Fourteen-year-old Taisha Brown is thinking of having a baby. She doesn’t say so directly, and it doesn’t seem about to happen tomorrow, but she smiles coyly at the question. Around her way—a housing project in the South Bronx—lots of girls have babies. Her 16-year-old cousin just gave birth a few months ago, and she enjoys helping with the infant. “I love babies,” the braided, long-legged youngster says sweetly. “They’re so cute. My mother already told me, ’If you get pregnant, you won’t have an abortion. You’ll have the baby, and your grandmother and I will help out.’” What about school or making sure the baby has a father? “I want to be a lawyer...or maybe a teacher. Why do I need to worry about a father? My mother raised me and my sister just fine without one.”

Taisha Brown seems likely to become one of the nearly half-million teenagers who give birth each year in the United States, a number that gives the nation the dubious honor of the highest teen birth rate in the developed world. About two-thirds of those girls are unmarried; many are poor. Americans debating welfare reform and the state of the family have no shortage of opinions about the cause of the problem: welfare dependency, low self-esteem, economic decline, ignorance about birth control-the list could go on and on. All these theories fail to explain the actual experiences of teenagers, because they ignore the psychology of adolescence, the differences between underclass and mainstream cultural norms, and the pivotal role of family structure in shaping young people’s values and expectations.

To get a clearer focus on the teen pregnancy problem, I spoke with some thirty new or expectant young mothers and sometimes with their boyfriends, nurses, teachers, and social workers. (To protect their privacy, I’ve identified the teenagers with fictitious names.) I asked about their lives, their expectations, and their babies. The girls’ stories vary widely: from a 15-year-old, forced to live in seven different foster homes over the last five years, whose sunken eyes hint of Blakean misery, to a 17-year-old college student who describes herself as “old-fashioned” and has been cheerfully dating the same boy for five years.

It gradually became clear that, however separated they may be by degrees of poverty and family disorder, these girls all live in a similar world: a culture—or subculture to be precise—with its own values, beliefs, sexual mores, and, to a certain extent, its own economy. It is, by and large, a culture created and ruled by children, a never-never land almost completely abandoned by fathers and, in some sad cases, by mothers as well. But if such a culture is made possible by adult negligence, it is also enabled by mixed messages coming from parents, teachers, social workers, and the media—from mainstream society itself.

Sociologists sometimes use the term “life script” to refer to the sense individuals have of the timing and progression of the major events in their lives. At an early age, we internalize our life script as it is modeled for us by our family and community. The typical middleclass American script is familiar to most readers: childhood, a protracted period of adolescence and young adulthood required for training in a complex society, beginning of work, and, only then, marriage and childbearing. The assumption is not merely that young adults should be financially self-supporting before they have children. It is also that they must achieve a degree of maturity by putting the storms of adolescence well behind them before taking on the demanding responsibility of molding their own children’s identity.

But for the minority teens I spoke with, isolated as they are from mainstream mores, this script is unrecognizable. With little adult involvement in young people’s daily activities and decisions, their adolescence takes on a different form. It is less a stormy but necessary continuation of childhood—a time of emotional, social, and intellectual development, than a quasi-adulthood. The mainstream rites of maturity—college, first apartment, first serious job—hold little emotional meaning for these youngsters. Many of the girls I spoke with say they aspire to a career, but these ambitions do not appear to arise out of any deep need to place themselves in the world. Few dream of living on their own. And all view marriage as irrelevant, vestigial.

To these girls and young women, the only thing that symbolizes maturity is a baby. A pregnant 14-year-old may refer to herself as a “woman” and her boyfriend as her “husband.” Someone who waits until 30 or even 25 to have her first child seems a little weird, like the spinster aunt of yesteryear. “I don’t want to wait to have a baby until I’m old,” one 17-year-old Latino boy told me. “At 30, I run around with him, I have a heart attack.”

