Kids Having Kids, Grannies Raising Kids; or Leapfrog Parenting in Our Future?

The River City Syndrome

“Friends, we got trouble
Right here in River City,
And that starts with T, and that rhymes with P
And that stands for….Pregnancy?”

Everybody talks about teen pregnancy, but nobody can figure out what to do about it. Newt Gingrich had it figured out 17 years ago or so—take the babies away from their mothers and raise them in orphanages. Then he looked at the price tag. Modern standards for what we now call group homes would turn his plan into a bigger entitlement program than Social Security or MediCare. Forget that.

They have it figured out in continental Europe. Teens there actually have more sex than American teens. But they are diligent about contraception, and have no problem resorting to abortion as a back-up if necessary. So their teen pregnancy rate is much lower than ours. This is not to be confused with their out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate, which is really high in Scandinavia, but not among teenagers. Middle-class American girls operate pretty much the same way.

They had it figured out in the 1950s in the US. I remember that system very well. It was the reason I didn’t go to the local public high school. The year before I would have started there, half the girls in the graduating class were pregnant. Most of them got married, very quietly, and then lied about the date. The young men involved all got the satisfaction of having done the honorable thing. The girls got the wedding ring. The babies got their legitimacy. There may have been a couple of girls whose partners did not do the honorable thing, so instead they took a six-month vacation with an aunt in some other state. Most of the girls in question hadn’t planned on college anyway.

The Maternity Dress with the Blue Collar

So far as I know, almost nobody operates that way any more. Blue-collar girls, regardless of race, creed, or color, just stay home (and stay in school as long as it isn’t too much trouble) and have the baby. What has made the difference? Two things, as nearly as I can tell. One is that nobody approves of “shotgun weddings” any more. Even the Catholic Church is reluctant to perform marriages where the bride is pregnant. The statistics on such marriages are discouraging. Both abuse and divorce are much more likely than in the general population of married couples. So the young man in question is under absolutely no pressure to marry the girl. It is no longer considered “the honorable thing.”

The second thing, counter-intuitively enough, is Roe v. Wade. Yes, I know blue-collar girls are very unlikely even to consider abortion. (This is not necessarily because of parental pressure. Indeed, sometimes it is despite parental pressure. When I worked at juvenile court, I once represented a girl whose father had thrown her out of the house for refusing to get an abortion.) But the fact that, in spite of the legality and availability of abortion, they don’t get one, marks them as “good girls,” in their own eyes and those of their peers, in spite of having gotten pregnant. It gives them some moral leverage they would not otherwise have. The Catholic Church recognizes, with a surprising degree of rationality, that anything that makes unmarried pregnancy more difficult makes abortion more likely. So Catholic schools go out of their way to make life easy for pregnant students. Public schools do too, though for different reasons—they just really want to keep the girls in school as long as possible. See A pregnant teen who finishes high school is in a much solider situation than one who drops out. Many of the bad things that happen to single mothers and their children are less likely to happen when the mother finishes high school, or better still, goes on to college, at least for a year or two.

All in the Family Way

Most of the pregnant teens who manage this do so only with the help of major parental (mostly maternal) support. If mother and daughter can remain on good terms for the duration (which is not always easy for either one), the baby will have the benefit of two adults caring for her, and often, of two incomes supporting her, just like the child of a properly married couple. I know of no source for statistics on the prevalence of split-ups between mother and daughter in this situation, compared with the stats on divorce after a shotgun marriage, but my guess is that it is somewhat less frequent.

According to AARP, one in every twelve children in the US is being raised in a household with one or more grandparents. These statistics do not distinguish between households in which the child’s mother is also residing and caring for the child, and households in which the mother is for some reason absent (death, incarceration, drug addiction, general flakiness, military service, or single-minded pursuit of education and career goals.) Nor do they provide any information on the increasing number of children being raised by their great-grandparents. But they do suggest a solution to some of the problems besetting the modern family.

The Murphy Brown Syndrome

In blue-collar families, pregnancy happens “too early”, all too often. By “too early,” we mean before socioeconomic maturity, often before finishing school, or even instead of finishing school. In white-collar families (regardless of race, by the way—professionally-educated African-American women have the lowest birth rate in the country), pregnancy often happens “too late.” By “too late”, we mean after socioeconomic maturity, after finishing one’s education and getting established in a career, and after the height of female fertility in the late teens and early twenties. Often, we mean after the precipitous decline of female fertility in the mid- or late thirties. In which case, “too late” may mean not at all. But even if it doesn’t, it often means having children who will be starting college just as the parents would otherwise be starting to think about retirement.

