Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Limited Virtues of Teen Parenting

A couple of months ago, I read an argument in favor of teen parenting - not just the parenting part, but with the notion that society should unblinkingly subsidize teen mothers. The author starts out with a description of her own pregnancy, and how much she looked forward to being a mother - because, as you know, assuming that everybody else's experience is exactly the same as yours is the next-best thing to following the scientific method. She next conflates the disinterest of teen mothers she has encountered with learning how to parent with there being "something enviably instinctive about the mothering skills of those I met":
Their kids meant everything to them: at six months they were having their ears pierced, by one they had their own TV. There was no angst about, "Am I doing this right?". No textbook consulted, and on the whole, apart from what their mums advised them, no authority revered. A new pregnancy, however many children already lived in the house and whether there was a man around or not, was almost always a cause for celebration. And in the end, these mothers ended up teaching me. Like how to share your bedroom with five kids and not get wound up. Like how to rely on no one but yourself. No bloke was ever worth trusting, I was told; they were just useful for one thing, sex. These young women had an important job to do. They were bringing up the next generation. They were mums.
It gets better - why do a difficult job to make money and support yourself, maybe even getting an education, when you can simply have a baby and get a government check? As if having a family and supporting your family are incompatible concepts.
I couldn't agree more. Motherhood engendered responsibility. When we talk about teenage mothers not having aspirations, what are we talking about? Working in a chip shop? A cleaning job? Are we saying those are more noble, more "aspirational" pursuits than motherhood
As you can see, it's the people who disagree with the author who are the ones being judgmental, by thinking that it's not beneath somebody to work in fast food or housecleaning during their teen years while they lay a foundation, even get the education necessary, for a better life. It's not at all judgmental to sneer at entry level jobs as being beneath people who have not yet developed the skills or gained the education that will lead to better jobs.

But it gets even better....
When I was pregnant I decided to give a dinner for all the pregnant girls of Corby who were under 16. It was fun. We compared our bumps, ridiculed our partners, told each other anecdotes about bad sex. All had got pregnant "accidentally on purpose", and not because they had no aspirations but because they had: being a mother, living in their own flat, and being paid pocket money by the state to do so. None felt that real life was passing them by: they had each other for company. It would be a laugh. They'd have pushchair races. They'd take sandwiches and eat them in the park together. They all loved kids. Kids were the best company of all, they said. I was impressed.
Teenagers getting pregnant "accidentally on purpose", with a life plan of going on the dole, and with no deeper thoughts about parenting than "I love kids" or "It will be a laugh"? This impressed the author?

The author then describes how having three children in relatively rapid succession wore her down - how parenting was hard work. How she was competitive with other parents, particularly with her first child. How whatever control she had over her life after she had her first child was gone by the time she had her third. How resentful she became (and still appears to be) over friends who, without children, traveled, "were being artists or training for the professions", "were in restaurants with potential lovers", and didn't have any interest in her parenting stories. How her husband had to travel a lot, leaving her alone, without a similar "cool" peer group to the group of teen mothers she met on council estates (public housing). So in her twenties she was completely ill-equipped to be a parent, and yet she wants us to believe that impoverished teenagers can naturally parent in a way that she, with money and education, and resources she chooses to elide from her self-pitying summary, could not.

She closes with an example of the "natural" parenting she is talking about:
A few years later, I became, for a brief while, a truant officer. I was persuaded by every single family I interviewed that school was a waste of time. The mum would argue, 'My lad's just not happy at school. He's bullied. He finds lessons boring. He doesn't concentrate and then the teacher shouts at him. I just don't see the point of school, when you can be at home."

And I would say: "But don't you have aspirations for your child? Don't you want him to grow up and be a brain surgeon?"

And the mum would say: "What I want is for my child to be happy. And being happy with a little is better than being unhappy, isn't it?..."
And a few years after that (or maybe not) the little truant would knock up one of the "cool" teenage girls, "accidentally on purpose", who would simultaneously describe him as unreliable, untrustworthy, and useful only for sex. And those who had sons would persuade her that all that matters is being happy... with no education, no prospects, and a scattering of children being raised by mothers who want nothing more than their children to be "happy" even as their daughters come to view their sons as human detritus? Meanwhile, their fourteen year old daughters are so gratful for being raised by such a "cool" mother that they can't wait to get pregnant "accidentally on purpose" so they can get out of the home? Boy, this does sound enviable.

She never takes a step back to ask herself if the principal goal in getting pregnant "accidentally on purposes" is "living in their own flat, and being paid pocket money by the state to do so", perhaps it might be better for everybody involved to set aside her own fantasies of how "cool" these teenagers are, their fantasies of how fun and easy parenting would be, and simply directly subsidize their move to independence. Heaven forbid we present a choice that's more stark, such as, "Get pregnant, and your choices are to continue to live at home until the age of 18, or if that's not possible to live in a group home setting where you will continue your education, learn how to parent, and be supervised in your activities until you're 18." (The problem with that last idea, of course, is that in the short-term it's more expensive than saying, "Okay, here's an apartment of your own and a government check.")

I know that there are teen parents who step up to the plate, who effectively give up their childhood to do right for their own children. But sorry, a young teen who gets pregnant on purpose with the idea that she'll cast off the father and raise her child on welfare is unlikely to fall into that category - and a father who's passive about being cast aside doesn't even come close.

