“Woman, how divine your mission,
Here upon our natal sod;
Keep—oh, keep the young heart open
Always to the breath of God!
All true trophies of the ages
Are from mother-love impearled,
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.”
—From “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” by William Ross Wallace
In the theater of life, the role of a mother is a godlike one, as she shapes her children in her own image. They watch her every gesture, tone of voice, and expression with loving attention. Then they copy, a bit awkwardly but with sincere devotion. Even on her bad days, they love her unconditionally. To them she is divine—all that is good and right.
Mothers have tremendous power to shape the habits of thought, feeling, and action of our children—and thus, collectively, the future of humanity.
George Washington said: “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”
Confucius was raised by a single, very devoted mother who homeschooled him in his early years.
But in our current time, we have lost focus on the subtle but important aspects of nurturing that a mother gives her own children. The past two generations have seen a drastic decline in stay-at-home mothering, according to 2014 research from Pew Research Center. Less than a third of children in America now have a stay-at-home mother, although the rate has risen incrementally since 1999.
“The changing circumstances of mothers have clear implications for the nation’s children. About three-in-ten children (28%) in the U.S. today are being raised by a stay-at-home mother. … In 1970, 48% of children (34 million) had a mother who stayed at home,” according to the report.
“One-in-five U.S. children today are living in a household with a married stay-at-home mother and her working husband. In 1970, 41% of children lived in this type of household.”
One of the issues that affect children who are not home with their mothers is the quality of care they receive.
Traditionally, the family was seen as a very important institution in society, with the mother proudly at the helm of child care.
An advocate for stay-at-home mothering, psychologist and author James Dobson addressed the importance of mothering in a child’s early years in his book “Dare to Discipline,” which was written in 1970 amidst second-wave feminism, when stay-at-home mothers were being told that giving up their career for their children was a raw deal.
He pointed out that the most important task for caregivers during a child’s first five years of life is to “mold and guide and reinforce those subtle but important attitudes that emerge each day.”
To effectively guide these attitudes, the caregiver must be capable of “disciplining and loving in the proper combination.” Day care workers can, of course, be trained in age-appropriate discipline, but there is no training for affection, and affection is vital for young children to thrive.
“Being a good mother is one of the most complex skills in life, yet this role has fallen into disrepute in recent years. What activity could be more important than shaping human lives during their impressionable and plastic years?” Dobson wrote.
Founding Father John Adams wrote in his autobiography that the government he helped create was only as strong as the morality of the people it governed, and that mothers were largely responsible for this.
“The foundations of national Morality must be laid in private Families. In vain are Schools, Academies and universities instituted, if loose Principles and licentious habits are impressed upon Children in their earliest years. The Mothers are the earliest and most important Instructors of youth,” he wrote.
Imitation: The Sincerest Love
Children up until around age 6 imitate the people in their environment, both good and bad, without discretion. You will see your toddler copy your words, tone of voice, and actions. If you send your child to day care, you will get to know the expressions and mannerisms of the people there.
Children also will copy emotional patterns and thus assimilate your values and attitudes toward people and things in your environment. The metaphor of a mother shaping children in her image is not an idle one—children will act as you do.
So if you get mad when the dog jumps on the couch, your toddler will learn that it’s OK to yell at the dog. If you criticize your spouse, be prepared for criticism from your teenager.
In the book “Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers,” early childhood educator Faith Collins wrote, “That internal compass of right and wrong, which we have as adults, is developed through our formative experiences; especially those in the first six or seven years of life, when we soak in how the world should be from our parents, siblings, and teachers.
“What we do when we get angry teaches children what they should do when they get angry.”
She included a telling anecdote from a mother of four in her coaching practice:
“I had a terrible realization yesterday when my daughter wanted crackers and I said no. She threatened me! … I was so angry. I’m so sick of my kids fighting all the time, with me and with one another all the time. For some reason, my daughter’s threat about the crackers made me realize that the person they learned all of these from is me. How can I expect them to solve their differences kindly and politely if I’m constantly yelling, threatening … ?”
Many frustrated parents try in vain to change the behavior of their children without first changing their own behavior.
Another important element to consider with young children is that they are very sensitive to, but not conscious of, the emotional state of the adults around them. In the book “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge,” Waldorf early childhood educator Barbara Patterson explained that young children don’t have a clear sense of individuality—either of themselves or other people, but they clearly and intensely sense character.
“Who is the person standing behind the words or deeds? Is he warm-hearted, honest, and sincere? Or is he disinterested in the child, untruthful, self-seeking? Instinctively the child senses the reality behind the person.”
The child also is unable to separate themselves from the emotions of others, and if they are exposed to a deceitful person, it can undermine their own sense of self, Patterson added.
Obviously, most parents will do their utmost to keep their children away from people of low character. But it’s also worth considering that children are very sensitive to the subtle degrees of affection of those who care for them.
For example, even a well-trained caregiver in a day care center may not enjoy a particular child for some reason, an attitude that over time may undermine a child’s sense of self-worth if the caregiver does not make a conscious effort to overcome those feelings.
Of course, parents also can fall into patterns of not enjoying their young children, but parents are usually, and naturally, far more invested in the child’s well-being.
“No caregiver can match the enthusiasm and excitement of parent reactions over a baby’s accomplishments such as sitting up and walking. Such reactions reinforce the parents’ commitment and love and contribute to the child’s developing sense of self-worth and security,” writes Waldorf early child educator Rahima Dancy in her book “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher.”
Thus, we can see how genuine love and warmth from a mother in a child’s early years is vital to a lifetime of health and happiness.
From this perspective, we can see that mothers’ deciding en masse to continue in the workforce after having children certainly has had an impact on that generation of children.
Joy and Work of Motherhood
Children are perhaps the most joyful, present, and loving group of people on the planet. If you make the time to quietly observe and understand their perception of the world, their mood is contagious.
If you don’t make time to respect, love, and guide them, they will become some of the most obstinate, frustrating human beings you will ever encounter.
No matter your circumstances, mothering is hard—harder than most of us can imagine and in unexpected ways.
But like any hero’s quest, the journey of motherhood also is ennobling.
It forces us to find real strength within, to reflect deeply on ourselves—our actions and ideals—to set high standards and lead by our quiet example, even if that example is how to fall, get up, and keep striving.
Through motherhood, we experience compassion most readily—for the struggles of our children, for our own struggles, and for those of our mothers. We see that there is great suffering in life, but we have the chance, for our own children, to create a culture where respect and love overcome negativity. This, indeed, is truly a divine mission.
June Fakkert is a full-time mom of two and a health and wellness reporter for The Epoch Times.