Spring 2009

Family and Relationships

Interview

Teens, Parents, and Teen Parents

Gina Stepp

Bill Albert is chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C. Noting that there are high costs to society—economic and otherwise—related to unplanned pregnancy among teens and other single young adults, the campaign “seeks to improve the lives and future prospects of children and families and, in particular, to help ensure that children are born into stable, two-parent families who are committed to and ready for the demanding task of raising the next generation.”

Albert, who has been associated with the campaign for 12 years, also contributes regularly to its online Weblog, where he notes that “efforts to prevent too-early pregnancy and childbearing often miss one of the most important topics of all—healthy relationships. Young people are often told about how to reduce the risk of pregnancy and STIs [sexually transmitted infections] but rarely are they given guidance on how to successfully navigate the minefield of relationships.”

Vision’s Gina Stepp spoke with him about teen pregnancy and the complex associated issues.

GS What is the most important contribution to be made toward the prevention of teen pregnancy?

BA If someone were to ask me, “Is there a silver bullet in preventing teen pregnancy?” my answer would be no. However, the closest thing we have to a silver bullet is closely connected, stable, loving families. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

Unfortunately, on topics like sex, love relationships, family formation, pregnancy, optimal timing and optimal conditions, I think a lot of parents automatically feel one of two things: “There is precious little I can do in this day and age—in the era of bare midriffs, you might say—so therefore I’m going to do nothing.” That’s one option. The second option seems to be, “If I just sit them down and talk to them about the birds and the bees, then I will have done what I’m supposed to do.” And of course, neither one of those options is a good one.

One of our primary jobs is to convince parents that they matter at all on these sets of issues. Unfortunately a lot of well-intentioned public service announcements and other efforts in this area have jumped this important first step by giving only a general nod in the direction of parents talking to their kids. But no parent is going to talk to a child about any topic unless they believe they actually can make a difference, so our first job is to convince parents that they matter.

This is a curious thing, and one wonders how we got to this point. It seems to me that we don’t need to convince parents that they matter in areas like education or in developing good eating habits or any of a number of other issues. Why is it that we need to convince parents on this very important topic?

GS As parents, do we perhaps feel the subject is being sufficiently addressed at school and we are therefore relieved of any further responsibility at home?

BA Yes, perhaps. But again, that’s head-scratching to me. I guess we can assume our children are getting good history and math lessons at school, and perhaps we can also convince ourselves they’re getting everything they need in sex education as well. But certainly there’s a difference between algebra and the issues that we’re talking about. These are more than just biology topics. If it was “How does somebody get pregnant?”—sure, we could count on schools. Schools are probably the right place to do that.

But to put these issues in the context of your own family’s values is not the school’s job. In fact, I think most parents would be upset with schools if they did try to do that, and for good reason. For instance, some families of certain faith traditions believe sex shouldn’t occur outside of marriage. But that’s obviously not a value shared by all families. So these value issues are things that should be brought up within the context of the family.

To put these issues in the context of your own family’s values is not the school’s job. In fact, I think most parents would be upset with schools if they did try to do that, and for good reason.” 

I think one reason for the high rates of teen pregnancy in this country is that we, as adults, are not sending a very strong, unequivocal, clear message that teen pregnancy is not okay. If we can’t say that, we shouldn’t be surprised at our continued high rates.

GS Do you think parents are distracted by increasing life stress? Is there less time these days for them to have important conversations with their kids?

BA Well, we all wish we could get parents to do things with their kids more often, such as sitting down and having dinner together more often. But we also recognize that time is limited. And the social science on family connections suggests that it’s not necessarily a quantity issue as much as it is a quality issue. If kids are growing up in a warm, supportive, loving family with clear rules and clear expectations—you could call them the familiar grandmother rules—the research seems to suggest that they’re better off. To have these benefits does require spending time together. But if parents can’t have dinner every night with their child, I don’t think they should despair. You can still be a good parent even if you’re not on the job as much as you would like to be.

GS How do parents make the most of their time when talking to their kids about this topic?

BA There are two ways to approach kids about these relationship issues. One is from a common-sense point of view, and one is from a research point of view. From a common-sense standpoint, you want your children to understand that it’s not appropriate for 16- and 17-year-olds to start families. Having children is a life-long commitment, and it’s the most wonderful thing of all, certainly. But it’s a question of timing and under what circumstances. Look at today’s economy, for instance. Now more than ever it’s a bad idea to begin a family before being established in the workforce. And you are not ready to be established in the workforce when you’re 15, 16 or 17 years old.

At the National Campaign we talk about the success sequence. Young people who follow a simple formula very much increase their chances of reaching their life goals: first they graduate from high school (at least); they wait until their 20s to marry, if marriage is their intention; and then they have children after they are married. If they do things in this order, it greatly reduces the chances that their children will grow up in poverty.

To look at it from a research point of view, only about 40 percent of teens who have children ever graduate from high school. That is really a problem in today’s global economy.

GS How far do statistics go in conversations with teens? The old commentary is that life’s tragedies—birth, death, broken lives, crime—become, in the hand of statisticians, simple clinical reports with “all the tears wiped off.”

