In the last post we talked about students who are learning about the realities of parenthood using robotic infants.
There are also many teens learning the realities of parenthood the hard way: with real infants. Unfortunately, sometimes only a romanticized version of this reality is visible to the young and impressionable on the outside.
Well, not my life, exactly . . .
Some students in Mexico, like their counterparts in other nations, are being introduced with a new degree of realism to the responsibilities of parenthood. Schools the world over are fighting teen pregnancy using experimental "robot babies," which—like real ones—laugh, cry, soil their diapers, get colic and wake screaming in the middle of the night.
This is not really a new idea, of course. In the 1970s some U.S. schools, including Unioto High School in Chillicothe, Ohio, tried a very low-tech version of this. I'm not telling you how I know this.
Suffice it to say that 30 years ago the learning tool of choice was an uncooked egg, one of the few objects that—when dropped—makes a mess disgusting enough to motivate its caretakers to be very, very careful when handling it.
But while eggs were reasonable effective at getting the desired point across, there was little chance they might wake their young "mothers" for a 2:00 a.m. feeding.
In this area, the "Baby Think It Over" infant simulator from Realityworks has a distinct advantage. Not only do these colicky infant robots simulate every potentially inconvenient situation known to parents, they also monitor and report on the care they are given—including treatment that could result in shaken baby syndrome.
Apparently, we've come a long way baby. And to think it all started with an egg . . .
Thousands only make a statistic
Teen pregnancy statistics can be very misleading and making sense of them is somewhat like assigning meaning to tea leaves: they can say almost whatever you want them to say.
For instance, common wisdom has it that America and Britain alone lead the developed world in teen birth rates and that Denmark is among the nations with the lowest rates. This leads people to conclude that whatever Denmark is doing to prevent teen pregnancy must be working, and whatever America and Britain are doing is not. But even that simple, widely accepted statistic begs further examination.
First there's the fact that ‘birth rates’ are not quite the same thing as ‘pregnancy rates.’ A nation may have high teenage pregnancy rates, but if offset by high abortion rates, the resulting low birth rate may give a false impression. Further clouding the issue, some countries prefer not to report abortion rates, and others can’t—because, for various reasons, they don’t know what they are. Incidentally, Japan actually has the lowest teen pregnancy rates, as well as very low abortion rates—less than half that of Denmark for both statistics. And Japan’s statistics are measured for all women under 20, not just ages 15-19 as most other nations report them.
Still considering the same oft-reported factoid, there are other questions that have a bearing on its usefulness. Particularly, what is teen pregnancy and why should it bother us? In the minds of most, discussions about this subject refer to teenage girls who are unmarried and pregnant. The concern arises across political and religious lines in part because single young mothers and their children are shown to be exposed to much higher risks of all sorts, whether mental, emotional, physical or economic. It isn't good for anyone when young, unmarried girls become young, unmarried mothers.
But—oddly enough—national statistics aren’t reported by marital status. Married teens are usually lumped in with single teens when birth rates are reported by age. This means that statistics may include a large percentage of 18 and 19-year-olds who are married and who, in some cultures, may be surrounded by extended family support—not subject to the same risks as single teens whose lives will be seriously impacted by the struggle to raise a child alone in harsh economic circumstances. As studies have consistently demonstrated, children with fathers as well as mothers have higher levels of well-being by almost all measures. Certainly even married teen parents may have a lot to learn, but in cultures where extended family is routinely present, this deficiency may be overcome more easily.
Then there is the term ‘developed world.’ In some reports, the word ‘Western’ is substituted for ‘developed,’ but both carry a certain amount of ambiguity. Does one consider New Zealand to be ‘developed’ even if not precisely ‘Western?’ If so, one also has to point out that it often beats out Britain for the second spot. As of 2006 figures (the latest compiled) the two nations are, in fact, neck and neck.
Of course, when ‘less developed’ (less-Western?) nations are included in the reckoning, the U.S. and U.K. come out looking clean-cut and freshly washed. The highest rates are found within Latin America and Africa, some of the countries reaching levels two, three and four times that of the U.S.
The conclusion must be that cold statistics say very little about how to address this issue. In fact, zooming in for a closer look at some of the real-life stories that make up these statistics may be the only way to gain real insight into changing them.
In the December 1964 issue of The American Statistician, Yale professor Colin White wrote, "There is so much truth in the remark of [British statistician] Major Greenwood: . . . The rich drama of birth, life and death becomes, in the hands of the statistical sociologist, a report on ‘marriages, babies dead, broken lives, men gone mad, labor and crime, all treated in bulk, with the tears wiped off.’”
