The nations latest whats-the-matter-with-kids-today story comes from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and its a jaw-dropper. According to Time, a group of 15- and 16-year-old girls at Gloucester High School made a pregnancy pactan agreement that they would all get pregnant and then raise their kids together. And at least on the first part of the pledge, theyve evidently been successful, with one of the baby mamas choosing a 24-year-old homeless guy as her co-parent.
Depressing, no? But the story could have one upside: it might expose the folly of much of what has passed for wisdom about teen pregnancy. I say might because so far the media seems to be having trouble grasping what happened in this old, largely Catholic fishing town. Just about every report has pondered the question of whether Gloucester kids were getting the necessary sex education and birth control. Currently Gloucester teens must travel about 20 miles (30 km) to reach the nearest womens health clinic; younger girls have to get a ride or take the train and walk, observed Time. But the notion of a school handing out birth control pills has met with hostility. Yet whats most striking in the Gloucester story was that these girls had every intention of getting pregnant, and knew exactly how to get the job done. Unless someone has figured out how to force young people to take birth-control pills, sex education is completely beside the point.
To be fair, reporters are simply repeating the primary narrative about teen pregnancy that public-health experts and family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood have long advanced. That narrative asserts that kids wind up pregnant because they cant get birth control, or feel too ashamed to ask for it, or, worse, dont even know that you can find yourself with a baby if you dont use it. The problem of teen pregnancy is especially acute in the United States, say the experts, because Americans have so many hang-ups about sex and wont talk candidly with their children about it. Hence the experts answer to our national conundrum: European- and preferably Swedish-style sex education, teaching kids how to use condoms and to make good decisions.
The dominant narrative may have had some truth to it in the preMadonna/Paris Hilton era. But it ignores several key changes in contemporary teenaged lifechanges that the Gloucester posse has graciously illustrated for us. First, many young women who become pregnant these days either want to have a baby (as in Gloucester) or are, at the very least, open to the idea. In order for birth control to work, you have to use it religiously, and the only way you use it religiously is if you really, really dont want to get pregnant. Yet researchers like Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefelas in Promises I Can Keep find thats not the case for many low-income mothers. They describe young women who speak longingly about the joys of motherhood and who find the middle-class penchant for putting off motherhood until the later twenties incomprehensible. As rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy have increased recently among women with a high school diploma and even those with a year or two of college, the same thinking seems to have spread to working-class communities like Gloucester.
Put another way, übersocialized middle-class experts, journalists, and policy makers arent addressing the fact that girls tend to like babies. In most cultures in human history, 15- or 16-year-olds were seen as viable mothers (only after being married off, of course), so biological urge coincided with social need. But in more complex societies like ours, in which a long period of education and wealth accumulation is necessary to prepare for an advanced labor market and marriage, adolescent baby lust poses a big problem.
In the past, the problem was held at bay by a combination of sexual reticence, social disapproval, and a no-baby-without-marriage rule, since it wasnt easy to find a presentable boy ready to sign on to a life sentence at 16. No more. Sexual reticence is now deemed something on the order of a Victorian perversion. Social disapproval? Nowhere evident. The Gloucester schools superintendent found that most townspeople greeted with a yawn the news that local teen pregnancy rates were soaring, the Boston Globe reported. Doubtless, too, the girls noticed that Disney star Jamie Lynn Spears was about to make her dad a grandfather. (Its a girl, by the way: congratulations, Jamie Lynn!) And what about the Gloucester girls own classmates, carrying their adorable babies to the schools day care center every day?
Then theres the point compellingly made by Kathleen Parker in her new book Save the Males: Americans arent all that keen on fathers these days. A girl eyeing her cousins cute little baby girl used to believe that she had to find a husband before she could have one of her own. Now, she can bypass the husband problem and just spend a little leisure time with the homeless guy on Main Street. Who cares if Dad is an addict or a tramp? Theyre all bumsor jerksanyway. Its worth recalling that experts defined teen pregnancy as a social problem only in the 1980s, when they claimed to discover an epidemic of young mothers. In fact, teen mothers had always been commonplace, but before 1970 they generally got married before reaching the delivery room. In their wisdom, experts decided that the problem was only that the mothers were too younga genuine concern, truebut went mum on the disappearance of husbands.
As a result, we got an epidemic all rightof fatherlessness. The antics in Massachusetts aside, teen pregnancy has actually declined over the past 15 years. Yet out-of-wedlock birthrates keep rising, largely because of single young women in their twenties. If some bored and aimless teens decide to give single motherhood a whirl, who can be surprised?