'Do As I Say' Doesn't Cut It with Teens

August 29, 1994|By BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD

As part of his plan for welfare reform, President Clinton seeks to bring down the rate of unwed-teen parenthood, a major generator of child poverty and welfare dependency.

He plans to replicate successful programs that encourage teen-agers to postpone sex -- and to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to deliver a stern message to teens: Don't have sex until you are older. Don't have babies before you are married.

This is a challenging task. Mr. Clinton deserves credit for attempting it. But to succeed, he must bring his campaign to adults as well.

The norms governing teen-age sexuality are not set solely by the teen-agers. Adult conduct and the commercial culture strongly shape adolescent attitudes and behavior.

The rise in unwed-teen parenthood is part of a much broader shift in patterns of sex and marriage.

No change is more pervasive or dramatic than the increase in illegitimate births among women of all ages.

Unwed motherhood has risen by 82 percent since 1980. Nearly one out of three births occurs outside of marriage. Most unwed mothers are over 20.

The biggest rate of increase in unwed childbearing has come among women who probably have the greatest control over their fertility: college-educated women. And the trend toward runaway fatherhood was under way long before this generation of teen-agers reached puberty.

One of the classic responsibilities of adults is to set an example for children. An example has been set.

Though some persist in portraying unwed motherhood as social rebellion, the facts tell a different story. More than half of adult Americans -- including a whopping 70 percent of younger adults -- say that a woman should be able to bear a child outside of marriage without reproach. Illegitimacy is now as American as the Fourth of July.

The rise in unwed-teen parenthood is part of a much broader shift in patterns of sex and marriage. No change is more pervasive or dramatic than the increase in illegitimate births among women of all ages.

Closer to home, parents' sex lives affect the sex lives of their children. Research suggests that children who are persistently exposed to the sex lives of their dating parents are more likely to be sexually active at an early age.

Girls who grow up in single-mother families have sex earlier than girls who live with both parents. Since young teens are the least likely of all age groups to engage in protected sex, early sexual initiation increases the risks of early pregnancy and childbearing.

More alarmingly, girls who grow up in single-mother households with a string of drop-in or live-in boyfriends are at a higher risk for sexual abuse and coercive sexual initiation than are girls who grow up in intact families. Such traumatic sexualization, harmful in itself, also is associated with later sexual risk-taking.

Moreover, lack of parental supervision and protection is a key factor in exposing daughters to the risks of early sex and pregnancy.

And grown-ups, not kids, run the advertising, entertainment and alcohol industries that rely so heavily on sex to sell products to the lucrative youth market.

In short, teen-age sexuality does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a larger social ecology that must change if we expect teen-agers to do the right thing.

This raises some questions for the president as well as for a society increasingly eager to get rid of the welfare system:

Can we offer tough talk to kids without a few cautionary words to the adults?

Can we ask teen-agers to zip up and hold back without asking for some voluntary restraint from those who sell tapes and tickets and T-shirts to them?

Can we ask poor minority teen-agers to marry before they become parents without upholding the same norm for more privileged white adults?

Barbara DaFoe Whitehead is vice president of the Institute for American Values in New York City.

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