The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Teen Motherhood a Problem?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Academic and media commentators generally deplore teenage motherhood in America, often advocating wider access to contraception and abortion as strategies for dealing with this perceived problem. A more complex reality emerges in a study of the offspring of teenage mothers recently completed at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

To determine what circumstances foster the best outcomes for children born to teenage mothers, the researchers parse data collected for a nationally representative sample of children born in 2001 and tracked through their entry into kindergarten.  These data show very clearly that children born to young mothers do best when they live in a nuclear family, residing with both their mother and their father. And at least among whites and Hispanics, they do decidedly less well in other family configurations, regardless of the number of adult caregivers present. The Colorado scholars report, “Children of single [teenage] mothers who live with other adults score 1.64 points lower on the math assessment than those living in a two-parent nuclear household. [p < 0.05].” This pattern held across all the racial or ethnic groups in this study.

But children’s academic performance is not the only issue here. The advantage of living in a two-parent nuclear family shows up in children’s behavior, also. According to the researchers, “White children living in single-mother households with other adults have behavior scores that are nearly 0.6 standard deviations lower than those of White children in nuclear two-parent households.” The pattern “does not differ significantly for Hispanic compared to White children,” though among Hispanics the children living with a single mother and other adults have behavior scores that are only 0.4 standard deviations lower than for those for peers living in nuclear two-parent households. (Curiously, behavior scores for African American children living in these two types of family structures do not differ significantly.)

The researchers stress that the children of teenage mothers are not equally likely to enjoy the advantages of living in a two-parent nuclear family in all ethnic groups. The researchers calculate that nearly three in five of the children of teen mothers live with both biological parents among Whites and Hispanics. However, “a higher proportion of White children live in a nuclear family while a higher proportion of Hispanic children also live with other adults.”

Unfortunately, “only 17% of African American children of teenage mothers live with both biological parents.” Almost half of African American children born to teenage mothers live with a single mother and one or more other adults (such as a grandmother), while almost another third live with a single mother alone.

Many prominent commentators decry teen motherhood as though it were always and everywhere a social problem. But the North Carolina researchers rightly insist, “Teenage motherhood must be understood as a broad categorization that encompasses a wide array of backgrounds and circumstances.” These scholars believe that “understanding the diverse life situations faced by teenage mothers and their children” can help policymakers devise “situationally appropriate interventions to improve their lives.” Interventions that put the offspring of these mothers in two-parent nuclear families would appear especially desirable.

(Stefanie Mollborn and Jeff A. Dennis, “Investigating the Life Situations and Development of Teenage Mothers’ Children: Evidence from the ECLS-B,” Population Research and Policy Review 31.1 [2012]: 31-66.)