Child's Play, The Citizen, February 2017 Living With Yourself

Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.

I was in the audience a few years ago when a professional soccer referee was discussing his performance in a game most of us in the audience had attended. We were a group of soccer referees spending two days in our annual training and recertification.

This accomplished referee showed video from the game the night before and we spent most of our time discussing a single incident that lasted only about 120 seconds of the 90 minute game. For nearly an hour he talked about what went into his many decisions in that short span of time and what he could have done differently. His conclusion was that if he had it to do over, he would have done things differently.

But did he make a mistake? The more he talked, the clearer it became to me that perhaps he couldn’t have done anything differently than he did. He was limited by many things. The event unfolded in a matter of seconds and he had to draw on his knowledge, training, and experience to make his choices in that moment.

But standing in front of us 24 hours later, he has had this new experience. Looking backward with new information, not to mention the luxury of time to think about it, he perceived some of his choices as mistakes. While he will do things differently in a similar circumstance in the future, the night before he didn’t have this experience. Maybe he was doing the best he could do in the moment.

When I was a teenager, in a moment of anger with my father I snapped at him. It was then that he told me that he hoped I was proud of him. He was doing the best he could and in my self-centeredness, I was too egocentric to appreciate his efforts to be a good dad. In a way, I regret that I didn’t communicate better with him. But as a teenager learning to be an adult, my choices were limited by minimal wisdom, experience, and youth. Maybe I was doing the best I could – just like my dad.

The thing that these events have in common is that it is hard for us to accept our fallibilities. In retrospect, it often seems so clear how we could have behaved differently, yet we look back with the advantage of time, experience, and wisdom – advantages we didn’t at the time. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.

My first newspaper column for The Citizen was entitled “Why Bother.” If you were to read that column from 25 years ago you wouldn’t have to look very closely to see my compulsion to be a good dad. In a conversation with one of my adult children recently I commented that I always wanted to be the perfect father. As I’m sure all my children will testify, I’m far from it. But 25 years ago it pained me to realize my failings. Now – not so much.

As I get close to my sixth decade of life, I have few regrets. Like my soccer referee instructor, if I could do things over, I would change many things. But I recognize the limits of time, knowledge, and maturity made it nearly impossible for me to do little else.

A psychologist in the 1950s by the name of Winnicott noted that parents didn’t have to be perfect. In fact, he used the phrase, “just good enough” to describe what made a good parent. Good parents make lots of mistakes. But according to Winnicott, it is the preponderance of their motives – their drive to do their best – that makes the difference between good parents and not so good parents.

I’ve always admired my aunt. She has always seemed so confident. I know she wanted to please her children, husband, and those around her, but it always seemed like if she didn’t, she would just shrug and suppose it was our problem if we couldn’t appreciate her. She seemed so sure of herself and who she was. I envied that.

Whether my perception of my aunt is accurate or not, I think maybe the healthy lesson is to have confidence that you have done the best you can even when you fail. Maybe that is what helps us live with ourselves – to sleep well at night. I have few regrets because I can say I’ve always tried my best and perhaps that is the best any of us can do.

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