Author: Christos Tsiolkas


When is Bad Advice Good? and Three Tips for Instilling Empathy in Children

September 29, 2014 Book Review 6

When is Bad Advice Good? and Three Tips for Instilling Empathy in ChildrenBarracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Published by Hogarth on September 9th, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 448
Source: complimentary review copy


This post was inspired by Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, a novel where former Olympic hopeful Dan destroys his swimming career and his attempt at redemption after prison. Join From Left to Write on September 30th as we discuss Barracuda. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.


Son, always answer back when you receive an insult.  Do it straightaway.  Even if there’s a chance there was nothing behind it, take back control, answer them back.  An insult is an attack.  You must counter it.  You understand? {from Danny’s swim coach to Danny}

Bad advice.  We’ve all received it at one time or another and we’ve all given it as well. In the quote above, fourteen year old Danny has been given a swim scholarship to an elite boys school, and he is so not elite.  The other boys nip at Danny’s edges throughout his first day and into swim practice – immensely jealous of his talent.  The advice Danny’s coach gives him allows Danny to attack back just as viciously.  Which left me thinking – was that good advice? something I would want a coach saying to my child?  At what point do we give the power to the underdog to defend himself against bullies and at what cost?  Would it have been better for Danny to never receive the scholarship, to have stayed in his overcrowded, underfunded public school?  Reading Barracuda certainly brought up more questions than answers.  How do we empower our children to defend themselves yet also nurture the empathic side?

Empathy or compassion I’ve got covered in spades; dealing with bullies not so much.  I’m from the school of southern Baptist women where you either kill them with kindness or pray for their everlasting soul.  I’ve tried both!  Teaching compassion in a world gone crazy to me is absolutely imperative so here’s my three BEST tips for instilling empathy in our children:

1.  Volunteerism.  Starting from a young age.  I’ve seen the results with my own eyes in my own family.  This truly, truly works.  If we want a world full of empathic adults, volunteering when they are young, as a family, is critical.  There’s about every which way in the world to volunteer these days.  A good way to start out is checking with your local Chamber of Commerce for a list of the non-profits in your community or utilizing

2.  Read. Read. Read.  Books from other cultures.  Books about feelings.  Books about helping.  I know I”m preaching to the choir” but we all know how important it is to read with our children starting from newborn {yes, newborn} to those pesky middle school/teenage years.  A few general books that help teach empathy can be found here.

3.  Facial expression recognition.  There’s a beautiful Jody Bergsma print I decorated my children’s bathroom with then had reframed and gave to my oldest when The Little Monkey was born – it’s all these animals sporting different facial expressions from anger to curious to happy to sad to hurt and disheveled! (stay tuned for a photo of the print to be uploaded tomorrow 😉 ) Nowadays there are matching games, books and many different paintings of facial expressions to share with our young ones.  For children to be able to feel ok having different feelings and be able to name those feelings is half the battle – once they can recognize expressions on others you know you’ve got the message across!

What are your tips and tools for teaching and encouraging empathy?