BA Well, I think that’s true. We’re often very good at issuing reports. We’re not very good at telling stories. (See Stork Realities.) 

GS And do you think it’s the stories that really give us a sense of what needs to change?

BA Yes, I think that’s right. And in the case of teen pregnancy, the overall narrative is about the dreams that are deferred or dismissed altogether. It’s about great compromises—about growing up too soon. Silly things like missing the prom because you have to be home with your child. About friends who aren’t friends anymore because they’re in a completely different space than you are. It’s about the realities of a very needy five-year-old versus a beautiful, doll-like infant. It’s all of those things together. It’s a rewarding job to be sure, but it is also a difficult job and it’s a lifelong job.

GS Is it conversations about these realities that you’re saying parents need to be having with their teens?

BA In part, yes. And it’s important for parents to remember that this is an 18-year conversation. This is not a one-time conversation at the dinner table. And it’s something that starts at an early age and develops over time in age-appropriate ways. It is also in part about “body parts,” but not predominantly so. To overstate things just a bit, we’ve been so focused on body parts and pregnancy avoidance and disease avoidance that sometimes we miss the issue of relationships.

This is one of these areas parents are particularly well suited for. One of the primary questions parents need to ask is “Are you ready for a relationship?” If a son or daughter has become friendly with someone and they’re considering moving that relationship forward, there are several questions the parent might want to pose: Do you respect each other? Are you honest with each other? Do you communicate well? Do you have friends in common? Do the friends that you trust like and trust this person? Do you have shared interests? Also, with teens in particular it’s important to be sure they are not being pressured by someone else to be in a relationship. They should be very certain that they are ready. And remind them that they have a choice and that they should leave room for themselves to change their mind.

If you’re married, are you in a relationship that’s respectful? Do you exhibit in your relationship the situation you would wish for your child? What sort of example are you setting?”

The other thing on the relationship front—and this is geared more toward parents—is that it matters tremendously what kind of relationship you yourself are modeling. If you’re married, are you in a relationship that’s respectful? Do you exhibit in your relationship the situation you would wish for your child? What sort of example are you setting?

GS I suppose if you’re having these conversations while also making your love and support evident, the conversations are less likely to become fights. Children don’t necessarily have an innate need to buck against the love and support of their parents, do they?

BAThat’s right, and that’s why the way you have the conversation is also important. If you have a 15-year-old daughter who suddenly wants to date someone, you don’t want that moment to be the first conversation you have with your daughter about this topic. If your answer is “Absolutely not,” she thinks you’re picking on that particular guy. But if you have started this conversation at an earlier age and have said, “I think one-on-one dating is not a good idea much before you’re, say, age 16,” it looks less like you’re making a game-time decision and less like you’re picking on a particular person.

Another thing for parents to talk about with their teens is the issue of older partners. Again, this goes back to setting rules before the heat of the moment. As you get older, age differences don’t matter as much. But there is a significant difference between being 15 and being 18. Parents need to remember that even a difference of two or three years in age can be worrisome, because it can often lead to risky and unforeseen situations. But these are the kinds of rules of the house that need to be set down before the situation arises.

GS Are parents afraid of setting these rules because they think none of the other parents are doing it?

BA Possibly, but one way to finesse those kinds of fears is to be acquainted with your child’s circle of friends, as well as with the parents of those friends. It’s the best way to get more people on the same playbook.

The other issue when it comes to setting rules is that parents often focus on what they consider safe to do rather than on what may be the right thing to do.”

The other issue when it comes to setting rules is that parents often focus on what they consider safe to do rather than on what may be the right thing to do. And the right thing entails helping children understand the potential physical consequences for what they do. Of course, you have to differentiate between short-term and long-term consequences for them, because sometimes it’s easier for teens to grasp the short-term consequences simply because of the way the brain develops over time. Let’s say your daughter wants to be a veterinarian. It’s nice for her to have that goal, but part of your job as her parent is to help her understand how to achieve it. You might lay it out in terms of finishing high school, then advising her on which courses she needs to focus on; kids need some instruction. And you would also point out any actions that would have the consequence of delaying or completely derailing her plans.

Beyond the physical consequences, we also need to let them know about potential nonphysical consequences. One of the most striking findings that turns up in our commissioned survey data is that about two-thirds of those teens who have had sex wish they had waited longer. Many teens are under the impression that everyone else is doing it. But if you look at the data, only about half of high school students have had sex. But that’s not the impression most teens get—and that’s important. Teens are more likely to follow what they think is the social norm, so one of the roles of parents is to address these myths.

Young people today are bright, and they have access to more information than ever before. A parent’s role in contributing to the solution of the teen pregnancy issue is to do what they do in almost all other areas: to help put things into context; to help set limits; to help young people set goals for the future and teach them how to achieve them.

These conversations aren’t easy, but they need to happen. There are plenty of other topics we tackle because we know the conversations are important and because we know it’s the right thing to do. Just because your daughter sulks for two days afterward and your son has his baseball cap pulled down so far that you can’t see his eyes, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plow through. It’s all part of the job description for parents.