PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

(ATTENTION EDITORS: A reader’s comment about “‘voluntary’ irresponsible parents” prompts further dialogue on a topic that reflects current events: teenage pregnancy. T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D., help define the terms of the problem – and the solution).

A recent column on why it takes a village – parents and community, including government – to raise a child prompts this reply.

Q. All the possible situations which exist where families need the assistance of the community to raise their children are valid. However, if it were not for all of the “voluntary” irresponsible parents, there would be enough money and manpower to help the children.

In New Orleans, as in many, many cities, some people have children starting at the age of 13 or 14 and go on to have many children only half-related. These parents, usually mothers, are waiting in the line to get free Christmas presents for their children, and are already pregnant with the next one that they cannot afford and do not intend being responsible for.

All the young men who are arrested for heinous crimes – murder, rape, armed robbery, etc. – began their criminal careers as young as 8, and were almost exclusively the children of these very young unwed mothers.

The only way the “village” would work is if these children were taken away from these “mothers” and raised in loving group homes where their needs would be met.
Then, make the mothers work every day like all the responsible parents do, and contribute to their children’s expenses. Also, determine by DNA or any other means who the fathers are and make them contribute to their children.

It’s pitiful watching these young children running the streets on school days and getting into so much trouble at a very young age. But, the government just making more “programs” available to the voluntarily irresponsible parents will just create more of them.

A. The reportedly unintended pregnancy of the teenage daughter of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin might be worth factoring into your thinking about “voluntarily irresponsible” parents. Young adolescents’ new capacity for reproduction does not suddenly endow them with the maturity to know how to use it, nor the abilities to function as responsible parents. Perhaps the “forgiveness” this family is being offered by those who presume to judge can be spread across party and other dividing lines.

You say that there are enough 13- or 14-year-old “voluntary irresponsible” parents to spend all the money for services that “responsible parents” need. We agree with you that there are far too many children born to parents too young to care for them. Yet overall teenage pregnancy rates fell from 1990 to 2004 – after which funding cuts hit harder. The number of teen parents is small compared to the number of adults raising children in poverty, and the dollars spent on them are less too. Still, we can cut costs and suffering by investing in these children’s futures before their problems begin.

You conclude that “more programs” will just create more irresponsible parents – a generalization that cannot be responsibly made without being informed about a very large number of programs. The problem is not “more” vs. “less” programs, but misguided vs. well planned and executed ones.

Political debate is crippled by slogans like “more” or “less” programs, “big” or “small” government. Those who oppose some programs label them “big” government, while at the same time pushing for big spending on the ones they want.

On either side of those empty arguments, what people really want is a government capable of doing what they believe is necessary, whether it is protecting our borders from illegal immigration and our nation from terrorism, keeping our levees and bridges strong and safe, or preventing teenage pregnancy and child abuse – these are all “big” programs, and none of them will work if they’re not done well.

What we need is not “less” or “more,” but government and programs that work. The drop in teenage pregnancy rates is at least partly due to effective programs that are successful in preventing teenage pregnancies, in stopping adolescents from becoming parents before they are ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. One such program is the Children’s Aid Society Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program (www.stopteenagepregnancy.com).

Dr. Michael Carrera’s program has been replicated around the country. We think it would be worth your while to learn about programs like his and how they work. Rather than simply blaming these children (and their parents) for their unintended pregnancies, Carrera has gotten to know some of them, to understand why they do this. Without understanding the cause of the problem, we won’t find the solution. Blame won’t help us get there.

Carrera has learned that many of these children raised in poverty are convinced that they are worthless, and that there is no future for them to live for. To many of them it seems pointless to work hard to get ahead, to wait until later to have babies, because in their world, there is no later. But Carrera has found that by helping these children discover their gifts and develop their talents in carefully designed after-school programs, he can help them begin to reach for their own future.

“Hope is a powerful contraceptive,” Carrera says. When these children discover their own potential in these programs, they are less likely to become pregnant, and more likely to stay on track in high school.

Instead of giving up on them, we can help them believe in our uniquely American Dream.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.