by Becky Jones-Mahlum
“Guess what?” my daughter asked.
“I was picked to be a U.S. Senate page!”
Sedalia’s decision to get involved with politics at a young age led to her having one of the greatest opportunities a 16-year-old can have to witness government at work. She is spending six months in Washington D.C. working as a senate page with 29 other kids from across the country. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp nominated her based on the hours and hours she spent as an unpaid volunteer.
These one-small-step-for-mankind, one-giant-leap-for-our-family successes are part of the parenting dream. With each new activity, we harbor a fantasy our children will achieve something to help them stand apart in the world – and through which, we reluctantly admit, we might enjoy a vicarious thrill. Moments when they actually achieve an important goal, get us through the reality of parenting, which can be as nerve-wracking as it is wonderful.
With each of our three children, people have asked us – probably just politely – how we raised such good kids. Honestly, parenting for me has been an interesting nature-vs-nurture experiment, not only because we adopted one of our children but also because they are all so different.
Where my kids have succeeded, it has mostly been through their own sheer grit and hard work. I am also humbled at my inability to change in them things they do not want to change, like leaving dirty socks in the living room or incorrect grammar use that I am certain will one day render them homeless.
Parenting has never been an exact science. I could tell you a number of things I would have done differently, but some things I would not change:
I raised my kids on love. I got probably the best parenting advice one day when I once asked my oldest sister what she did to bring up her good and kind children. “I raised my kids on love.” In all things, that was the standard she held herself to, “just love them.” I want my children to know we love them no matter what – whether they succeed or not. My husband has reminded me when I have had to face a particular challenge, “No matter what happens today, your family will love you just the same.”
All kids go through challenges and mine are no exceptions. They continue to struggle at times. Like most parents, I have wanted to have the magic bullet that would solve their struggles. We know the answer generally does not come that easily and, even if it did, their best answers come from within themselves. When I was having a problem in life, my sister would often tell me, “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.” I just need to be there for them and not try to solve all of their issues, as much as I would like to think I could.
After one of the school shooting incidents, I asked a person who works with at-risk kids what would have made a difference in the shooters’ lives to prevent this. His answer was “a loving mother.” Now, loving parents can have kids who get into trouble, but the idea stuck with me. You can never go wrong with nurturing attention.
Talk to your kids. A wise person told me the difference between kids who come prepared for school and those who do not is often parents who talk to their children. I think that applies to all phases of their lives. In some periods of my children’s lives, they have not wanted to share much with me, and I need to accept that. However, I refuse to go away all together. I keep showing up, ready when they are.
Read to your children. Reading to our kids every night when they were young helped them be better readers and to develop a love for books. The nighttime ritual also gave us some good bonding time. I have loved some of the books as much as they have. I am thankful to children’s authors for their empathy for children, their gentle teaching styles and especially their senses of humor.
I also rocked and sang with them before they went to sleep. Singing is optional – one of my children did tell me, “Mommy, don’t sing.” Harsh.
Things are just things. My mother taught me this important lesson. When I would break a plate, I would feel so bad (I could be a little clumsy). She would tell me, “Plates are just things. It’s OK to break something, just clean it up.”
If you mess up, apologize. I make mistakes. If I lose my temper, I try to apologize. I hope they will learn to do the same. There is great power in a good and honest apology. It helps me not be stuck in my mistakes or in disagreements. A friend once told me, “I don’t get caught up in my mistakes.” Another friend uses the term “FIDO,” Forget it and Drive On.
When the student is ready, make sure the teacher appears. When they have excelled at something, we have tried to make sure the opportunities were there for them. Each family has to set their own priorities, and music is particularly important to my husband and me. We have tried to make the best opportunities available to them, including being in the Central Dakota Children’s Choir.
Let them decide if they want to do something. I have struggled with this one, and I know other parents see this differently, but it was what I could live with. If they are not enjoying it, why continue with gymnastics or ballet because I think they should.
Nobody gets to hit anyone. I do not believe in inflicting pain as a teaching tool.
It takes a village. I do regret not doing the outdoors activities my son wanted, including more camping. Thank goodness for Troop 6 at Bismarck’s First Presbyterian Church. My son took matters in his own hands and joined the Boy Scouts. Those fine scout leaders taught him things I could not.
Mostly, I have been amazed at my children’s ability to keep showing up for the things that are important to them when I would have quit in disgrace long before. Our son, Johan, continued to run in cross-country meets in middle school when he was roll-up-the-line last. He eventually became a valuable runner on his high school team because he hung in there. He wanted to be an exchange student and he pretty much made that happen himself, including paying for half of the trip and finishing school early so he could spend what would have been his senior year in Taiwan. Our daughter, Shiny, is a wonderful and accomplished artist. She is going to make graphic art her career. When she gets involved in a project, she completely loses herself in it and hours fly by. I marvel at her natural talent and creativity.
And now Sedalia, whom I think of as 16 going on U.S. Senator, has this chance to live in D.C. at the seat of government. She was often the youngest person at a number of political events, but she eventually became an expected volunteer. She just kept showing up.
Through it all and what’s to come, oftentimes the only thing I can do is love them, keep talking with them, apologize when I continue to make mistakes and help them find the right people to connect them to places I can only imagine.
Becky Jones-Mahlum is the communications manager for Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains Region, out of the regional office in Bismarck. Becky spent most of her career as a journalist, working as a broadcast reporter, news director and producer. She and her husband, Mike, have three children.