Especially insofar as teen pregnancy statistics are concerned, it is difficult to disagree with that sentiment.
Unfortunately, soccer isn't an important sport in Mississippi
There's not much to say on the subject of teen pregnancy today. Perhaps Jamie Lynn Spears says it best. (Thanks goes to my 15-year-old daughter for bringing this article to my attention).
Of course, it's impossible not to feel compassion for the many less fortunate girls for whom such a mistake means a life very different from the one Jamie Lynn's daughter is likely to have. And it's just as difficult to pin down why young girls might romanticize motherhood as it is to pin down why young boys (or girls) might romanticize violence. But these are topics worthy of at least some thought.
In the spirit of Jack Johnson, no blame is implied.
America and Britain take steps to reduce teen pregnancy
The world's leaders in teen pregnancy statistics are not ignoring their considerable problems. This fact sheet from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the United States is posted in its entirety here. A crucially informative article, it is concerned with the important role parents can take in minimizing the risks on the individual family level.
"Overall closeness between parents and their children, shared activities, parental presence in the home, and parental caring, support, and concern are all associated with a reduced risk of early sex and teen pregnancy," says the NCPTP. "Teens who feel closely connected to their parents are more likely to abstain from sex, wait until they are older to begin having sex, have fewer sexual partners, and use contraception more consistently."
Britain, also among the nations with the highest rates of teen pregnancy, has undertaken a campaign to "halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010." While its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy doesn't say much about plans for parental involvement, it does call for the "active engagement of all of the key mainstream delivery partners who have a role in reducing teenage pregnancies: health, education, social services, youth support services, and the voluntary sector."
One can only assume they left out "parents and families" because their presence and involvement is taken for granted.
Kids, don't try this at home . . .
In response to the last post, one Family Matters reader commented:
"In my high school classes, the pregnant moms are all aglow before, but shell-shocked after, the birth of their child. I haven't had a single one of them recommend the experience afterwards. Even so, many of the other girls envy them. I try, within the constraints of district policy, to help the girls find the self-esteem to want more of a future than such early parenthood ensures them, but it is an uphill battle."
As teachers like Nita know—but many teens don't—parenthood is not all fun and games and cuddly babies who chortle happily in their prams.
Take, for instance, a study undertaken by Ranae Evenson of Vanderbilt University and Robin Simon of Florida State University which was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior's December 2005 issue.
Noting that preceding research had found that, in general, parents experience more emotional distress than non-parents, Evenson and Simon set out to discover whether certain types of parenthood cause more stress than others.
Most relevant to the topic of teen pregnancy was the finding that "all types of single parents report higher symptom levels [of depression] than all types of married parents." Citing the emotional demands and stress of parenthood as the logical reason, Evenson and Simon further found that non-parents reported less depression than any type of parent, single or married.
Now, this is not to say that raising children is a joyless task, or that the stress of parenting must invariably lead to depression. In fact, as all parents know, some of our most rewarding life moments are given to us by our children. And despite the fact that this study holds that parents don't have mental health advantages over others, the results also indicated that by the time parents become empty-nesters, there don't seem to be disadvantages either.
But when all factors are taken together, the message seems to be that parenthood can be extremely rewarding when one is ready for it, but that it is not for children. Even when adults become parents, they need constant physical help, emotional support and a high capacity for personal resilience and self-sacrifice. Parenthood is not a cure for depression, loneliness or low self-esteem. Ideally, it would not be undertaken alone, and especially not by someone too young to handle the stressful demands that come with the territory.
It's not only the welfare of the young, single mother that is at stake. When young mothers don't understand the needs of infants or have difficulty meeting those needs because they lack sufficient support, the crucial bond that needs to be created between parent and infant suffers. As a result, the next generation also may find itself looking for acceptance through risky behavior.
Plainly teens do need more education about parenthood. But as family size shrinks and extended family scatters, fewer teens get that education at home through watching the daily example of family members caring for younger siblings or cousins. As a result, it becomes easier to romanticize motherhood—especially for young girls who may feel there is something missing in their lives.
School administrators do their best to fill the educational void—but is it only the gaps in sexual knowledge that trip up teens, or could ignorance about the kind of care infants require and what it takes to parent a child be part of the problem too? On reflection, it may be that the real rub lies in the fact that as parents of these teens, we ourselves have much to learn about what children really need if they are to grow into happy, productive and responsible adults.