The teen mommy track has the tacit support of elders like Taisha’s mother, many of whom themselves gave birth as teenagers. Even if they felt otherwise, the fact is that single mothers in the inner city don’t expect to have much control over their kids, especially their sons, after age 13—on any matter. And, with few exceptions, the fathers of the kids I spoke with were at best a ghostly presence in their lives.

Commonly, mothers expect their older children to care for, and to socialize, younger siblings and cousins, a process that, as Ronald L. Taylor of the University of Connecticut speculates, disconnects children from adult control. Fifteen-year-old Rosie, now carrying a child of her own, describes how she had always taken care of her younger brothers, though their mother did not work outside the home. The youngsters started calling their sister “Mom” when she was nine. In a heart-rending example of this phenomenon, Leon Dash, in his book When Children Want Children, tells of a babysitting six-year-old girl hysterically trying to figure out how to mix formula for her infant brother.

Most adolescents are heartbreaking conformists, but kids with little parental supervision are especially vulnerable to their friends’ definitions of status and style. As Greg Donaldson, author of The Ville, notes, the streets and projects of the inner city are dominated by kids; one sees few middle-aged or elderly adults. It’s no wonder such children look to their peers from an early age for guidance and emotional sustenance. Harper’s magazine quoted a pregnant 14-year-old, who had been taught about birth control, abortion, and the trials of single motherhood, and who captures the spirit of this teen world I saw so often: “All my friends have babies. I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn’t have one too.”

In this never-never land, having a baby is a roleplaying adventure. In the labor room, nurses say, younger teens sometimes suck their thumbs or grasp their favorite stuffed animal between contractions. The young mother’s boyfriend, if he is still around, plays “husband”; the new baby is a doll that mothers love to dress up and take out for walks in shiny new strollers. In one high school program to discourage pregnancy, I was told, each girl had to carry around a five-pound bag of rice for a week, always keeping it in sight or paying someone to watch it. By the end of the week, several girls had dressed up their bags in clothes from Baby Gap. “It’s like a fashion show,” says one expectant 18-year-old. “At least for the first two years. Then they’re not so cute anymore. After that, the kids are dressed like bums.”

While the girls play mother, some of the lost boys of never-never land seek sexual adventure to test their early manhood. They often brag about their conquests, which they achieve with promises—sneakers, clothes, a ride in a nice car—and with flattery. “You know I love you, baby,” they’ll tell a girl. “You’re so pretty.” Fathering children is also a sign of manhood. A group of four disgruntled young Hispanic girls, strolling their babies down a shopping street in Brooklyn, say they have sworn off men forever and that they know of boys who get tattooed with their children’s names like bombardiers tallying hits on the sides of their airplanes. Legend among these girls has it that the occasional adventurer surreptitiously punctures a condom to outwit his reluctant conquest.

But bravado, playacting, and fashion-consciousness are not the whole story, particularly for the older adolescents I met. For many of them, a baby stirs up a love they imagine will bring meaning to their drifting lives; it becomes an object of romance that beckons them away from the cynical, often brutal world in which they live. Frank, a 17-year-old African-American father, waxes joyful over his six-month-old daughter, who came as a sign that he must put away childish things. “Babies don’t walk, they don’t talk, but they get inside you so fast. Before she was born, I was a Casanova. I didn’t even know who I was with. I was hanging out all the time, doing wild things. The baby slowed me down, put the brakes on things, and made me think about my future.” According to University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson, some mothers actually want their teenage sons to have children in the hopes that they will settle down.

The early sexual activity of these unsupervised youngsters—it’s not uncommon to hear of experienced 11- and 12-year-olds—is old news by now. Rape and abuse help fuel this precocity; some estimates claim more than 60 percent of teen mothers have been victims, with stepfathers or mothers’ boyfriends often implicated. But early sex is also part of the accepted mores of teens on the underclass mommy track. Christie, a 16-year-old Latino whose tidy ponytail, shorts, white socks and sneakers might lead one to look for a tennis racket rather than the month-old daughter she held in her arms, explained that she had her first sexual encounter two years earlier because she “was sick of being the only 14-year-old virgin around. I didn’t really like the guy that much; I was just trying to get my friends off my back. When he started telling people, ’Oh, I had her,’ I was really mad. I told everyone, ’No, I was using him.”’

