Flap over terminology could deflect attention from the real issues
When the Gloucester High School principal told Time that his school's pregnancy boom was due to a "pact" between 7 or 8 pregnant girls to raise their babies together, he couldn't have known how explosive the idea would prove.
As media converged on the town in the following days, Gloucester found itself the center of decidedly unwelcome attention. On Monday the town's Mayor finally held a press conference denying the existence of a pact and sparking a media discussion about reporting ethics. Reporters, it has been said, shouldn't have repeated the principal's comments without verifying them as fact.
Gloucester may now rest in peace. Attention has been successfully deflected from the real issue and thrown onto the school principal and the reporters who publicized his remark.
No one is denying some of the pregnancies were intentional. (The principal never claimed all of the school's 18 current pregnancies were planned). So whether the mothers who did plan their pregnancies shared a pact, a tacit agreement, or a mere common intention is worthy of very little discussion. When you're high-fiving each other for positive test results, you're implying awareness of each other's hopes. And mutual congratulation is not the response one would ordinarily expect from teens whose lives have just been changed so drastically.
In any case, the questions remain the same—and they are important not to shame anyone or blame anyone—but to learn from the past and shape the future. The most important questions raised by the evidently intentional nature of some of these pregnancies would be: Why would a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl with the whole world before her not be horrified to find herself pregnant and tied to an uncertain future—not only for herself but also for her child? What could be missing in a young teen's life that would suggest to her that becoming a single mother at such an age was an exciting option?
This fact also remains the same: for those (however many there may have been) who intentionally chose pregnancy, (pact or no pact) the fact that they would have had to travel 20 miles for confidential birth control was not the underlying problem. When a woman is trying to get pregnant, she doesn't use birth control even if she finds it lying conveniently under her pillow.
What is the underlying problem then? Some have suggested that perhaps as a society we fail to educate our children about the responsibilities of parenthood. Others characterize such statements as 'blame and shame' tactics. Is it blaming and shaming to search objectively for answers that may help reduce what is certainly a situation that is not healthy for communities? If so, as a society our hands are tied. No solution to any problem can ever be proposed for fear someone may end up feeling blamed or shamed because of a suggestion that their behavior may need to change.
Where have we gotten the idea that it is shameful to admit we have room for change and growth, whether as individuals or communities? Is it not more shameful to become so complacent that we see no need to make course corrections as we navigate these issues?
Teens in Gloucester, Massachusetts, reportedly seek unconditional love through pregnancy
The story coming out of Gloucester, Massachusetts this week is that local high school administrators have begun to notice unusually high numbers of girls coming into the Gloucester High School clinic for pregnancy tests.
At first, the sharp rise in teen pregnancy in this New England fishing town was dismissed as a temporary fluke. But by the time the school's nurse practitioner realized she had administered 150 pregnancy tests between October and May, she knew something had to be done about the suddenly looming baby boom. In her view, prescribing contraceptives was the answer. But many parents and even the Gloucester mayor disagreed with her, so the school nurse resigned in public protest of their opposition to what she saw as the only logical solution.
Why so much community confidence that contraceptives wouldn't solve Gloucester's teen-pregnancy problem?
Because as school officials and parents began asking questions, it became apparent that the local teen pregnancy spike wasn't all that accidental. In fact, the school principal noted that as tests were confirmed positive, many of the teens reacted by high-fiving each other, and tests with negative results elicited more disappointment than relief. Eventually, nearly half of the expectant mothers, all of whom were 16 or younger, admitted to having set out to become pregnant. Why? Officials may never have a satisfactory answer, but according to one former schoolmate the now-pregnant girls were looking for unconditional love and they believed a baby would provide it.
Though a vote is on the school agenda to decide whether contraceptives will be provided at Gloucester High School in the future, it is difficult to see how anyone will actually convince teens like those in the school's 2007-2008 'Pregnancy Club' to use them. That is, unless officials see themselves physically force-feeding birth control pills to high-school students. Logically, you can lead a girl to The Pill but you can't make her swallow it.
Obviously any solution will have to address much deeper issues than birth control, and some searching questions will need to be asked: Were these girls looking for unconditional love? Did they believe they might receive it from a baby? If so in need themselves that they have nowhere to turn for love, how capable will these girls be of providing the nurturing care and responsive attention that a baby needs to grow and develop? Why was a father's influence seen as so superfluous to a baby's needs that the boys who provided the necessary DNA don't seem to figure at all in the future envisioned by the young, expectant mothers?
