May 22, 2015 07:15 PM

Growing up in the spotlight, Monica Brown was exposed to a lot at an early age, and it was her mother, Marilyn Best, who kept her grounded.

“I was able to avoid a lot of things that happen, especially to children who become celebrities, because I felt comfortable in my own skin because of my mom,” the R&B singer, 34, tells PEOPLE exclusively.

“She instilled certain morals and values, and she said, ‘Regardless of where you go, take you with you wherever you go. Whatever you’re around, whatever you see, never allow it to play a part in who you become.’ ”

Mei Tao

These valuable lessons sometimes came across as her mom being overprotective when she was growing up, but Monica — now a mom of three herself — has learned to appreciate them as she grew older.

“My mom was very cautious with who was around us, and for that reason I think we were really protected in a good way,” says the mother of Rodney, 10, Romelo, 7, and Laiyah Shannon20 months. “A lot of the things that I didn’t understand, I understand now [as a mom].”

The mother-daughter pair have remained close throughout Monica’s career, and spend nearly every day together.

“When she’s on the road a lot, we may have to travel to see her, but we make sure we always keep that connection,” says Best.

“Family is a priority for me,” adds Monica.

For more of our interview with Monica and her mother, pick up the May 11 issue of PEOPLE.

— Gabrielle Olya

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