New moms and dads: The first and best teachers

By Liza McFadden

Do you know the best way to determine if your child will graduate high school? For moms it is as simple as looking in the mirror. A mother’s education level is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors like family income.

It’s just one of thousands of ways we impact our children, knowingly or not.

As a long-time advocate for literacy, I’m proud of the strides Florida has made in the last 20 years in education. After years of dogged improvement, the 2021 Quality Counts report by Education Week, ranks Florida third in the nation for K-12 education. And, for the past five years, U.S. News & World Report has named Florida the top state in the country for higher education.

While the overall direction is positive, we all know that there are thousands of students struggling, and that we must continue to improve our education system to make it healthier – and brighter. As a long-time advocate for literacy, no matter one’s age, I think there is one strategic area that has been given fairly limited attention but could pay significant dividends for the well-being of our children. I’m intrigued by the data that is coming out on the benefit of paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

Consider, early bonding of parents and their child is proven to be crucial for a child’s long-term mental and physical health. Compelling research finds that 10 weeks of paid family leave is associated with a 10 percent lower infant mortality rate. Paid leave is also associated with higher levels of breastfeeding and more regular doctor’s visits.

And, here’s the direct education link: Infants whose parents had up to three months of paid family leave also have more complex brain patterns. Simply put, the first few months are especially important in brain development. The Society for Research in Child Development goes so far as to state that there are lifelong benefits of neural connections forming in warm, predictable, non-stressed interactions with parents.

Floridians have been on the forefront of education innovation for two decades, and we’ve proven that academic gain can be done in a cost-effective manner. So too can paid family leave. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is championing an effort to allow new parents to access their Social Security benefits early to provide for paid family leave. On top of the educational benefit, he extolls the financial stability paid leave brings to middle and working class parents – mothers who have paid family leave are 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance and 40 percent less likely to use food stamps after the birth or adoption of their child.

To my mind, paid family leave has the potential to serve as a formative building block for the next educational advancement for our nation – a focus on inspiring parents to see themselves as their child’s first teacher. Whitney Houston’s song, “Greatest Love,” cuts to the heart of this value proposition: “I believe the children are our future. … Teach them well and let them lead the way.” Certainly paid family leave is just one cog in a huge wheel of tools and ideas on how we improve early learning, but the power of a new parent is unparalleled, and we should do everything we can to unleash that talent. 

New moms and dads: the first and best teachers
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