Don’t Shame Me For Teaching My 3-Year-Old to Read: Why Education is Important to Me as a Black Mother


Here on Baby and Blog, our section on education is one of the most popular. Whether it’s articles about supplemental homeschooling, or teaching 3-year-olds to read, moms are seeking this information out and incorporating it into their parenting routines.

Recently I went out for coffee with a mommy acquaintance who I wanted to get to know better. She is not a black mommy but she is a fan of Baby and Blog, and seemed concerned about our education section.

“I don’t know that teaching a 3-year-old to read is helpful or even important right now. It’s so much pressure.”

I listened, then explained that for many black moms like myself, education and learning are serious business. Here’s why.

I am one generation removed from poverty.

My father was raised in a village in rural Haiti, my mother in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit. The common thread in both their lives is that they used education to escape generational poverty.

My mom spent her elementary school afternoons in the library and was accepted to Cass Technical — Detroit’s top magnet school. After my father’s teachers identified his potential, they arranged for him to complete high school in Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince. His mother sold almost all of her very few possessions to finance the move. He eventually gained a scholarship to a college in Detroit — where he later met my mother.

I can’t imagine what my life would look like today had my parents (and their parents) not made those choices. I certainly wouldn’t be on this blog, right now, speaking to you.

College was expected of all my siblings. Luckily we didn’t have the burden of escaping poverty on our shoulders. Still my parents wanted us to be high achievers and fulfill our potential. They didn’t do this to pressure us, they did it because they knew what we were capable of. They also wanted us to develop a passion for learning.

My parents got to work on my literacy very early. By age 3 I could read flashcards. I was accepted to top prep and high schools in Kingston, Jamaica, where I was raised, and went on to graduate college with honors and as student body vice president. After college I became a reporter and, when the economy tanked, taught myself the basics of blogging and managed to make a career of it. I attribute all of this to my parents. My love of learning and education is directly from them. It is part of my heritage.

It’s no coincidence that so many historical black figures are thinkers; James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Chinua Achebe. All intelligent men and women who, whether formally educated or not, used their minds to fight discrimination and define the black experience. Barack and Michelle Obama have publicly attributed much of their success to education — and credited their parents with instilling a love of learning (and the discipline to study) in them. Through her book club Oprah Winfrey has been a huge proponent of literacy in America.

When my son was born, the only gifts I ever got from my mother were books.

“You have to start reading to him early, ” she would remind every time she called.

Today Noah is 17 months old and he loves books. We go to the library twice a month to turn in old books and check out new ones. He is teaching himself the alphabet song and loves playing with the Fisher Price ABC app on my tablet. He recognizes what a number is, and is fascinated to see the digits count down on the microwave or stove.

The goal isn’t for him to be the smartest kid in his class, or to parade his achievements around. The goal is for him to develop a lifelong love of learning, the building blocks of which — a love of books, a sense of curiosity and play, and an introduction to letters and numbers — I am trying to instill now.

And it’s encouraging for me to hear your stories. The stories of how your children love learning, love books, love to read.

There are many ‘mommy wars’ that rage online. But me wanting to introduce my son to letters and numbers at this young age has nothing to do with the popular literature on young children and achievement.

It goes way, way deeper than that. It goes back to Noah’s great-grandparents, who identified a love of learning in their children and did what they could — with very limited resources and in a very segregated world — to encourage it. It goes back to his grandparents, who excelled in school to give me — his mother — a fair shot at life.

That is his legacy. That is why I teach him.

Leila Noelliste is the founder and editor of Baby and Blog and Black Girl with Long Hair.