Teenagers, as many can miserably recall from high school, rely on derisive name-calling to enforce conformity to their social codes. Inez, a tough, outspoken twenty-year-old from a Washington Heights Dominican family, describes how her unconventional behavior was criticized in much the same way a black high achiever is accused of “acting white”: “My sister and I are the only ones in my building who don’t have babies. When I was younger, kids used to call me names. I never brought a boyfriend around, so they called me a lesbian. They told me I was conceited, that I thought I was better than everyone else, called me ’Miss Virgin.’ I tried to stay off the streets.” Elijah Anderson found that African-American boys reinforce the value of sex without emotional commitment by ridiculing those who look too enchanted as “househusbands” or “pussy whipped.”

Marriage, as far as these kids are concerned, is gone, dead, an unword. Some observers, following William Julius Wilson, have suggested that this is because impoverished men with limited job prospects don’t make likely husbands. But to listen to the kids themselves is to hear another theme—a mistrust of the opposite sex so profound that the ancient war between the sexes seems to have turned into Armageddon. Rap singers describe girls as “ho’s” (whores) or “bitches,” but even some of the more modest individuals I spoke with see them as tricky Calypsos scheming to entrap boys—a view sometimes reinforced by a boy’s own husbandless mother. The 35-year-old mother of an 18-year-old explains that she wants him “to have his fun. I don’t care who he’s sleeping with. I just don’t want him to be trapped.” For their part, girls see boys as either feckless braggarts and momma’s boys or bossy intruders. “You’re cursin’ at me!” mocks Stephanie, an African-American from the Bronx, when I asked her if she thought of marrying her boyfriend of two years, father of a child due this summer. “Why would I want to have some man askin’ me, ’Where you goin’; what you doin’?’”

Seventeen-year-old Roberto speaks woodenly throughout our conversation as he stands dutifully next to his expectant girlfriend, who is waiting to be seen by a nurse at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. But when I ask if he wants to get married, it is as if I have applied an electric shock. His eyebrows shoot upwards and his mouth drops. “Married? Not until I’m 35 or 30 at least. You get married, the trouble starts. Marriage is a big commitment.” But isn’t a child an even bigger commitment? Evidently not. “A baby is from the heart. Marriage is a piece of paper, it’s official. I’ll be responsible for my child, make sure I support him and visit him, but marriage. . . .” He shakes his head.

Stephanie plans to train to be an optician while leaving her child in the care of her mother—who, like many of these grandmothers still in their thirties, quickly shifted from anger over her daughter’s pregnancy to delight over the imminent arrival of what she now calls “my baby.” Like most of her sisters, when asked if she worries that a baby will get in the way of her plans, Stephanie answers emphatically, “No! Not at all!”

Nurses say they hear girls dreaming of “having their own budget” courtesy of welfare. But of all the new or expectant mothers I spoke with, only one shrugged when I asked if she had any thoughts about what kind of work she might do. About their economic futures, most girls seemed more unrealistic than demoralized or lazy. With no parents watching over them and cracking the educational whip, and with little intellectual drive or ability to organize their adolescent urges, their career notions seem hopelessly dreamy. Several said they wanted to be a lawyer or an obstetrician the way a four-year-old, asked what he wants to be when he grows up, answers he wants to be an astronaut.

Teenage dreaminess unchecked by adult common sense defines never-never land as much as conformity and bravado do. Lorraine Barton, a pediatric nurse at Methodist Hospital, describes a progression noted by many others in the field: “A lot of kids, and I mean boys and girls, are thrilled with having a baby. They love to dress them up and show them off; they like the baby carriages and all that stuff. But they don’t seem to understand the baby will grow up. Around the time the baby begins to move around and be a separate person trying to go his own way, they lose interest. These are kids themselves, but they haven’t had a chance to act like that. You can be sure they don’t want to be chasing a toddler. It’s also around this time that you see a lot of relationships end. The boys come around to visit, bring some Pampers, and later take the child for ice cream. But that’s it.” Even Frank, the chastened father of a six-month-old, says of his child: “I at least want to have a relationship with her. I want to know what’s going on in her life.” How could he envision anything more? He barely knows his own father.

