Being Ernie’s dad

February 07, 2019 – In conversation with Vinz Lamorena—Mike Gaston is the head of his own company, a Seattle-based video production studio called Cut. Primarily using YouTube as their platform, Cut asks the necessary questions—some are simple, some dig into culture, and some are targeted to make people empathize.

Mike’s creatives company aims to tell stories that matter. Together with his cousin, Christopher Chan, the two have decided to make Cut’s stories navigate through society’s ambiguity. These are videos that don’t just seek to inform, but in the process involve its viewers and make them understand the diversity of individuals and their truths.

Cut doesn’t try to differentiate what’s right from wrong. It revels and resides in realities’ many grey areas, and recognizes the growth of culture and people. Mike is keen on developing this worldview, and Cut remains defined by it.

His work lives on the internet. But in the same digital landscape, Mike Gaston is simply known as Ernie’s dad. 

Ernie is a 5-year-old kid full of wonder and curiosity. His imagination never runs dry. On top of that, Ernie never stops telling stories—and his stories never seem to find an end to them either. Ernie has his own cheeky little moments, wearing a bright smile across his face as he faces the camera.

We’ve seen him fish bobba out of the glass with his tiny hands. He’s toured us around his home. And the little fella has even created his own odd recipes that a professional chef obliged to follow.

One of the suggestions that keep popping up is to dedicate a YouTube channel that’s all about Ernie. It’s a great idea, but Mike shrugs it off and says: “It’s all up to him.”

What’s curious is how Mike raises his kids—with 4-month-old Zora as the newest addition to the Gaston family—the same way he runs his company. Together with his wife, Jenny, he treats them with maturity. Even at a young age, he tells Ernie to take autonomy over his own decisions. He makes his son understand that right and wrong are different for everybody. He is firm in his belief that life is made up of ambiguity—it is full of questions, uncertainties, and contradictions—and he wants his kids to be comfortable with that.

“I remember my mom saying ‘Aren’t you glad your parents are so young?’ They had me when they were only 22. I’m like, ‘No. You guys didn’t know what you were doing,’” Mike shares.

He was 33 years old when he became a dad, an age where he was more secure about his place and aspirations in life. alike talked to the Filipino-American Cut CEO, asked him his views on parenting, and discovered he’s the absolute antithesis to how a father raises his child:

Ernie has a lot of me in him. The only thing he has of his mom, really, is his hair. And probably the fact that he’s a lot more into following rules than I was as a kid. But as far as the things I’ve noticed—storytelling, talking all the time, totally satisfied being on his own, making friends easily, being sensitive about other people’s feelings—I see a lot of that in him.

I’m honestly in awe of the little dude. He’s amazing. I just want to record him all the time to keep all these memories I have with him. I even remember the very moment when his imagination was triggered for the first time. He was 1, standing up the couch, staring at the window. He can say some words, but not a lot. I look out at a tree outside—it’s raining and really wet. I say “Oh my god, There’s a tiger out there!” And I ducked. 

Ernie looked at me, confused. I said, “Look out, see! There’s a tiger, there’s a tiger!” He just kept looking at me like I was crazy. And then, finally, I said, “There are other things, too—tiger, monkey...” And then he suddenly got it! It’s like he understood that we were picturing things that weren’t really there. It was pretty amazing.

Honestly, it’s these quiet moments with Ernie that I like the most. When we go for a walk, go hiking in the woods, and when he tells me stories and we pretend we’re in them. Those are the most fun.

With Zora, it’s literally just holding her, talking to her, and seeing her become more and more aware of things. But really, it’s all those quiet moments that mean the most—the things that would seem mundane to anyone else.

Ernie has been such a dotting and attentive big brother to Zora, too. He just wants to hold her, and be with her, and tell her stories. She’ll laugh and smile a lot when we talk to her, but all Ernie has to do is be in her field of vision and she just breaks into a big smile. She just wants to stare at him.

So when Zora’s fussy and wants attention, but we’re busy doing something, the easiest solution is to ask Ernie to sit in front of his sister. The little dude gazes at her lovingly.

Born this way

I actually was more freaked out about having Zora than I was with Ernie. I’m like, what if she sucks? What if Zora’s not a cool baby?

Because I feel like I lucked out with Ernie. He’s a really cool kid. He’s easy, helpful, generous, compassionate, and all these other kinds of wonderful things. A lot of people give us credit for that, but I think they come out like that—they’re already born a certain way.

I’ve realized that when Ernie came to the world, he came into the world as a person already. Really, my job, and the most that I can do, is to not fuck him up. While I can’t make him great, what I can do is ruin him.

So I’m not interested in the archetype of what a dad is supposed to be. I’m not interested in role playing that figure.

There’s actually a lot of tropes on parenting that you’ll never hear from us or in our household. My wife, Jenny, is a mental health technician. We balance each other a lot. She’s stable where I’m probably impulsive. We don’t use each other as weapons against Ernie, forcing him to choose sides.

Most of the time, we’re really trying to pay attention. We listen to the stories he comes up with and become active listeners—we wanna model that for him. Jenny and I really try to hear what he has to say and participate by actively asking questions.

