. One lesson that I only appreciated later in life was his absolute refusal to allow us to have any toy guns in the house. That even included squirt guns. He had used guns in war, seen first-hand their power and destruction, and felt they were in no way anything to be used or imitated as a toy. This was a strong message given that my father was lax about so many things. He was easy-going when it came to parent rules. That meant when he set a rule, you really listened because you knew he meant it. And it meant that I began to see the world through the eyes of others and how larger policies like declaring war, going to war, and sending young people over to fight those wars have a tremendous impact on so many.

I lived at a time when children played freely in the neighborhood. One of my best friends when I was young had a father who worked for the Mattel Toy Company. He had tons of toy guns and tons of toys in general. I thought he was the luckiest kid in the world, especially because I could not have any of those toy guns at my house. I am not sure whether I complained or my mother knew how lucky I thought my friend was, but she had a chat with me. It was one of my first lessons in interpersonal empathy. My friend had an illness that required a urostomy pouch. I was young, it was obvious when we played, and I did not think anything about it until my mother told me that he was not as lucky as I thought. She did not make a big deal about it but wanted me to see the entire picture, not just the narrow view I had of his collection of toys. She helped me to step into his shoes. And I did. I did not feel so bad about not having all those toys. It didn’t change how we played, my friend and I still did all the games you can imagine using those toy guns, but it changed how I viewed his life.

I look back on those events and know where I first started learning about interpersonal and social empathy. I didn’t know those words, and I had (and still have) lots of lessons to learn about empathy. But I am grateful to my parents because I know that learning empathy is best started when we are young and is best taught by those who can model empathy for us.* My parents are gone now. Their lessons are even more precious to me because I know that a part of them still exists in me and will continue on through those whom I teach. Empathy is a legacy we can all be proud of and we should find as many ways as we can to pass it on.


*  There are lots of great sources for teaching empathy to children.  Here is a small sample:

Mary Gordon, (2012). Roots of empathy: Changing the world child by child. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers.

Roman Krznaric, (July 2008). You are therefore I am: How empathy education can create social change. Oxfam GB Research Report. Oxfam International.

Debbie Vera, Melissa Jozwiak & Vivien l. Geneser (2015). Issues of power, equity, and empathy: Lessons from the classroom. Childhood and Education, 91 (6), pp. 457-462.