Empathy: Another Reason We Need Good Dads

Some of us have given up on watching or reading the daily news. But even then, it’s impossible not to hear some of the horrible stories about the violence in our society. As Robert Burns wrote: “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!” In a time wherein we know “the love of men shall wax cold” (D&C 45:27), how can we teach our children to care about their fellow man? Involved fathers play a key role.
Empathy is the ability to experience sympathetic and compassionate feeling for others. When considering how to teach children empathy, it’s easy to think that mothers, often the more nurturing parent, might be the key element. However, a twenty-six-year longitudinal study looked for parent-child relationship behaviors during early childhood and levels of empathy in the children-turned-adults. The researches reported results that they themselves found “quite astonishing.” The most important childhood factor related to adult empathy was “paternal involvement in child care.” In fact, that factor alone accounted for a larger percentage of the outcome that the three strongest maternal predictors put together.
The kind of father involvement the study described included fathers spending time alone with their kids more than twice a week, giving meals, baths, and other basic care. The study doesn’t try to explain exactly why involved dads contribute so greatly to developing empathy in their children, but here’s my opinion. I think it’s because dads have the potential to be dangerous. Consider how moms hold babies—up against them, cuddling, etc. And moms are naturally soft. Dads are harder and sometimes like to hold the babies up, dangling from their thumbs, as Dad yells, “Hey, look!” You know what I mean. And many studies show that dads play very differently with their children than mothers do. It’s called “rough and tumble play” for the obvious reasons. Other studies show that dads are less protective and more likely to encourage children to try new things and to take chances. If you put that altogether, I think it means that kids very quickly sense that while Mom is naturally soft and safe, Dad is harder and has the potential to be dangerous. BUT, if Dad turns out to curb his potential to be dangerous, and instead is kind and helpful and doesn’t hurt Mom or the kids, what a message that must send to children. The children, too, can learn to curb any tendency they might sometimes feel to be hurtful, out of empathic consideration for how others might feel.
Whatever the dynamic involved, the fact remains that when dads are involved, one-on-one, with their kids in positive care-giving, at least twice a week, we end up with more kinder, more empathetic adults. So, Dads, does it surprise you to find out what a huge impact you can have on such an important part of your children’s development?

(The video below is of one of our married sons playing “football” with his kids and nephews. Notice how an older cousin who, at first, is trying to “tackle” his little cousin, ends up letting her “score.”)

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©2018 Lili Anderson, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.