A Moment with Dr. Moore | The Many Faces of Moms

May 23, 2023

“Our mothers are our first teachers,” as Caroline Kennedy said, “and we teach others the same lessons we learn from them. As a child, when your mother believes in you, you believe in yourself, and when that happens, there is nothing you can’t do. As a mother, that is the greatest gift you can give to a child.” And it’s a gift that has encouraged Kennedy to give back as an advocate for literacy, education and reading. So has Chelsea Clinton, another former first daughter who recently partnered with the Council to improve the early learning environment for all children.

Clinton has emulated her mom by advocating for young learners, as she explained. “My mother has always supported organizations like Head Start, which helps low-income children achieve school readiness. But even if I weren’t my mother’s daughter, I’d be just as excited about early learning, especially since I have three small children of my own.” And as a mom, she understands the importance of reading. “I know the lasting impact that books have made on me. My first memory is of my mom, Hillary, picking me up after I had fallen, giving me a big hug and reading me Goodnight Moon,” Clinton recalled.

“When we’re reading with our children, we spark their imaginations and we strengthen their brains. All that is important to their development, happiness and success,” Clinton said. And moms also fill many other roles in helping their children advance. They teach young children the basic tools of survival: how to eat, drink, walk and avoid danger. But a full life is about more than survival, and moms teach children about the things that lead to a rich, full existence. A mother’s lap is a classroom where children learn about love, friendship and trust before they even take their first step.

And the way children face the wider world depends on lessons learned from their moms. Mothers help children gain the social and emotional skills to get through challenges each day. They boost children’s self-confidence by giving them support. And moms act as role models to help children distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad. The message a mom gives to her child is the one that the child will give to the world as they grow up and go to school, where their success also reflects lessons learned at home.

Moms help children gain critical thinking skills, such as problem solving, analyzing, evaluating, reasoning, creativity and innovation. Mommy-and-me play may not seem like teaching, but it is. The games mothers play with their kids and the good times they have reading together give children the building blocks for math, science, literacy and the arts when they go to school. And mothers still play an important part in helping children learn though the children might spend much of the day away from home with teachers in a child care program.

Educators and moms are two sides of the same coin since a mother is a teacher at home and a teacher is a mother at school. They both share the goal of helping children do their best, so moms need to take on a new role once their children are in school: that of a partner with their children’s teachers. And that isn’t easy for some moms, as you can see from a scene that takes place every year around the world. The first day of preschool is fraught with emotion for the mother of a three-year-old child who is crying and clinging to her leg. The dramatics come to an end after the little one peers into the classroom where other children are playing. Still, the mother’s mind continues racing as she wonders how she can hand off her baby to complete strangers. Will they understand how to deal with all the child’s little quirks? And is her child ready for this, she asks herself until the teacher greets her with a warm smile that calms her down. It’s the beginning of a connection that will work to the benefit of her child.

A positive bond between a teacher and mom—or sometimes a close family member like a grandmom or aunt—will lead to better outcomes for children, as experts agree. “A positive mom-teacher relationship helps your child feel good about school and be successful in school,” says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. “It demonstrates to a child that they can trust a teacher—because you do.” This positive relationship makes children feel like the important people in their lives are working together.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, as the moms out there may think. There are teachers your child will love and teachers your child may not. There are teachers you may like and dislike as well. There are teachers who may adore your child and those who find the child a source of frustration. But whatever the case, your child’s teacher is the most important person in your child’s life after you and their dad. So, both sides should take steps to make the partnership work.

Teachers want a few simple things from moms, including presenting a united front that helps children feel accountable and secure. Teachers also want moms to read at home and foster a climate in the household where reading counts. In addition, teachers want moms to help their child be prepared for school by setting up simple routines at home. Children who get a good night’s sleep, as teachers know, and come to school with all their supplies on hand are far more ready to learn.

That’s what every mother wants, and they need teachers to understand the roadblocks that may stand in the way for many moms. When a tired child comes to school, a teacher may want to shake the mom and make her read an article about children’s need for sleep. What they may not realize is that the mom is homeless or that the child sleeps in the same bed with a couple of siblings. Or a teacher might think a mom doesn’t care about her child when she doesn’t show up at school meetings. But teachers need to empathize and see the mother’s side when she doesn’t seem engaged in her child’s education. Many moms struggle to hold full-time jobs while shopping for the household, scrubbing floors, caring for their children and struggling to squeeze in a little me-time.

It’s easy to forget the pressure that life puts on working moms, and that’s especially true for mothers who are early childhood teachers. I’ve seen the heavy load they bear since my mom taught at Head Start when I was a little boy. And women like my mom face a special challenge as they try to be both mothers in the classroom and mothers at home. It’s a difficult balance as they strive to devote themselves to young students while also being there for children of their own.

Sure, they may feel that “my most important identity is as a mother to my child,” as Clinton said when she first became a mother. And some moms who are teachers feel guilty since time spent in the classroom cuts down on the time they spend with their own little ones. Yet they want the best for the children they serve, just like they want the best for the children they nurture at home. And these mom-teachers deserved special respect as we marked Mother’s Day this month. Let’s face the facts and acknowledge that it can be exhausting to fill two such essential roles in young children’s lives. These mom-teachers play the mother of all roles.



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