Monday, February 15, 2010

What's the problem with teenage parents?

It is funny that the Tories put out a policy document claiming that the conception rate among under-18 girls in the 10 most disadvantaged areas was 54%, when the real figure was 54 per 1,000.

It is interesting to contrast the ignorance of the Tories with a new book which has just come out about teenage pregnancy, summarising the latest research on the subject. The authors set out the conventional view of teenage parents, that mothers are ignorant and irresponsible, fathers are feckless, that teenage parenthood is a negative experience for the mothers themselves, their children and for society as a whole, and that the whole thing is a moral, social and economic problem. They then go on to say:

"There is a severe problem with this ‘public’, axiomatic, view of teenage parenting, however—the evidence does not support it. As the chapters in this book show, there is little evidence that lack of knowledge ‘causes’ pregnancy, or that increased knowledge prevents it. Teenage birth rates are much lower than in the 1960s and 1970s, and overall are continuing to decline, while few teenage mothers are under sixteen. Age at which pregnancy occurs seems to have little effect on future social outcomes (like employment and income in later life), or on current levels of disadvantage for either parents or their children. Many young mothers and fathers themselves express positive attitudes to parenthood, and mothers usually describe how motherhood makes them feel stronger, more competent, more connected, and more responsible. Many fathers seek to remain connected to their children, and provide for their new family. For many young mothers and fathers parenting seems to provide the impetus to change direction, or build on existing resources, so as to take up education, training and employment. Teenage parenting may be more of an opportunity than a catastrophe."

You can read the introduction here or get the book here I've picked out a few of the research findings which challenge the conventional wisdom:

The birth rate per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in 2007 was lower than that in 1956. It is currently at about half the peak level, which was in 1971.

"There is little support for the assumption that teenage parents are particularly ignorant about sex, contraception and parenting, that low levels of knowledge ‘cause’ teenage pregnancy, or that increased knowledge reduces pregnancy (Arai, 2003a, b, Graham and McDermott 2005)."

"It is hard to find young mothers who become pregnant due to ignorance about sex and contraception (Phoenix, 1991, Wellings and Kane 1999, Churchill et al. 2000). Similarly, a meta-analysis of preventative strategies focusing on sex education, and improved access to advice and contraceptive services, concluded that this did not reduce unintended pregnancies among young women aged between 11-18 (DiCenso et al. 2002)."

"The values and priorities expressed by young mothers do not fit comfortably within the model
presented in the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy (TPS), nor with many of the values assumed in, or explicitly asserted by, the study of teenage mothers living in Kent, showed how they made moral and thoughtful decisions about contraception, proceeding with their pregnancy, and engagement with health and welfare services. Rather than suffering ‘broken’ family circumstances, teenage parents were often embedded in networks of support, and were optimistic that parenthood would shift them onto a positive life trajectory."

"Social research which took account of selection effects (rather than just comparing teenage parents to the wider population) began in the USA, and found that the social outcome effects of mother’s age at birth were very small, or as Saul Hoffman (1998, 237) put it in his systematic review of the US research ‘often essentially zero’. Indeed, by their mid/late twenties teenage mothers in the USA did better than miscarrying teenagers with regard to employment
and income and this meant, ironically, that government spending would have increased if they had not become young mothers (Geronimus, 1997)."

"Research using the Milennium Cohort Study found that teenage motherhood is really a symptom of a disadvantaged life course rather than the cause of it. It also found that those children with teenage mothers are indeed born into families experiencing multiple disadvantages. However, it is not the mother’s age at first birth which is the main driver of these disadvantages— rather it is the prior disadvantages experienced by the young mothers during their own childhoods. Again, this finding substantiates earlier research. The final set of statistical analyses takes comparison into a new area, and show that having a teenage mother does not significantly affect the chances of a pre-school child experiencing poor health, and makes little difference to how children score on cognitive tests."

"This statistical research tradition shows that—in these outcome terms—teenage childbearing in itself can be seen as only a minor social problem. It is not the teenage bit which is particularly
important in these terms, but rather it is social and economic disadvantage which produce poor outcomes."

"What these qualitative studies find is that many mothers express positive attitudes to motherhood, and describe how motherhood has made them feel stronger, more competent, more connected to family and society, and more responsible. Resilience in the face of constraints and stigma, based on a belief in the moral worth of being a mother, is one overriding theme. For some, this has given the impetus to change direction, or build on existing resources, so as to take up education, training and employment. There has been less research on young fathers, but what there has been tends to contradict the ‘feckless’ assumption. Like teenage mothers, most of the fathers are already socially disadvantaged, and it does not appear that fathering will in itself make this any worse. But, also like teen mothers, most express positive feelings about the child
and want to be good fathers. Most contributed maintenance in some way, and many were actively involved in childcare (this varies by age, with the youngest least likely to be involved.) And, like teenage mothers, there is some evidence that successful fathering could be a positive turning point in young men’s lives (see Duncan 2007 for review). In fact it was an invisibility to professionals, as well as housing problems, which often excluded them from the parenting they
desired. Again, like teen mothers, young fathers may be less of a social threat, more of a social possibility."

"Teenage parents saw themselves unexceptionally as ‘just a mother or a father’ like any other. They were motivated to achieve well in education and employment so as to provide a stable future for their children, while at the same time they lived in communities where family and parenting was placed centrally as a form of local inclusion and social participation."

They conclude that:

"On the basis of the evidence presented in this book, we suggest there needs to be a refocus on the value of parenthood in itself, both socially and for individuals. For teenage parents, this might focus on the positive experience of becoming a mother and father, and on young parents’ own resilience and strengths. Education and employment for young parents should be recognised as a components of parenting (which would also include ‘full-time’ mothering at home), rather than as a return to individualised rational economic planning where children are seen as an obstacle. Policy may also be better directed at improving employment for young people as a whole in declining labour markets, and regenerating disadvantaged neighbourhoods, rather than targeting teenage parenting in itself. Teenage parenting might then be approached as a way through and out of disadvantage, given its positive potential, rather than a confirmation of it. It could be seen as more opportunity than catastrophe. Certainly stigmatising policies directed at the assumed ignorance and inadequacy of teenagers will be inappropriate."


At 11:32 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

Fascinating. Certainly challenges some of my prejudices. But I still need to be convinced - it just seems like common sense that if someone drops out of employment from 17 to 21, they are likely to end up on low incomes and unlikely to be promoted as far as someone who was in education, training or employment during that time.

At 11:44 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

But I think what the research is saying is that (a) teenage parents are not more likely than non-parents from comparable backgrounds to drop out of employment, training or education from the ages of 17 to 21, and (b) indeed having a child is often a motivation to take studying or work more seriously than before.

Hence the approx zero effect of having a child on education, employment etc., what does the damage is growing up in a deprived area, whether that leads to someone having a child or not. I find that intuitively quite plausible, though it goes against the dominant narrative. I don't think Tom Harris will like it much.

At 12:58 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

Don't worry, it counts as research/evidence so he won't read it.

Yes, it's a plausible argument; I can see it that way round now.

At 11:40 am , Anonymous CrisisMaven said...

I see you are interested in statistical research. I have put one of the most comprehensive link lists for hundreds of thousands of statistical sources and indicators on my blog: Statistics Reference List. And what I find most fascinating is how data can be visualised nowadays with the graphical computing power of modern PCs, as in manyof the dozens of examples in these Data Visualisation References.


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