The failure to understand the power of cultural norms over youngsters, especially norms that coincide so neatly with biological urges, has created a policy world that parallels but never quite touches the never-never land of underclass teenagers. Dwellers in the policy world seem unable to make the leap of sympathetic imagination needed to understand the mindset of the underclass adolescent. Instead, they assume that everyone is born internally programmed to follow the middleclass life script. If you don’t follow the mainstream script, it’s not because you don’t have it there inside you, but because something has gotten in your way and derailed you—poverty, say, or low self-esteem, or lack of instruction in some technique such as birth control.

According to this view, to say that teen pregnancy perpetuates poverty has it backwards. Instead, writes Katha Pollit in The Nation, “It would be closer to the truth to say that poverty causes early and unplanned childbearing.... Girls with bright futures—college, jobs, travel—have abortions. It’s the girls who have nothing to postpone who become mothers.” But evidence contradicts the notion that early childbearing is an automatic response to poverty and dim futures. After all, birth rates of women aged 15 to 19 reached their lowest point this century during the hard times of the Depression. And in the past forty years, while the U.S. economy has risen and fallen, out-of-wedlock teen births have only gone in one direction—up, and steeply. Meanwhile, in rural states like Maine, Montana, and Idaho, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among African-Americans is low, not because there is less poverty but because traditional, mainstream norms hold sway.

A related but also flawed theory is that a lack of self-esteem caused by poverty and neglect is at the root of early pregnancy. But the responses of the girls I spoke with were characterized more by a naïve adolescent optimism than by a sad humility, depression, or hopelessness. Indeed, a study commissioned by the American Association of University Women found that the group with the highest self-esteem is African-American boys, followed closely by African-American girls.

Self-esteem has a different foundation in a subculture that, unlike elite culture, values motherhood over career achievement. To listen to some policymakers, one might think that wanting to become a lawyer or anchorwoman—and possessing the requisite orderliness, discipline, foresight, and bourgeois willingness to delay gratification—are natural instincts rather than traits developed over time through adults’ prodding and example. With little sympathetic understanding of the underclass teen heart, David Ellwood, an assistant secretary of health and human services, has written: “The overwhelming proportion of teenagers do not want children, and those who do simply cannot realize what they are in for. It is not rational to get pregnant at 17, no matter what the alternatives appear to be.”

Ellwood’s notion of rationality presupposes that a teenager is following the middle-class life script. This failure to understand the underclass teen’s world view leads him to embrace another deep-seated but mistaken theory: that unwed teen childbearing is the result of inadequate sex education. “Teenage pregnancy is a matter of information, contraception, and sexual activity, all of which might plausibly be changed,” he writes. Most sex education curriculums, including those that “stress abstinence,” rely on the same belief in a fundamentally rational teenager. They set out to train students in “decision making skills,” “planning skills,” or something mysteriously called “life skills.” Explain the facts, detail the process, the bulb will go on, and the kids will get their condoms ready or just say no.

These approaches are not so much wrong as irrelevant, for they ignore the qualities of mind that are a prerequisite for developing complex skills. Christie told a story whose general outline I heard more than once. “I was on birth control pills. But then I slept at my cousin’s house and missed a day. I took two pills the next day. I guess that happened a few times. The nurse had told me I had to take them every day, but I couldn’t.” Birth control, Christie unwittingly reminds us, requires organization, foresight, and self-control, often at precisely those moments when passions are most insistent. These are qualities that even adolescents from privileged backgrounds, much less those untutored in the ways of bourgeois self-denial, are often still in the process of developing. Something far deeper than simple ignorance or lack of technical skill is at work here.

