10 Lessons From Our Irreplaceable Moms

05/08/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

Our mothers are our first caregivers, our first teachers, and our first friends. As children, we hang on their every word and live to see their faces light up with approval. What they teach us from our earliest moments can make us smile, laugh and cry. More often than not, these lessons stay with us for a lifetime.

In honor of moms and mother-figures everywhere, here are 10 motherly lessons worth celebrating and sharing:

1. When you meet someone for the first time, smile and shake hands. We might think of this as a lesson from dads, but many of us (myself included) learned it from our moms. Ever notice how when you meet someone else's child for the first time, Mom is right there inquiring gently, "Can you shake hands?" Moms teach us more than good manners. They teach us how to move outside ourselves and connect with other people.

2. Look at your behavior through another person's eyes. When I was about to turn 5 and I didn't feel like inviting Patrick Cook to my birthday party, my mother asked me over breakfast (in her signature matter-of-fact tone), "How do you think Patrick would feel if you didn't include him?" Patrick came to the party, and as I recall, he stayed and helped clean up. Long before I could speak or write the word empathy, my mother had woven the much-needed habit of empathy into my heart.

3. Do right by your friends -- and everyone else. When we were young and we misbehaved, it was almost always our moms who marched us down to the neighbor's house, the principal's office, or wherever else we needed to go to issue a face-to-face apology. Moms teach us decency and accountability -- lessons that helped us transition successfully from home to college, from college to career, and out into the rest of our lives.

4. Forget about the in crowd. Think of a time, maybe in middle school, when one of your friends left you behind for the more popular kids. Remember how horrible it felt? It was always our mothers who reminded us that the popular crowd didn't matter, and who we are was more than good enough. Even if we weren't ready to believe them, we knew deep down our mothers had our backs.

5. Save up. Did your mother give you everything you wanted -- or did she teach you how to save and spend wisely? Mothers are often the family money managers, the ones who helped us open and manage our first bank accounts. Moms were the ones who politely insisted we deposit our birthday money, instead of spending it on the first thing we saw.

6. Root for the underdog, even when it's wildly unnecessary. One Christmas night when I was in high school, my best friend Susie and I were sitting around the kitchen table with her older siblings, listening to Bing Crosby and playing penny poker. To put it mildly, I was losing. Meanwhile, Susie's mom was circling the table, tossing in little comments that only I found funny.

At one point, Mrs. Matthews disappeared into the other room. A minute or two later, she returned with her change purse. "Mom, what are you doing?" her kids groaned. Susie's mom didn't say a word. Before I could protest or even grasp what was happening, Susie's mother sidled up to me and plunked down every penny, nickel, dime and quarter she had. She was happy to empty her purse and even endure her kids' disapproval, just so I could stay in the game.

Years later, Susie and I would huddle at her mother's wake, laughing about the poker incident as we wiped away our tears. But it just goes to show: A mother's love extends to all children--not just her own. And it's okay to laugh a little, even at a wake.

7. Don't be afraid to improvise. Aren't moms the master of this? If they're not wrapping a hot dog in a crust of wheat bread (like my mom), they're slapping maxi-pads inside their dresses for a nice shoulder boost, like Augusten Burroughs' mom in Running With Scissors. Moms can make us laugh and sometimes roll our eyes with their cleverness. But we never lose our awe for the fascinating way they move through the world.

8. Don't even think about trying someone else's meatloaf recipe. Every kid in the world knows that no one else can match their mom's meatloaf, brownies, or for that matter, Kool-Aid.

9. You're never too old for your 15 minutes of fame. As a young 80-something, Lee Stoffle -- whose kids I've known since middle school -- made a guest appearance on the TODAY show. Now granted, Lee's granddaughter is Amy Robach. But still. By anyone's standard, Lee held her own, with her smile, her ease, and spontaneous teasing of one of the other anchors. Mothers teach us when teasing is okay and when it's not okay. They shine in ways all their own. By example, they teach us to shine.

10. It really will be OK. The night my nephew Justin got married, the band's lead singer called Justin and his mother out onto the dance floor. This was to be a moment just for them. Their song? "Stand By Me." Have you ever found old, familiar lyrics suddenly taking on whole new meanings?

As mother and son danced under the stars, smiling at each other in pure adoration, I flashed back to an afternoon at the beach when Justin was six--and he accidentally locked himself inside a Porta-Potty. And yes, he gave me permission to tell you this.

By the time he busted out, he was whimpering, tense, and understandably ticked off. With great calm and without skipping a beat, his mother showed him exactly how to get himself out next time, so he would never again have to feel stuck or scared, least of all by a Porta-Potty.

That's what mothers do. They stand by us, and give us strength to stand alone. They make us unafraid. They dry our tears and get us to laugh, even when we don't want to. But in our later years, tears still come, especially when we recall how much our mothers mean to us, and how much they always, always will.