Think for a second about everything you have ever heard, read, watched and learned about teen pregnancy. It probably sounds something like: pregnant and parenting youth have ruined their lives. They are failures that drain government resources. Teen pregnancy is a one-way ticket to poverty. Pregnant and parenting youth will never get an education or do anything positive.
"Reality" TV, politicians, and shaming ad campaigns have reinforced these ideas that are then duplicated in our personal relationships with young people. These carefully crafted one-dimensional narratives that young parents are irresponsible and hopeless affect how we view and treat the pregnant and parenting teens in our communities. How often do we hear the real voices of teen parents? Hint: the answer is not often, rarely or never.
At California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), we aim to change that. Our Justice for Young Families (J4YF) initiative specifically challenges assumptions about teen pregnancy while bringing in the experiences of teen mothers and fathers. We conducted focus groups with young Latino mothers and fathers to collect their stories and in our latest brief, "Sin Vergüenza, No Shame: Young Parents Share Their Stories, Challenges and Determination," you will see them dispute common misconceptions that pregnant and parenting youth are unfit caregivers, irresponsible and/or unproductive.
So let's flip the script.
Young parents shared with us how pregnancy helped them reassess their educational goals leading to improved grades, a resolve to graduate, and a new interest in further education. One young mom describes having even bigger aspirations because of her daughter:
"I could hear little messages coming from her, for me to take care of her, for me to be there, she is just pushing me more and more to do more than whatever I wanted before I was pregnant. She is just more of a big motivation for me."
Even as many teen parents feel more motivated, many are deterred from continuing their education because of how they are treated by their peers, teachers and school administrators. In one instance, a teacher scathingly told a pregnant student in front of her class: "I think it's wrong that you guys have childcare at school. If you guys get pregnant, you should be kicked out of school." Another young woman was forced to go to a "pregnancy school" because she didn't "fit into her desk."
It is reprehensible for adults, who should be supporting youth in obtaining an education and accomplishing their goals, to impose their punitive personal prejudices on young parents by treating them as criminals and pariahs. Not only is this damaging to our young people's psyches, it is illegal. Federal statute Title IX prohibits discrimination or harassment by fellow students, teachers, school administrators, and counselors, or any discriminatory school policy or practice. Schools must give all students who might be, are or have been pregnant the same access to school programs and extracurricular activities that other students have.
What is happening instead is that pregnant and parenting students are being shamed from participating in classes or activities with their peers. When ostracized, many will then opt to attend special schools and programs designed for teen parents (where available) or they drop out altogether.
Embedded in the drop out rates for young Latino parents is the lack of affordable and accessible childcare. Studies show that student mothers receiving school-based childcare and support fared better than peers who did not. In-school childcare is a positive way for educational institutions to encourage young mothers to return to or stay in school, and receive accurate information about child development and parenting practices. Young parents said they can concentrate more because they know their child is safe at daycare. If we truly value education as an indicator of upward mobility, then we need to ensure that every young person that wants an education, whether a parent or not, can get one.
Let's also refute the idea that teen pregnancy causes poverty. In fact, many Latino teen parents were poor before they became pregnant. They not only lack money, but also lack or have limited access to information, health care, political power and education. Young people know that there are few available jobs, especially ones that will accommodate their school schedule, while understanding that finishing high school can help them get more lucrative work to support their families. It is a catch 22 for young parents.
Latino teen parents were candid in telling us that what they needed most from the adults (parents, guardians, teachers, coaches, etc.) in their lives was emotional support. Their statements towards the adults in their lives included not "giving up" on them, "underestimating" them, "judging" them and to "stop being negative" and let them "learn from their mistakes." Pregnancy is a time when people need support at any age, so it is certainly not the time to alienate pregnant youth.
With pregnant and parenting youth getting so many negative messages about themselves from pop culture, the government and the community, we as individuals need to change the conversation. It is time that our public discourse acknowledges the systemic issues and stops punishing young parents. Pregnant and parenting Latino youth are asking us to listen and to give them the resources they need and deserve to thrive. They want to achieve and take care of their families. So how can we shift our thoughts, attitudes and policies towards pregnant and parenting youth so that they are more nuanced, supportive and respectful?
*Stop using punitive messages towards Latino youth sexuality, particularly young parents.
*Invite young people to inform policy decisions that reflect their lived experiences and uphold their dignity.
*Support policies that improve educational outcomes for all Latino youth, pregnant, parenting or not.
*Invest resources in programs that offer both comprehensive sexuality education and support young parents.
*Support community-informed research to better elucidate the sexual, reproductive and overall needs of young Latinos and improve approaches that normalize human sexuality.
Our young people need us. Shaming them does not prevent teen pregnancy, nor does it empower them to make healthy decisions. Let's start treating them with dignity and respect to create healthy and thriving Latino communities for all generations.