Wes: Many of today's adults either were teen parents or were the product of those unions, yet as a society we have no consensus on how to address the issue of teen pregnancy. By the end of 2008, about 750,000 American girls age 15 to 19 will become pregnant - enough babies to repopulate all of Kansas City, Mo., and half of Johnson County.
Since late 2007, teen pregnancy rates have begun to rise again, after declining over the previous 15 years. As Lawrence teens look around their schools these days, they'll find this isn't some far-away statistic. It's right here at home, and it cuts across all ethnic and economic lines. We can argue forever - and probably will - as to why this is and what to do about it, but whatever we've come up with so far doesn't seem to be working.
I find this alarming trend difficult to understand - even as I talk candidly with young people every day about their personal view of this issue. I'd come to believe that teenagers - like the girls who wrote last week - had mastered birth control and until recently, the statistics supported that.
From my rather unscientific perspective, I find several reasons for this trend, all of which defy logic. Increasingly I find (and hear about) teenage girls actually trying to get pregnant, while denying to adults that they are doing so. I suspect this stems from a desire to opt-out of what they see as the difficult tasks of life - finishing school, going to college, getting a job, having to establish lives independent of families. Parents will wonder how anyone could see having a baby as a way to AVOID the tasks of life, but most of these girls have figured out a paradox in the situation. Once a pregnancy is known and the decision is made to keep the baby, everyone must rally behind the young mom no matter how precarious the situation. That level of attention and support and the distorted notion that they can avoid some of the development tasks ahead makes the whole idea seem plausible - when it is not.
Another at-risk group harkens back to a time when kids were in absolute denial about the immediacy and seriousness of the situation or expressed a sense of invincibility, as if pregnancy only happens to someone else. Yet another group like our original writers feel encumbered by either their parents or health care providers, seeing the pursuit of birth control as a daunting, difficult task. And in response they put it off until it's too late. There are other situations, but these seem the most common lately.
Perhaps our perpetual lack of a resolution on this issue comes from a desire to endlessly debate the wisdom of teen sexual activity, when in fact there is no debate. Everyone agrees that it's not a very good idea, and anyone who'd like to step up and argue to the contrary knows my e-mail address. But believing that doesn't get us anywhere, because anyone who's worked with teens, raised them or been one knows that adolescence is a time when bad ideas abound. Pretending this isn't true will never reduce the rate of teen pregnancy - or transmission of STDs, which continue to be passed around in a nearly epidemic manner.
I cannot argue with anyone who believes in abstinence. But in honest, real-world discussions with teenagers one quickly learns that abstinence education, like a great many supposed cure-alls, works well for those it works well for. The rest - especially those I described above - are going to have sex, and we as parents and health care providers have to respond vigorously to that reality. In future columns, we'll discuss some approaches that can open up a dialogue with teens to help delay sexual intercourse and encourage protection from disease and pregnancy, without condoning careless sex.
Kelly: As I grow older, I see how my generation begins to cope with real-world notions and the challenges they impose. While some girls my age are cramming for their latest exam, others are working to learn the value of a dollar. And then there are those who are facing a huge complication when they see that pregnancy test turn positive.
Yes, the teen pregnancy rate has dramatically increased, but why? It's been chiseled into our minds since puberty to practice safe sex. In health class we were educated on the basics. We learned the highs and lows of sexuality and the consequences of our actions. Did someone miss out on this health lesson? Highly unlikely. As you glance at any high school, it's common to see a girl not too far along. Being a pregnant teen has become another norm of society. It's a concept that we have learned to acknowledge.
Yet girls need to realize before they get pregnant that a "child" raising a child is not the way to go. Raising a family should be a concern long after one turns 18. A teenager's responsibility should lie with her education, friends, community and work, not learning how to raise a child at a young age.
In an ideal world, teens would wait for marriage to have sex. In the real world, it's not going to happen. Parents need to educate children about sex, without hesitation, especially the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship and how it should involve concern, love and responsibility. They should talk with their children about their expectations and values, so they'll be more likely to develop those same beliefs and make healthy choices. They should discuss consequences and alternatives. Parents should never be afraid to speak up on a topic as important and this.
Next week: What should I do when others are picking on me?
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.