Let’s be nicer to ourselves in front of our kids

Starting work again after a hiatus to care for kids can sometimes be a humbling exercise.

In early September, after some 19 months of mostly making lunches for my two young sons, taking them to school or hockey or the pool, begging them to clean up their messes (before ultimately doing it myself) and other glamorous parenting tasks, I suddenly found myself back in a high-pressure, high-profile job as an NHL beat writer.

I now cover the Ottawa Senators for The Athletic, a sports journalism start-up that’s been rapidly expanding across North America. It’s a job that requires me to write clean, engaging content at a fairly fast pace. Fortunately, because I tried to keep fresh as a writer with occasional freelance work and my own websites, that skill never really left me.

But the little things that used to be second nature took a little more time to come back.

When you’re a journalist, and more frequently when you’re a sports journalist, you’re asked by other journalists to make appearances in their publications or on their television or radio shows.

After agreeing to my first interview following the announcement that I’d been hired, I thought to myself, “ah, this’ll be easy, I’ve done a ton of these.” My boys were excited to hear their dad on the radio talking about hockey, rather than telling them for the 100th time to please put their PJs on and brush their teeth.

So I did the interview and … eh. I wasn’t happy with it. My wife, who’d pulled the car over to let the kids listen in, called me up afterwards to congratulate me.

“Eeecchhh, that was terrible!” I said immediately. “My thoughts were all muddled up, I tripped over my words. Bleh. That used to be so easy.”

“I thought it was really good, Dada,” I heard a small, seven-year-old voice say from the back seat of the car.

“Yeah, me too,” the four-year-old piped up.

Oops. The car’s Bluetooth was engaged and my self-flagellation was being broadcast over the speakers to the whole family. I felt terrible.

When my boys got home, they found me immediately and gave me a big hug, telling me that they thought I did really well. I thanked them, told them not to worry and promised not to be so hard on myself in the future.

And while I’ll almost certainly be hard on myself again — as all of us are at one time or another — I’m going to be extra diligent about not letting my kids hear it.

Not that I needed a reminder, but parents are kids’ most important and influential role models. Kids frequently pick up their parents’ behaviour — good and bad — and some of it will stay with them the rest of their lives. Even now, one of my parents will be visiting and point out a mannerism that came from the other one. And I’m 36.

That’s why I think it’s so important to give ourselves a break, especially in front of our kids. There are countless self-help books that tell us not to beat ourselves up — not only over failure, but over simple sub-optimal performance. Use it as a learning experience, we’re told. Use it to get better.

For the most part, young children do this naturally. While there are always exceptions, they typically don’t beat themselves up over missing a kick or accidently colouring outside the lines. They happily keep working at the task at hand until they figure it out through trial and error, and then they beam with pride.

I never want to dampen that spirit. In a life full of tests and tryouts and contests of brain and brawn, there will be plenty of time to learn about failure, about accepting it, using it in a positive way, and moving on.

Re-learning that skill through my kids was one of the countless ways being a full-time parent made me a kinder, more patient and more empathetic person — towards others and myself.

And sure enough, despite all the negativity I heaped on myself, the next radio hit I did a day or two later, it was like old times. Thoughts organized themselves with ease, the right words came out, and everyone (myself included) was pleased.

James Gordon is an Ottawa writer and entrepreneur. Follow him at Twitter.com/James_J_Gordon.