A woman of influence

The lessons Jon Willing’s mother taught him as a child carry on decades later in his young son, Miles

The writer’s mom, Karen Willing, and his son, Miles, read a book pre-pandemic_Photo Courtesy Jon Willing

Sometimes the most subtle, practical lessons from your childhood best inform your success in parenthood. I’m talking about the kind of inspiration and guidance that comes from parents that really pays off for kids, in addition to the heaps of love that flows from parents to children.


I often think about what I learned from my mom and dad and how it can help shape the kind of man that one day my toddler son, Miles, will become. With Mother’s Day in the middle of spring, it’s an opportunity to remember the countless ways my mom influenced my life and shaped my philosophy as a parent.


It would take a full magazine to list all the ways, but there are three things that stand out.

These are simple pieces of advice that mom didn’t actively promote, but the lessons resonate, especially now. They may seem random, but for reasons I can’t completely spell out, they hit home. You bet I’ll be drawing on these in fatherhood. Thanks, mom.


Learn to swim


I hated swimming lessons. Coaxing kids into the deep end to tread water or front-crawl across the pool made no sense to me, so I was less than enthused to be forced into lessons. But in her wisdom, mom didn’t cower from any of my objections and continued to sign me up. Today, I’m no Michael Phelps, but at least I avoid sinking like a bag of hammers.


In my professional life, I covered too many tragedies involving children and young adults drowning in pools and open water. Among the greatest concerns for parents must be the safety of their children around water, especially in situations where they aren’t there, like day camps or friends’ pools.


With all those worries piling up during the years of parenting, I hope to remove one by making sure Miles is sure of himself around water. 


Embrace your city’s libraries


There are people who will tell you that libraries are obsolete now that information can be called up in seconds on your computer, phone and watch. The argument is rubbish. A library, of course, is more than books and functions more as a community centre these days.


When I was a kid, a trip to the Kitchener Public Library main branch or the community branch was a regular outing with mom. I participated in storytime programs as a kid, but what I remember most is exploring, finding and thumbing through books across the building. Dad would take me to browse the vinyl record collection in the basement of the main branch. Libraries continue to be special places and I learned that from those visits during my childhood.

And would you know it, the City of Ottawa is building a super library in the coming years, perfect for another young boy to explore.


Surround your family with music


Somehow, I ended up taking xylophone lessons with a friend when we were kids. It’s the first memory I have of making music, if you don’t count blasting a plastic woodwind instrument at obscene pitches. Music was a constant in my childhood, accented by ABBA and Michael Jackson. I remember mom playing a Leo Sayer seven-inch vinyl record during the day on repeat. It’s amazing how some songs still stick with you over 40 years. Looking back, music was powerful in my upbringing, thanks to both my mom and dad. It brought simple joy. There was always diverse music on the stereo of my childhood home—from pop king Michael Jackson to polka king Walter Ostanek—and I can already see Miles take a big interest in the tunes playing in our family home. Even when it’s Walter Ostanek.