Parents as the First and Foremost Teachers

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The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that "parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness" (¶ 6). Many of today's scholars support this statement. Family science and child development researchers everywhere are emphatic that good parenting is vital. From the earliest preschool years, the way parents teach and rear their children is critical to their children's development throughout life.

Mom and Dad, that means that your children's education doesn't begin when they go off to kindergarten. It begins in your home--with you as the teachers, even if you are not living together as husband and wife.

Studies show that the most crucial years of learning take place before a child is old enough to enter school. Researchers say that no amount of formal teaching can compare to the influence of parents, who teach every day by word and example.

Burton White of Harvard University writes: "The informal education that the family provides for their children makes more of an impact on a child's total education than the formal education system. If a family does its job well, the professional [teacher] can then provide effective training. If not, there may be little a professional can do."13 As a child's first teachers, you as parents are in a unique position to influence early learning in a variety of ways.

Develop Your Child's Literacy Skills

The crucial skill of literacy is learned at a very young age. By three or four, most children can understand and use the language spoken around them without any formal teaching. Researchers say these early years are prime time for the brain to acquire language skills. They say parents can take advantage of this learning-sensitive time by reading aloud to their children and talking to them. And they say reading picture books with your children is the single most important way you can teach your children language skills and ensure that they will become good readers.

Specific ideas for helping your child develop literacy skills include:

  • Begin exposing your child to books when he is an infant. Read and talk with him, even though you're doing all the talking. Ask him simple questions, such as "What's that?" Though you'll have to respond yourself ("That's right, it's a doggie!"), you're still engaging him with you and the activity.
  • Designate a daily reading/story time. Make it the same time every day so your child knows when it will be and looks forward to it. Many parents have story time just before bedtime because it tends to calm children.
  • Make reading as enjoyable as possible. Let her choose the book. Point to pictures and talk about them with her. Let her turn the pages and/or hold the book while you read. Don't worry if you can't finish a whole book in one sitting.
  • Take your child to a public library or bookstore with a large children's section. Help him get his own library card. Help him pick out books to read together. Attend story time.
  • Makeup activities to go with your child's favorite storybooks. For example, when you read If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,9 make chocolate chip cookies together. When you read Ruth Krauss' The Carrot Seed, buy seeds and help her plant her first garden.
  • Create a simple book for your child. Use an old folder for the cover or bind pages with string or staples. Write anecdotes about her. Include pictures of her. The book will become a keepsake she will treasure.

Develop Your Child's Social Skills

Some parents believe their child learns social skills from peers and that they contribute little more than genes toward personality and behavior. But according to recent studies, parenting plays a vital role in a child's social adjustment outside the home. For example, warm, responsive parenting has been linked to children's positive social behavior. Controlling parenting, on the other hand, has been linked to negative social behavior.

To help your child learn social skills, a one-size-fits-all approach is not enough. Fine-tune your parenting by carefully observing each child's individual personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Then provide the level of behavior control, discipline style, and degree of freedom that works best for that child -- all the while showing love and support.

Specific ideas for promoting healthy social development include:

  • Engage in "conversation" with infants. Talk and make soft, peaceful noises to him. Pay attention to the way he tries to "converse" with you through body movements, glances, and facial expressions.
  • Converse with your older child each day. Talk to him while driving in the car, while pushing your cart down the shopping aisle, or while sitting at the dinner table. Ask him to tell you about something that happened to him that day. Some experts say that a child hearing a caring adult express interest in him and in what he's doing is the most beneficial social interaction a child can experience. Focused attention encourages positive self-esteem and social skill development.
  • Arrange play dates for your preschool child. When you take your preschooler to the park, offer to take a friend or co-worker's child with you. Arrange to take turns watching each other's children for a few hours and letting the children play together.
  • Show your children you support them. Praise them when they accomplish something, even something small. Help them when they want to do something, even if it's just to build a castle in the sandbox. Studies link parental support to healthy social behavior.
  • If you're employed, make an extra effort to be fun, playful, and positive with your children. Make time before or after work or on the weekends to play with your children. Plan special activities and outings with them. This effort is especially important for fathers employed full-time. Studies show that children whose fathers make positive connections with them are less likely to show aggressive or troublesome social behavior.
  • Be responsive to your child. When your child has something to show you, don't brush her off with "Not now, dear, Daddy's busy." Show her you are as interested and excited as she is. When she has a question, a story, or just needs your attention, respond. Warm, responsive parenting has been shown to prevent hostility and anger in children.

