The news announcement concerning a "pregnancy pact" by seventeen teenagers in Massachusetts has caused concern for media and parents alike. The reports include stories of the girls, some who are younger than sixteen years of age, who repeatedly took pregnancy tests and showed disappointment if they didn't get the results they were wanting. Apparently the group had decided to all have babies at the same time so that they could raise them together.
Television interviews have focussed on identifying targets to "blame" for this situation. Some of the professionals who were interviewed state that children have babies when they want someone to love them. Jane Fonda responded to this by saying "If you want to be loved get a puppy".
Some experts lay blame on the school system for canceling sex education programs due to budget constraints. Others guessed that parents are too busy with work and economic pressures to be there for the adolescents. One expert stated that offering free daycare services for high school students allows them to consider having babies because this would make it "easy" for them.
I recently heard of a new mother who stated that having a baby should require as much or more thought than you would give to having a tattoo put on your face. This made me wonder how much thought or awareness the teens in the pregnancy pact had given their plan.
Over the years, I have had hundreds of parents ask for advice to help them "protect" their children from making what could be considered poor choices in life. Unfortunately, there is no "formula" for parenting and the fact that individuals are unique interferes with creating one that will be effective in all cases. There are, however, some guidelines that I wish every parent would adopt.
1. Your example is one of the most powerful tools you have. Saying "Don't do as I do but do as I say" is less effective than good role modeling. If you value your body, respect and take care of it, your children will learn valuable lessons without any words being spoken.
2. Your job is to be the "parent" - not the friend of the child. Adolescents have often told me that they appreciate having a parent who has rules and curfews that they enforce. It helps them to be able to say "no" to peers if they have rules or to leave situations when parents are providing the transportation.
3. Children and adolescents need to learn about sex - not just the "mechanical" details but also the health, financial and relational aspects. There are many books and videos available to help with this if you feel too uncomfortable to begin a conversation about sex. Over the years I have had many parents ask me to tell their children the "facts of life" when they felt inadequate to do so.
4. Talk about sex from a personal level. Most teenagers are surprised to hear adults admit that sex is enjoyable. Don't make it sound like a "sin" or "burden", hoping that this will discourage them. (It will only make you look like a liar at some point).
5. Schools need funding in order to provide sex education programs for our children. At one time we would offer these at the high school level but now realize that this is too late as even children in elementary school are sexually active.
6. Allow your children to be children. Twelve year olds who dress like sixteen or eighteen year olds are at risk. You purchase their clothing from the time they are born and therefore have more power than you think in this area. It's okay to say "No" to your child and it's okay for the child to be angry with you for a few hours because you said "No".
7. Monitor activities. It is NOT "okay" to allow children to watch x-rated movies or chat with strangers on the internet. Children who have too much time alone begin looking for excitement which often results in "trouble". It's better to be proactive than reactive and filled with regret.
8. Show respect for the law. It is NOT "okay" to allow children or under-aged adolescents to drink alcohol, use drugs or drive vehicles - even if you are with them at the time. Saying "They are going to do it anyway" is not only giving up your responsibility but also placing your reputation at risk. Remember, you can also be charged for providing alcohol to minors and reported to Child Protection Services if you put your children in an unhealthy or unsafe environment.
9. Meet the friends of your children. Invite them for dinner. Treat them like company. Get to know them. (One of them may become the parent of your grandchildren).
10. Tell your children that you love them, are proud of them and expect them to do well. They tend to live up to expectations and people never get tired of hearing that they are loved.
When my daughter was in a high school Career and Life Management course, she was matched as a "partner" with another student. They were given an egg which, when hatched, became their "child". The rules were that the chickens were never to be left alone and must be cared for as though she and the boy were the parents. What an experience!
Kristal used a hamster cage as the bassinet and tried to set up a schedule where she and her partner would share custody of the chicken. He wasn't very willing to take a turn. Some teachers would not allow the chickens in their classrooms and so the students had to set up a daycare program.
As the weeks passed and the chickens grew, we watched the students move from a position of "Aren't they cute?" to "What are we going to do with these things when we want to go out on the weekend?" Siblings were often hired as babysitters and family members complained about the "scratching" that occurred in the middle of the night as the chickens did what chickens do.
"Chicken Katie" provided an interesting awareness-building program for the students. Their tears were mixed with relief when it was time to butcher the chickens but the memories of this responsibility have carried over through the decades.
Sometimes adolescents appear in Court or other public venues with baby dolls that are programmed to randomly cry and wet themselves. Their role is to allow teens to experience the constant demands that caring for something requires. It's part of education and prevention.
Well, there isn't a formula for parenting and definitely no perfect way to prevent your child from becoming a parent before they are ready. The issues are complex. As parents, however, we need to ensure that we do our best while also recognizing that our children have free will and because of this often do things that we cannot control.
Oh, and by the way, if your child does have a baby it is important that you realize it is NOT up to you to raise the child. With choices come responsibilities.
If you feel that you need help in this area, perhaps you might seek the support of a psychologist who has training and experience in working with parents and families.