Is it possible we are leaving some important gaps in the education of society's future families?
A new look at a traditional family relationship
The first American Father's Day celebration was held on July 5, 1908, in Fairmont, West Virginia, only about 20 miles from the location of the first Mother’s Day celebration in Grafton. The event was the emotionally charged response to a mine explosion that had occurred one year earlier, killing more than 300 men, most of whom were fathers. Hundreds of grieving widows were left behind, along with more than 1,000 fatherless children.
Mrs. Grace Clayton, a woman who had lost two children and understood family loss well, was moved to establish an annual holiday to honor and remember all fathers for their great contributions to their families. But while this Father’s Day observance is mentioned in at least one historical document, it has all but been forgotten, and it is a separate event that occurred one year later that is most often referred to as the “beginning of Father’s Day.”
At a Mother’s Day celebration almost a year later, a young woman named Sonora Louise Smart was thinking about the sacrifices her father had made while shouldering the responsibility for his six children after his wife had died eleven years earlier. She wondered why there was no day set aside to honor fathers, and made it her mission to see one established. Her efforts were joined with those of many others across America, and while a declaration by President Calvin Coolidge made the day a popular tradition by 1924, it was not until 1972 that the day was finally signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
Interestingly, this formal recognition came just as fathers’ contributions to the family were beginning to be acknowledged in more important legal ways as well. In 1972, the Supreme Court acknowledged that fathers, like mothers, should be entitled to a hearing before state intervention that might result in removal of his children. The Court also ruled it unconstitutional to begin proceedings to terminate the parental rights of fathers without proper notification.
Now, almost a decade into a new millennium, society is still struggling to find the right place for fathers, but researchers who study this question are uncovering encouraging news that may give families more reason than ever to celebrate Father’s Day. Read more about the importance of fathers in Vision's special report: A Tribute to Fathers.
But is it really only Britain's problem?
According to the Spectator's Rachel Johnson, it isn't only the nation's poverty-stricken children who are now at risk (a figure estimated at one in three)—but even Britain's middle-class children are suffering from neglect these days.
Despite an irreverent (her critics might prefer to say "irrelevant") style, Johnson eventually boils down her nation's recent family news to one conclusion: parents and children currently see less of each other than at any other time in the last century, with the result that society is reaping what she calls a "quasi-feral generation of children."
Citing high divorce rates and the economic pressures that require two working parents in order to provide necessities that could once be secured by one, Johnson does have a point. Of course, one can argue that the upper classes have long been accustomed to sending their children off to boarding schools, but then—one would also have to acknowledge that perhaps Britain's upper classes haven't always produced the most well-adjusted children either.
In fact, it was precisely his own boarding school experience beginning at the age of 7 that ultimately influenced John Bowlby as he developed his theory of infant attachment. One oft-reported story has him years later telling his wife that he wouldn't send a dog to boarding school at such a young age.
Since Bowlby, of course, neuroscience has shed light on how important it is for parents to be personally engaged with their children. Relationships during the formative years are crucial—and indeed at all ages are important to the human brain in literally shaping and cultivating it.
As the Mindsight Composium (led by UCLA's Daniel J. Siegel) expressed it in a 2005 conference program:
"Recent neuroscientific research gives us evidence-based best practices to create intelligent and compassionate human relationships. Through scientific study of the human brain and nervous system we have come to understand the profoundly interconnected nature of our minds. Only about 25% of our brain development has occurred by birth. It is through our relationships that the brain develops and the mind emerges. Now that we have begun to understand that neural processes and thus brain development are altered by relationships, neuroscience can help us in the development of health practices for optimal human growth throughout the lifecycle."
Bruce D. Perry, child psychiatrist and Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas, brings this concept back into the context of what children need from their parents: "Many young victims of abuse and neglect need physical stimulation, like being rocked and gently held, comfort seemingly appropriate to far younger children," he says, calling it "the repeated, patterned physical nurturing needed to develop a well-regulated and responsive stress response system."
It is this stress response system that Bowlby discovered and explored in his attachment studies.
We live in a society so complicated that there no longer seem to be any easy answers. But it is clear that children need much more than simple financial support from parents if they are to shrug off the "quasi-feral" epithet. Let's hope that one doesn't stick.