Develop Your Child's Emotional Skills

Children learn to understand and express emotions from their parents. As infants, children turn to their parents for emotional support when they feel pained or distressed. After the infant stage, children begin to notice how their parents handle their own emotions. Parents become emotional role models. Children learn from their parents, for example, when certain emotions are appropriate, what to call their emotions, and how to respond to the emotions of others. Parents who teach these skills tend to raise emotionally healthy and morally sensitive children.3

Ideas for helping your child develop emotional skills include:

  • Ask your children questions on a daily basis. "How do you feel about that?" "Why do you think that happened?" Listen attentively to what they say. They will appreciate that you care about their feelings.
  • Make paper masks of different emotions. Masks can be as simple as paper plates with happy and sad faces drawn on them. To make the masks wearable, cut holes for eyes and noses and attach string or elastic to the back. Make them as creative and elaborate as you like.
  • Have your child draw pictures of how they feel. For example, next time your child is sad, ask him to draw a picture of how he feels. When he's finished, you can talk with him about the situation. Ask him questions such as, "What is this a picture of?" and "Why does your picture look like this?"
  • Respond to your children's emotions. When your children are disappointed, sympathize with them and comfort them. When they're excited, be excited with them. They learn how to respond to other's emotions by the way you respond to them.

Moral Values and Attitudes

Parents are the primary teachers of moral values and attitudes. In a speech at the World Congress of Families, scholar Craig Hart of Brigham Young University said: "What parents teach their children by precept and example about moral and religious values helps them make wise choices, even in the face of biological urges or peer influences that would have them do otherwise."

Specific ideas for teaching children the value of work include:

  • Start providing simple tasks to children at an early age. Begin by having your child put away his own toys. Help him at first so the task is not overwhelming.
  • Let your children help you with chores. You may be surprised at the fun children find in daily chores that you have long since tired of.
  • Bring toys into your home that incorporate work and play. For example, buy your toddler a toy broom. He may enjoy play-sweeping so much that in a few years he won't mind sweeping the patio.
  • Encourage and praise your child when he completes a task. Give him a hug and say thank you. Tell him what a great job he did.
  • Create a chore chart. Include your children's names and the days of the week or month. Buy fun stickers and put one on the chart next to a child's name each time he completes a chore. Make a goal of a certain number of chores. When his stickers add up to the goal, give him a special surprise or do something to celebrate. (You can create many variations on this idea. For example, use jellybeans in a jar to count completed chores. Or draw a giant thermometer and let your child color in ten degrees as he completes each chore.)
  • Leave room for failure. If your child fails to complete a chore or doesn't do a perfect job, don't berate or embarrass her. Perfectly stacking the blocks is not as important as learning to take responsibility for putting them away.

The following three excellent websites provide further information to help parents teach their children:

Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Professors Craig H. Hart and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Anderson, R. C., Hiebert, E. H., Scott, J. A., & Wilkinson, I. A. G. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers: The report of the Commission on Reading. Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading.
  2. Bruer, J. T. (1999). The myth of the first three years: A new understanding of early brain development and lifelong learning. New York: Free Press.
  3. Denham, S., von Salschich, M., Olthof, T., Kochanoff, A. & Caverly,S. (2002). Emotional and Social Development in Childhood. In P. K.Smith & C.H. Hart (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of childhood social development (pp. 307-328). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  4. Greaney, V. (1986). Parental influences on reading. The Reading Teacher, 39, 813-18.
  5. Hart, C. H. (1999). Combating the myth that parents don't matter. Geneva, Switzerland: speech prepared for presentation at the World Congress of Families II (Elongated Paper Version).
  6. Hart, C. H., Newell, L. D. & Olsen, S. F. (2003). Parenting skills and social/communicative competence in childhood. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (Eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills (pp. 753-800). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  7. Lall, G. R. & Lall, B. M. (1983). Ways children learn. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
  8. Larsen, J. M. & Haupt, J. H. (1997). Integrating home and school: Building a partnership. In C. H. Hart, R. Charlesworth, & D. C. Burts (Eds.), Integrated curriculum and developmentally appropriate practice birth to age eight (pp. 389-415). Albany, NY: SUNY.
  9. Numeroff, Laura. (1985). If you give a mouse a cookie. Harper Row and Publishers. 
  10. Parke, R. D., Simpkins, S. D., McDowell, D. J., Kim, M., Killian, C.,Dennis, J., Flyr, M. L. Wild, M. & Rah, Y. (2002). Relative contributions of families and peers to children's social development. In P. K. Smith & C. H. Hart (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of childhood social development (pp. 156-177). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  11. Schaffer, H. R. (2000). The early experience assumption: Past, present, and future. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24(1), 5-14.
  12. Strickland, D. S., & Morrow, L. M. (Eds). (1989). Emerging literacy: Young children learn to read and write. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  13. White, B. L. (1990). The first three years of life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  14. White, B. L., Kaban, B. & Attanucci, J. (1979). The origins of human competence: The final report of the Harvard preschool project. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.