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The Answer Blog

Happy New Year

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.

Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)

Of course, exceptions to every rule are plentiful. Nevertheless, young people need to know the truth about the reality of teen parenthood. It is serious stuff.  At the very least, I think the Today Show should have balanced the segment by interviewing a teen-pregnancy prevention expert. The expert could have explained to viewers the reality of teen parenthood: It is not at all glamorous and has generally widespread negative effects, especially for children.

“Babies born to teens,” according to recent research by economist Saul Hoffman of the University of Delaware, “are more likely to be in foster care, less likely to graduate from high school. The daughters are more likely to have teen births themselves, the sons are more likely to be incarcerated.”

As parents and teachers, we need to talk frequently with kids, beginning when they are in middle school, about the responsibilities of parenting. Kids in high school could discuss and debate the fascinating findings in the article “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” from The New Yorker magazine. It offers national data on why so many evangelical teenagers, who mostly live in red states, become pregnant. And of course, teachers need to take part in trainings on how to effectively teach young people about pregnancy prevention.

I wish I could have started the year on a brighter note, but the teens in our classrooms and homes have most certainly heard about the Palin birth. We need to take steps to get the story right.

As for me, I have made a New Year’s resolution to work harder advocating for more condom advertisements on TV. At the very least, they might serve as an antidote to the glamorized stories teens see about celebrity births.

A new year and a blank page no longer.

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