Governor Mario Cuomo took the fallacy of the underclass teenager with a bourgeois soul to its logical extreme when he remarked recently: “If you took a 15-year-old with a child, but put her in a clean apartment, got her a diploma, gave her the hope of a job ... that would change everything.” But it takes more than a governor’s decree to transform an underclass 15-year-old into a middleclass adult. Many programs for teen mothers find it necessary to teach them not only how to interview for a job, but also how to shop for food, how to budget money, how to plan a menu, even how to brush their teeth. Programs like these point to the devilishly tricky problem of resolving the tension between the mainstream and underclass life scripts.

Moreover, instead of discouraging unwed teen pregnancy, such programs often end up smoothing it into an alternative lifestyle. If Taisha Brown does become pregnant, she will be able to leave her dull, impersonal school for a homey, nurturing middle school for pregnant girls like herself. Later, she will very likely find a high school with a nursery where she can stop by between classes and visit with her baby, attend parenting classes, receive advice about public assistance, and share experiences with other teen mothers in counseling groups. Kathleen Sylvester of the Progressive Policy Institute, who has visited such a school in Baltimore, says it is far nicer than ordinary public schools. “It’s cheerful, warm; you get hugs and lots of attention.” These programs have been introduced with the best of intentions—to ensure that teen mothers will continue their education. But because of them, it will seem to Taisha that the world around her fully endorses early motherhood.

Conservatives, most notably Charles Murray, see the roots of this normalization in Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other welfare subsidies that provide an economic incentive for illegitimacy. But even if welfare ignited the initial explosion of out-of-wedlock births in the 1960s, its role in shaping social norms today seems less vital. The Census Bureau reports that the number of children living with a never-married parent soared by more than 70 percent between 1983 and 1993. The birthrate among single women in professional and managerial jobs tripled during the same period. Increasingly America seems a land in which, as Mort Sahl has joked, the only people who want to get married are a few Catholic priests, and the only people who want to have babies are lawyers nearing menopause—and impoverished children. In a world so out of whack, welfare seems only a bit player.

All of the prevailing analyses of teen childbearing, both liberal and conservative, neglect a troubling truth apparent throughout most of human history: nothing could be more natural than a 16-year-old having a baby. But in complex societies such as our own, which require not just more schooling but what the great German sociologist Norbert Elias calls a longer “civilizing process,” the 16-year-old, though physically mature, is considered an adolescent, a late-stage child, unready for parenthood. This quasi-childhood constitutes a fragile limbo between physical maturation and social or technical competence, between puberty and childbearing, one that requires careful ordering of insistent, awakening sexual urges. This century’s gallery of juvenile delinquents, gangs, hippies, and teen parents should remind us of the difficulty of this project. Even now, social workers report seeing 14- and 15-year-old wives from immigrant Albanian and Yugoslavian families coming to pregnancy clinics. The truth is that adolescent childbearing was commonplace even in the staid 1950s, when a quarter of all American women had babies before the age of twenty, though of course almost always within wedlock.

But two related social changes occurred in the late 1960s: early marriage came under suspicion, and the sexual revolution caught fire. This meant that the strategies societies generally use to control the hormonal riot of adolescence—prohibiting sex entirely and encouraging marriage within a few years of puberty—both became less workable. The “shotgun wedding” became a thing of the past. As a result, American adolescence became longer, looser, more hazardous.

Adolescents at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder were most harshly affected by these changes. Middle-class kids have more adult eyes watching over them during this precarious period. They also have numerous opportunities for sublimation—a useful Freudian term unfortunately banished along with its coiner from current intellectual fashion—of their urges: sports teams, church or temple groups, vacations, and camp, not to mention decent schools. Their poorer counterparts don’t get that attention. It’s much less likely that someone watches to see whom they’re hanging out with or whether they’ve done their homework. Their teachers and counselors often don’t even know their names. And “solutions” like contraceptive giveaways, decision-making-skill classes, and even abstinence training only ratify their precocious independence.

Far better would be programs that recognized and channeled the emotional demands of adolescence—intensive sports teams or drama groups, for instance, which simultaneously engage kids’ affections and offer constructive, supervised outlets for their energies. According to some teachers who work closely with pregnant teens, births go up nine months after summer and Christmas vacation—further evidence of adolescents’ profound need for structure and direction.

