Why Empathy Matters to the Little Girl with No Daddy

By Steve Austin | empathy

Jan 27

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

– Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Yesterday, my daughter was playing in the backyard with the neighbor girl. They were sliding down the muddy bank on a cardboard box. These miserable little Alabama children, never get to see snow, so they were pretending.

My Caroline is about to turn five, and the neighbor girl is a first-grader. But she’s tiny. And they play really well together. During their playtime, the neighbor girl said to my Caroline, “My Daddy drank poison and made everyone cry.”

After they were done playing, my wife texted the story to me. “Cara came back in and said ‘I’m so glad that I have an awesome daddy. He loves me and makes me laugh.”

Now here’s the struggle for me - I am a good daddy. I’m basically a badass when it comes to the daddy department. I show up. I’m present. I play and laugh and snuggle and tell funny stories and genuinely enjoy being their daddy.

I’ve wanted to be a Daddy for as long as I can remember, but please hold your applause.

I don’t need your Father of the Year award or #1 Dad mug, because I know how one bad decision can take us from Medal of Valor recipient to no-good low-life in a matter of moments. It was just over six years ago when I tried to abandon my wife and our one-year-old son.

When I got Lindsey’s text, it sucker punched me in the gut.

I know people see my Instagram photos and our Facebook videos and think we have it all perfect. As I write this, I’m sitting in my leather recliner, under a heavy blanket, while my little princess listens to Faure’s "Opera Number 50," twirling in the living room like a ballerina.

I guess we do have it pretty damn good, but just like the neighbor girl’s Daddy, I know what it’s like to drink poison and make everyone in my family cry.

If the police hadn’t broken into my hotel room nearly seven years ago, my wife could be just like the neighbor woman, whom I am so prone to judge. She sits on the front stoop in front of our townhouse on a throw pillow from her couch, wearing a housecoat, smoking her Camel cigarettes, with bright orange earplugs in her ears. I always assume it’s so she doesn’t have to hear her “annoying children.” She must hate being a mother, right?

The truth is, I don’t even know her name.


“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” – John Steinbeck #choosekindness #empathy #catchingyourbreath via @iamsteveaustin

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There’s a theory in behavioral science called the Law of Attribution, or the Attribution Theory. This theory states that most often when we observe others, we attribute their behavior to their character - yet we attribute our own behavior to our circumstances. This logic applies negative assumptions as to why someone else misbehaves, but cuts ourselves slack for our own poor actions.

An example would be encountering a sales clerk that appears to be rude and disinterested in helping us. We attribute that behavior to the nature of their character. We decide they are a mean person and shouldn’t be in a helping profession. We then, in turn, are rude to that sales clerk and feel justified, because we have determined they are “innately rude,” whereas we are just mirroring their behavior and would be kinder to them if they weren’t so awful.

We blame them for their behavior and justify our own.

Consider another scenario: I have just received terrible news, and I’m so distracted that I forget an important meeting and leave someone high and dry. They depended on me. They were waiting for me. Without apology, I move on to the rest of my day, knowing the news I received was shocking and terrible, and my actions weren’t purposefully irresponsible; they were just due to my unfortunate circumstances.

Later that week, a co-worker drops the ball and forgets to do something vital for a work project, causing the team to miss a deadline. Angry, I shoot off a heated email, causing blame, believing my coworker doesn’t have a good work ethic. What piss-poor standards, I think to myself.

In each case, I attribute my behavior to my circumstances and the other person’s behavior to their character. It just isn’t fair. No matter the reason, it is never ok to impact someone in an inappropriate way, or even to judge them without knowing their story.

My frustration may be justified in certain stressful situations, but I never have the right to judge the plight of another human being, and I sure don’t have the right to cause pain to someone else.

When you’re angry or unkind to another person, it negatively impacts them. Pay attention and try to change your behavior so it reflects how you want to influence and treat those around you. If you are in a crisis or in a particularly bad spot, be transparent about your struggle with those around you, so they have a chance to offer their support.

If you are in so much pain that you can’t be civil, consider staying in to take a mental health day and doing self-care to get yourself back on track. Taking care of your emotional health is the number one goal so you can set a healthy example for those in your sphere of influence.


“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know when it will be too late.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson #empathy #kindness #catchingyourbreath via @iamsteveaustin

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Sometimes our neighbor woman is a few minutes late to pick up her children from the bus stop. She must be a miserable mother, right? And the way she just lets them roam all over the neighborhood until dark? Surely, no good parent allows their children to have the run of the neighborhood.

My wife could have been just like the neighbor woman. A single mother - a widow.

My son could have been telling everyone on the playground about how his daddy drank poison the night before my little guy’s first birthday and ruined his party (and his life) and made his mom and grandma cry. He could be telling everyone how I left him to learn how to do everything on his own, and fend for himself.

I guess the Kindergartener’s Golden Rule applies here: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. It could have been me. It could have been my family. And the truth is - it could have been yours.

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Recommended reading: I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn't), by Brene Brown
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About the Author

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.

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