Saturday, February 21, 2009

Some Random Thoughts on Teenage Parenthood

The reports of new parents 13 year old Alfie Patten and 15 year old Chantelle Steadman has raised the predictable outrage from Red Top Britain, with tabloid journalists competing to get the most sensationalist headlines.

I don't pretend to have all the answers, and I'm not going to make any judgements about the individuals concerned, but a few things came to mind.

My first thought was that these were both relatively young teenagers who should have some privacy and not be plastered all over the tabloid press. The reports only seemed to want to create outrage rather than have their best interests, and those of little baby Maisie, at heart.

If the SNP Government in Scotland had its way, Alfie and Chantelle would both be dragged through the criminal justice system. What good would that do? If the ultimate aim is to prevent teenage pregnancies, how on earth is giving parents a criminal record and treating them as sex offenders going to help them in the future? And surely the money spent on making criminals of them could be better spent in education.

Teenagers are always going to have sex. Always have, always will. In a small perecentage of cases, with the best will in the world, contraception will fail. Some level of teenage pregnancy is therefore almost inevitable. There are some things, though, that I think we need to look at.

Firstly, sex and relationship education. Not just the mechanics, although the methods of staying safe and minimising risk must be taught - the highest rates of teenage pregnancy are in places where abstinence is the only guidance given - but also a bit of contextual stuff about how relationships work and how to behave in them. You can't start on that too early. I go back to the point I have made time and time again that if you treat children with love and respect from the start, then the very high chances are that they will model that behaviour in their dealings with others.

Secondly, how we prepare for parenthood. The idea of mandatory parenting classes given by some new Labour ideologically pure nanny state robot makes me cringe, but there is a place for some education, probably in school, about the effort required to meet a baby's needs. A few days' looking after one of these real-life like baby dolls should be an option for both boys and girls.

Whatever form the parenting and sex education takes, it should be done in a way that engages with its target audience.

Thirdly, how we allow the media to make particularly girls sexually aware so soon. There are magazines marketed at 9 year olds which talk about boys and kissing. Thank heaven my daughter is more interested in her hamster and her puppies in my pocket - at the moment at least! Also the clothes that are made for girls that age are pretty skimpy and not actually suitable, I think, for kids. What message are we giving them? We maybe need to think about how we socialise both boys and girls and the expectations we make of them. Even in 21st century Britain, they are not brought up on a level and equal playing field.

Fourthly, not all teenage parents are bad parents. Sure, it's not an ideal situation, but it can work out. Someone very close to me had her first child at 16 and coped as well as I did when I had Anna in my 30s. She took to motherhood in difficult circumstances like a duck to water and has maintained a very close relationship with her daughter who is now in her mid teens herself.

Finally, in my observations of and dealings with teenagers, I would say that the ones who turn to sex (or drink or drugs) rather than rock and roll are the unhappy ones. It's not so much a matter of wealth but of the quality of the relationship with their family, whatever form that family may take, that seems to matter. So, we're back to parenting skills again.

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