Given that unwed teen childbearing has become the norm for a significant subset of American society, the salient question is not why so many girls are having babies, but what prevents some of their peers from following this path? I explored that question with a group of five young black and Latino women in their twenties, all of whom had grown up in neighborhoods where the teen mommy track was common. All were college students or graduates acting as peer AIDS counselors for teens in poor areas of the city. None had children. All but one grew up with both parents; the other was the product of a strict Catholic education in Aruba. If the meeting hadn’t been arranged by the New York City Department of Health, I might have suspected a family values agenda at work.

All of these young women said their parents, in addition to loving them, watched and prodded them. “My father used to come out on the street and call me inside,” Jocelyn recalls, laughing. “It was so embarrassing, I just learned to get in there before he came out.” Intact families seem to provide the emotional weight needed to ballast the increasingly compelling peer group. Clearly, two parents are vastly better than one at keeping the genie of adolescent pregnancy inside the bottle.

These experiences jibe with both common sense and research. Asians, who have strong families and the lowest divorce rate of any ethnic group (3 percent), also have the lowest teen pregnancy rate (6 percent). In a longitudinal study that may be the only one of its kind, sociologist Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania periodically followed the children of teen mothers from birth in the 1960s to as old as 21 in 1987. His findings couldn’t be more dramatic: kids with close relationships with a residential father or long-term stepfather simply did not follow the teenage mommy track. One out of four of the 253 mostly black Baltimoreans in the study had a baby before age 19. But not one who had a good relationship with a live-in father had a baby. A close relationship with a father not living at home did not help; indeed, those children were more likely to have a child before 19 than those with little or no contact with their fathers.

Some social critics, most forcefully Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have insisted on the profound importance of fathers in the lives of adolescent boys. But for girls a father is just as central. Inez, one of the peer AIDS counselors, says she always bristled on hearing boys boast of their female acquaintances, “I can do her anytime,” or, “I had her.” Any woman who had grown up in a home with an affectionate and devoted father would be similarly disapproving. Having had a first-hand education of the heart, a girl is far less likely to be swayed by the first boy who attempts to snow her with the compliments she may never have heard from a man: “Baby, you look so good,” or, “You know I love you.”

The ways of love, it seems, must be learned, not from decision-making or abstinence classes, not from watching soap operas or, heaven forbid, from listening to rap music, but through the lived experience of loving and being loved. Judith S. Musick, a developmental psychologist with the Ounce of Prevention Fund, explains that through her relationship with her father, a girl “acquires her attitudes about men and, most importantly, about herself in relation to them.” In other words, a girl growing up with a close father internalizes a sense of love, which sends up warning signals when a boy on the prowl begins to strut near her.

Further, a girl hesitates before replacing the attachment she has to her own father with a new love. I recently watched a girl of about 12 walking down the street with her parents. As she skipped along next to them, busily chattering, she held her father’s hand and occasionally rested her head against his arm. The introduction of a serious boyfriend into this family romance is unlikely to come soon. Marian Wright Edelman’s aphorism has received wide currency: “The best contraceptive is a real future.” It would be more accurate to say, “The best contraceptive is a real father and mother.”

If it is true that fatherless girls are far more likely to begin sex early, to fall under the sway of swaggering, unreliable men, to become teen parents, and quite simply to accept single parenthood as a norm, then we are faced with a gloomy prophecy: the teen mommy track is likely to become more crowded. Nationwide, 57 percent of black children are living with a never-married mother. In many inner-city schools, like those in Central Harlem where the rate of out-of-wedlock births is 85 percent, kids with two parents are oddballs, a status youngsters don’t take kindly to. When Taisha Brown has her baby, that child may eventually repeat Taisha’s question: “Why do I need to worry about a father? My mother raised me just fine without one.” Indeed, it seems inevitable, without a transformation of the culture that gave birth to the teen mommy track.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next