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Teen Parenting: An Alternative Perspective

By Jeane Rhodes, PhD

I was a teen parent in the late 1950s, when getting married was virtually the only way to go. I am so grateful now that abortion was not a viable option. My beautiful daughter turned fifty last year. She is a ceramic artist and mother to a young adult son. Her younger brother is a sixth-grade teacher and musician, as well as father to two wonderful young adults. Even though my marriage to their father was difficult and ultimately ended in divorce, I would not change having had my children as a teen.

I returned to school late in life, at age 46, and have since completed a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. I worked for ten years as a therapist in the foster care system. As a therapist to several teen moms, I saw the downside of teen pregnancy, too.

All of this led to my writing a novel about teen pregnancy in foster care, intended to show an alternative approach to teen pregnancy. Rather than treating it like a disaster, the purpose of the book is to help the teen grow into a responsible, caring parent. We’ve been fighting nature on this one long enough. Perhaps becoming a young parent should be an option, and teens should be educated about both the challenges and rewards of parenting. Paradoxically, I think this approach might even reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy. And, those teens who do become pregnant would be actively supported in becoming good parents.

Is there even a possibility that teens would make exceptional parents? Their idealism and deep connection with their own emotions could be assets. The skills needed to be a good parent include empathy, compassion and the ability to connect on a very deep level with another human being. Many teens I know have these attributes. They can be very attuned to their own bodies, which are ready and quite capable of successfully giving birth.

For several generations now, we have encouraged teens to “have a good time” before settling down to the responsibilities of adulthood. That is now extending into their twenties and even thirties, as young adults become reluctant to give up their “freedom.” The wait to become mature seems to be backfiring—immaturity just lasts longer. That extended childhood comes with a price.

Our bodies become less able to conceive as we age. Delaying parenthood, for many, creates barriers to ever becoming parents in the first place. On the social level, mothers may have established careers and be reluctant to devote the time necessary to being a parent. Fathers, on the other hand, are willing to become more involved and help balance the load as both parents continue to work, which has been a very positive development.

What if we were to consider early parenting as a stage of life preceding the development of a career? As parents, we would then be able to devote time to our children, playing and growing with them, knowing that we could devote our full energy to careers later on. Extended life spans are making this ever more possible. Online education is enabling young parents to continue going to school while caring for their children. For those young people who don’t do well with independent learning, there are options like alternative high schools that provide daycare so that young parents can be students, as well. Part-time work and job sharing are other possibilities that allow young parents to provide for themselves and still have at least one parent staying with the child. Extended families can provide vital support for those teens lucky enough to have this resource. Our current financial crisis is creating more multi-generational households, which we may discover to be beneficial on many levels. The isolation of young families has not proved to be an unmitigated blessing.

This is not to propose that this life path is right for every individual. It should, however, be a course that is supported by family and society. Actually planning to have children earlier in life is a viable option. If we were to begin preparing pre-teens for the realities of parenthood, including the rewards, we might be very surprised by the responsible choices they would make. Simply warning them about the difficulties does not seem to be working.

We are doing teens a disservice by telling them they are not mature enough to handle adult responsibilities. We encourage them to be irresponsible, then express surprise when they are. We need to expect more. Teens are a tremendous resource that is currently being squandered, and encouraging this lack of responsible behavior is not preparing them for life, nor does it bring the joy they might experience in discovering the rewards of parenthood.