For me, we gotta really work at being thoughtful about how we interact with Ernie because we don’t want to ruin him. I never want to crush his spirit. I never want him to feel like he doesn’t have an even say. So, really, what I try to do is to treat him like a human being and try to make sure that the type of influences that I put on him aren’t the kind that are gonna leave him worst off than he was.

All I want is for my kids to have agency—for them to feel like they can experiment and fail. I think the hardest thing right now is we live in a world where kids are expected to only succeed. And if you don’t, you’re cast off.

Everything seems to be so convenient now. We’re always trying to remove the friction for our children, but I believe that the only way to grow is through struggle. We have to let them try to live through the friction a little bit.

Lessons on emotional resilience

One of the things I’m constantly talking to Ernie about is emotional resilience—we actually use that phrase a lot. So when he feels frustrated or upset, the first thing we remind him is this idea: It’s okay to mess up, these things happen. It’s really not about messing up, or failing, it’s how you respond to that. There are multiple ways you can choose to respond —you can be angry at everyone else, blame other people, get upset. Or another way is to acknowledge the part that you play in it, and then try to make up for it.

When Ernie realizes he did something wrong, his tendency is to get upset, because he really feels bad about it. But what we’re trying to do is reinforce this idea that it’s okay to feel sad, but it’s not okay to perform that sadness in such a way that it makes other people feel bad. That’s not to say you can’t feel bad, sad, or cry—yes you can do that. But there’s a difference between doing that for yourself from doing it in such a way that you want to make someone sad just to make them understand how you feel.

There was also a time when he was obsessed with being perfect. He goes “This isn’t perfect, I wanna be perfect.” Ernie, there is no perfect. During the holidays, I said “Next Christmas, I’m finally going to perfect my cinnamon rolls!” And he goes, “Dad, nothing’s perfect.”

The short list of expectations

When Ernie was born, I wrote him a letter and I’m gonna share it to him when he’s 16. That’s the age when I think I turned into a huge asshole, so this will be my real hope for my son, to grow up not to be an asshole. 

I think that’s all parents really hope for. He can be anything. He can be everything he wants. In the letter, I wrote: You don’t have to like the things I like. You don’t have to do the things I do. You don’t have to have the job that I have. You don’t have to do any of the things I even would like you to do—you can be your own kind of person. All that matters to me is that you’re passionate about something, you’re curious about everything, you’re not a bully but you stand up to bullies. But more than anything, don’t be an asshole.

What I want is for my son to not know all the answers, but I want him to be comfortable with receiving any questions.  It’s really important for my kids to be comfortable with navigating ambiguity, because that is literally what life is. There are no definite answers, and everything changes constantly.

When I had Ernie at 33, I still didn’t know what I’m doing. But I think I was more ready to have this little person, because I was more aware of who I was as a person. 

If I had him in my 20s, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I didn’t have a worldview yet. I didn’t know the things that I cared about enough. I had no idea what type of story, or kind of art that I wanted to do. I didn’t know the kind of things that I believed in—everything was peripheral and I was constantly skirting along the edges. But by the time I had him, I was pretty secure in the things that I believed and the things that I wanted.

Stories that will immortalize Ernie’s childhood

What’s interesting—so this is me doing some bragging about my son—is that he won a compassion award in school. And I’m like yeah, he gives a shit about other people!

There was a story he told me before. He said: “Dad, a second grader came up to me and he gave me a green thing that he wanted me to throw it at this third grader. I went to the bathroom and I threw it away. Then I meet the second grader outside and he asks ‘did you throw it at him?’ I said I did, but I didn’t. I didn’t wanna hurt anybody.” 

There was also this one time when some kids hurt their head and started crying. Apparently, Ernie started running to them and then started reading them stories. He doesn’t even know how to read, he’s only starting to learn how to. He was definitely making up his own lines, in an attempt to make to make those kids feel better.

That was so great, and these are stories from his childhood I’ll keep on telling him when he grows up. The others are about the first time his imagination sparked, and our talk explaining to him what bad words are.

I think there’s a number of things that make it really hard to be a parent. But I think some of those hardships, I put on myself simply by making my son public—but we live in a moment in time when that’s kind of like expected anyway. Even if he wasn’t on Instagram or doing videos on YouTube, he’s gonna grow up in a time when all the kids are already on Instagram or YouTube, and I can’t chauffeur him from that. 

There’s an expectation of performing your identity online all the time. Kids, they see themselves as brands. They’re behaving in a way that’s very self conscious. It also exposes them to rejection and subjects them to self-comparison, and it seems that any kind of rejection online, becomes a rejection of their identity. That can easily turn dark. That’s my biggest fear—sending Ernie up to be impacted by that kind of thing. I think that’s scary.

My dad once told me that maybe we become better parents compared to the one who have raised us. That we get better at being parents, generationally. He said maybe one day I’ll be a better dad than him, too.

And you know what? I’m okay with being known as “Ernie’s Dad.” I’d rather be known as that than myself—I think he is a pretty chill little dude. One thing that’s a little bit frustrating is that Ernie took over my Instagram. It used to be mine!