Testing Timmy’s Emotional Empathy


I’m not instinctively compassionate, by nature.  That’s not to say I’m mean, let’s be fair. My Cognitive Empathy is good. I can intellectually put my mindset into the values of another person, wearing their worldview like a Mardi Gras mask. But my Emotional Empathy is much weaker. When I see emotion in another person, it doesn’t usually make a difference to my own.

That means I’m a competent Devil’s Advocate, but a lousy commiserator.

Thankfully, I’m aware of my weakness, so when a customer-facing job involving graphic design had been advertised by the local crematorium, I didn’t even apply. Which could be considered compassionate in itself, really. Their customers would already be emotionally fraught. I would accidentally but easily make it worse for them, appearing cold and callous if I spoke, and bored and blasé if I didn’t.

The form of comfort I’m more likely to give is in information; pragmatic suggestions for solving or improving the problem. No hugs or musical sighs are involved.

It seems four-year-old Timmy occasionally has similar traits.

He was watching The Lion King with his little brother when the notorious death scene arrived. In the quiet stillness following the animated stampede, Timmy helpfully clarified for Daniel, “He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s not sleeping. He looks like he’s sleeping, but he’s dead.”

I don’t see a future for him at the crematorium, either.

Conversely, though, he’ll see Daniel crying (usually over a grazed knee, not a dead cartoon), and rush to hug and cajole him into happiness. It seems to come so naturally to him, which gives me reassurance. It makes him likeable. When Daniel has announced a grazed knee, I’ve never heard Timmy respond with, ‘I see. What do you want me to do about it?’

One’s assessment of oneself will always be biased and likely different from what everyone else sees. (Probably because everyone else can’t see what goes on in one’s own head, for which I’m daily thankful.) I consider myself almost an archetype—entertaining, in an acerbic Dr. Gregory House kind of way, but not someone you want answering the phones for a suicide hotline.

I asked Timmy how he saw himself, and unsurprisingly, he didn’t understand the question. So I turned it into an interview:

Is Timmy kind?


Is Timmy happy?


Is Timmy grumpy?


Is Timmy silly?


Do you love your brother?


Do you love Mummy?  (These are risky questions, I’m aware.)


Pleasant answers, but not necessarily indicative of character. More indicative of his knowing what the favoured answer to a question is.

I switched to a different tactic.

I quivered my lower lip. I turned the corners of my mouth down. I did all the face-contorting things one does when they’re trying to keep their grief inside and are about to fail miserably. I watched Timmy’s own face—it wasn’t contorted, but it did reflect gestures of sadness. He didn’t say anything, or move to do anything, but he was transfixed, apparently trying to gauge the situation. I helped him along with a bit of narration.

“Mummy’s sa-a-a-a-d…!” I faux-cried.

This broke him into action. “Oh, no, Mummy’s sad! What’s wrong, Mummy?”

Before I could answer, he came at me with his arms spread wide and pulled me into a hug, stroking my back. “You okay, Mummy?” He pulled back and looked at me, grinning expectantly. “You happy now, Mummy? You happy?” He punctuated his questions with nodding encouragement.

I smiled back. “Yes, I’m happy now. Thank you.”

And that was the end of it. He looked satisfied—with himself, with the resolution, or with both.

I still think a job at a crematorium would be unwise for either of us, but I’m happy to see his Emotional Empathy abilities rate higher than mine.

Except when watching cartoons.

(Disclaimer: No children were psychologically harmed in the making of this post.)


(2) Comments

  • Deborah Makarios
    28 Jan 2017

    How sweet of Timmy to make sure his brother doesn’t fall prey to a misunderstanding that will threaten his comprehension of the following plot 🙂

  • Rae
    31 Jan 2017

    I think Timmy would be very upset if he ripped your toenail off, accidentally or not, so he rates ahead of his brother in the sympathy stakes. By the way, his hugs are very energising.

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