New Supporters of Early Marriage

Early marriage by choice rather than because of an unplanned pregnancy is occasionally discussed among religious groups that frown upon premarital sex (see, and presumed among others such as the Amish who discourage post-high school education anyway, as well as among some immigrant groups. For the rest of us, it seems to further complicate what is already the most complicated period of most people’s life, from age 12 through 25.

Alternative #1: Leapfrog Parenting

But there are a couple of alternatives worth considering. The obvious one, already discussed above, is for women to bear their children early, raise them with the assistance of their mothers, complete their education, start their careers, and then marry. This could even be organized so that grandmother, having finished raising her daughter’s children, would be able to retire just as the daughter is ready to start raising her daughter’s children. Think of it as “leapfrog parenting.” Biologically, we are told, the best age for women to conceive is from 18 to 25. Socioeconomically, the best age for a person, male or female, to raise children is from 35 to 55. The numbers point to one ideal conclusion: bear your own children at 18, and start raising your daughter’s children at 36.

Make Room for Daddy

What place does this scheme leave for the fathers of all these children? I am tempted to say, whatever place the particular man in question wants, since that seems to be what happens anyway. Not being forced (sometimes at gunpoint) to do “the honorable thing” is probably an improvement in our ideas about family life. Not knowing quite what to do when one’s girlfriend gets pregnant definitely isn’t. Fortunately, the country is rife these days with all kinds of projects and programs for, and studies of, teenage fathers. Lots of us are looking for answers to this question, and with any luck, we may find one.

Alternative #2: Give Girls a Head Start

Another alternative proposal is based on the educational commonplace that most girls are neurologically ready for academic learning a year or two before boys of the same age. So why not start girls in school at age 5, or even 4½, and let boys delay until 7 or 7½? Many girls would have no trouble finishing high school at 16, while boys might finish at 18 or 19. At that point, the girls could take a couple of years out from school to bear children, and still finish college in sync with their male age-mates, ready to begin a career at the same time.

This arrangement might work even better in conjunction with another of my oft-repeated notions, that nobody except certified child prodigies should be allowed in college until age 21, thereby eliminating all issues related to in loco parentis, underage drinking, and underage sex. This would give girls four or five years to bear and rear their young children, before embarking on college and career. Such a system could work only with strong support from the families of both parties, since these days nobody without a college degree can make enough money to support a family. (Extended family involvement could be either a plus or a minus in these situations, of course.)

All in the Family Way #2

Speaking of extended families, one of the advantages of early marriage that nobody on either side of the controversy seems to have noticed is that both the spouses and their families are much more likely to have known each other for a long time, and to live near each other, when the kids marry before going away to college or military service. Sending an unmarried adolescent away from home at the hormone-ridden age of 18 or 19 virtually guarantees that she will not marry the boy next door, or even one from the same county. (This is not necessarily a setup for disaster, though I know of no statistics on the subject at all, but it does mean the wife’s parents are likely to retire at least a thousand miles away from where the husband’s parents retire, which in turn means the couple will never have a vacation to themselves after that.)

Brave New World

Another set of solutions may involve biology rather than sociology, economics, or education. One of the reasons teenage pregnancy has become such a serious issue in our time is that, while socioeconomic maturity now happens later than in just about any other era except post-famine Ireland, biological maturity is happening earlier than ever. This problem has been studied extensively. We are pretty sure that, whatever the cause is, it is something that has been artificially added to the environment of young girls; if we find it, we can remove it. Explanations range from high-fat diets increasing the proportion of body fat in young girls to the level where menarche is triggered, to excessive consumption of various sex-linked hormones in factory-farmed meat. If we come up with an answer, that might also enable us to move puberty back to where it was a century ago, three or four years later than it now happens. That would solve the rest of the problems by itself.

Even if we never figure out why puberty is coming three or four years earlier than it did in our great-grandparents’ generation, we can easily come up with artificial ways of postponing it, through administration of hormones. Yes, this is not as benign as merely undoing some environmental change from earlier times. Yes, the potential for side effects is obvious, given what we have learned about hormone therapy for post-menopausal women, and steroids for athletes of both sexes. The other thing we have learned from those sorry episodes in our recent history is that we are willing to risk pretty much any side effects, particularly in women and children, for the Greater Good.

If we’re going to solve the problem by tinkering with biology, I’ve got a tweak I’d like to suggest. Indeed, I’d like to ask the Nobel Committee to set up a special prize for anybody who succeeds in inventing it. What I have in mind is some catalyst that inflicts upon every man, within a few days after he impregnates a woman, some trivial but inconvenient and above all highly distinctive and visible physical problem—say, a purple rash on the face, or a tendency to sneeze violently and repeatedly in the presence of alcohol. Whatever it is, it should last for nine months. Once we can easily identify unwed fathers, we will be ready to devote serious attention to the whole problem of unwed parenthood, and probably solve it within a decade.

Red Emma

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