A much more conservative, albeit at times misguided, take on things from another author:
I visit many schools and Sure Start centres. I meet women of my age (47) who are now great-grandmothers. These women have never had jobs; have multiple children by multiple men – none of whom have ever contributed to their children's upkeep, welfare or moral guidance. They have lived on benefits because grandma did and mother did. These young girls see nothing wrong in this lifestyle and that it is their right to live like this. No one else is telling them that they shouldn't.

I visited a Sure Start centre1 a couple of weeks ago where there were six 16-year-old girls with one-year-old babies. Three were pregnant again, none by the same boy, and they saw nothing wrong in this "lifestyle choice". They did not see anything wrong in claiming benefits and were adamant that they did not want the boys who impregnated them having anything to do with their first-born as they were now with the latest partner. It is so sad to see this and their attitudes are astounding.
I largely concur. The previous editorial's perspectives having been duly considered, there's nothing "cool" about any of that. I think, though, that it's a misperception that these teen pregnancies are principally based upon the past choices of parents and grandparents - the modeling plays a role, but I think the previous editorial made a valid point that these are in many ways economic decisions. The author also shares an implausible statistic:
I then went to a Catholic primary school that, five years ago, said around 90% of its children were living with two parents; that had now changed to 60% who were living with single parents.
Sorry, even if I thought the anecdote were relevant to the topic, I simply don't believe that such a transformation occurred over the past five years.

Now we enter the realm of hard choices:
We have to tell these girls that it is unacceptable to get pregnant outside of a stable relationship unless they can support themselves, that the taxpayer cannot afford to keep them and that they have to train to work when they leave school.
Okay, let's assume we tell them all of that, and they get pregnant anyway? I've previously described a tougher response than "give them their own apartment", but I am skeptical that the government is going to invest in supervised, structured communal housing for teen mothers. Those who stay home will see more money come into the home, and those who are kicked out have to live somewhere.

Wait, did I say "Those who stay home will see more money come into the home"? Why is that? Why not simply maintain support at the prior level, as if no new child came into the home? After all, if these families had jobs, they wouldn't get an increase in their wages merely for having another baby. Alas, there's no easy answer to this one. If you don't give additional benefits when another child enters the household of a welfare recipient, you "punish the children". And if you do, you subsidize the expansion of a family that cannot support itself, and arguably create a context where the mothers at issue benefit from either choosing to again become pregnant, or being indifferent to that outcome.

Sorry, telling these mothers, "We can't afford to keep doing this," or "You need to get a job so you can support yourself before you have children" will only work if it's true. You can say whatever you want, but nothing will change as long as the government checks keep coming. Further, in those countries where there are no government subsidies, where each new child literally does take food off of the table for everybody else in the family, it's hardly the case that impoverished people defer or opt against having children - in fact, their birth rates may be substantially higher. I wish there were easy answers to this, but there are not.
They have to be given more sex education (it is not compulsory, despite the myth, and this should start at puberty, not five years old) and offered more contraception.
That argument qualifies as silly. Sex education at age five is "good touch, bad touch" - anybody who gets upset at children being taught such concepts really should defer discussion of sex education to people who are either more informed or more comfortable with sex. Sex education preceding puberty often includes valuable information about puberty that a lot of children do not otherwise get from their parents. It may be better that a young girl learn about menarche from her mother, but I think most will agree that it shouldn't be a surprise - in retrospect, even Carrie's mom probably agrees. Also, what... we're going to assume that all kids mature at exactly the same rate? Or is it that we're going to single out kids who mature faster or slower, so that nobody learns about sex before puberty. That won't stigmatize anybody....
It is only by talking openly about marriage, sex, relationships and responsibility that we can change this. It will take a generation, but we have no choice.
By all means, let's start the dialog... but please, not with the illusion that it will transform society, let alone do so inside of a generation.

The second editorial was inspired by an essay by J.K. Rowling in which she describes how, thrust into single parenthood, she was able to make ends meet with the help of some not particularly generous government benefits, while she struggled to better herself, qualified as a teacher, and wrote 1-1/2 novels. Quite reasonably, she describes how the benefits helped her get past a difficult post-divorce period, how she resented being demonized by politicians for being a "single mother" during that time of struggle, and the silliness of the British Conservative Party's notion of a tiny tax credit that is supposed to encourage marriage.

Rowling explains how Britain's social safety net has factored in, as she's become wealthy beyond her wildest dreams:
I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens,2 with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism.
Save for becoming a billionaire author, my mother had a post-divorce period not too different from Rowling's. That's actually the historic story of most "welfare recipients" - about three years of benefits following a divorce or crisis, then they're back on their feet, having theme parks built based upon... again reaching a point where they can support themselves and their families. I'm with Rowling - that's a good thing. The hard part is to translate welfare as a short-term solution into communities where it is an acceptable lifestyle choice.


1. Quoting Rowling, Sure Start centres are "service centres where families with children under 5 can receive integrated service and information." She adds, "Unless you have previously grappled with the separate agencies involved in housing, education and childcare, you might not be able to appreciate what a great innovation these centres are."

2. Subjects, actually. But there's little practical difference, I suppose.

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