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 

Tuesday, September 2, 2016 (Volume 4: Issue: 29)

The Topic: Babies Having Babies 

The News Story: Concerns Raised Over Teenage Pregnancy “Magic Dolls”

The New Research: Parents Too Soon


The News Story: Concerns Raised Over Teenage Pregnancy “Magic Dolls”

“More than 1,000 teenage girls who took part in programmes in Western Australia were more likely to become pregnant than girls who did not take part,” reports the BBC.

Girls enrolled in the “Virtual Infant Parenting Program” were given “baby simulators” which cried when they needed to be fed, burped, or changed. After completing the program, the girls were tracked to the age of 20. At that point, eight percent of the girls who participated in the parent program had given birth at least once, compared to four percent of girls who had not participated. Nine percent of the girls in the doll group had obtained an abortion by 20, compared to only four percent of girls in the control group.

The BBC highlights several reasons that the program may have failed, including a lack of focus on teenage boys and not enough emphasis on the negative aspects of teen parenting. The story concludes by emphasizing the role of “[t]argeted education programmes and easier access to contraception” in bringing down the teenage pregnancy rate in the UK, but warns that “sex education is not compulsory in all schools” and without adequate funding, is unlikely to become so anytime soon.

But research indicates that policies encouraging family stability may do far more in helping teens avoid early parenthood than more sex education.  

(Source: “Concerns Raised Over Teenage Pregnancy ‘Magic Dolls,’” BBC, August 26, 2016)


The New Research: Parents Too Soon

Who ends up a 16-year-old and typically unmarried mother? Who ends up a 17-year-old and typically absent father? A study by demographers at the University of Maryland identifies teens reared by a single parent or traumatized by a series of parental divorces as the young people most likely bound for premature parenthood. 

Scrutinizing national data collected between 1979 and 2006, the scholars find that when a young person becomes a parent at a troublingly young age, his or her own family of origin is typically a fractured one. When using their simplest statistical models, the researchers conclude that “the effects of childhood family structure were similar for women and men.”

Outlining a pattern that looks quite similar among boys, the researchers note that “girls who never lived with a father or who lived with several father figures are more likely to transition to motherhood early, both to single and to married (but not cohabiting) motherhood.” The data indicate that young women “who never lived with their father had the most rapid transition to parenthood,” while being reared “in a family with four or more transitions was linked with the next most rapid transition to motherhood.” Turning their attention to boys who become young parents, the Maryland scholars calculate that “those who never lived with a father were 2.8 times as likely [as peers in intact families] to become a [pre-adult] father, those who experienced four or more transitions were about 2.3 times as likely to become [pre-adult] fathers, and those experiencing one to three transitions were 1.8 times as likely to become [pre-adult] fathers.”

The researchers discern a general pattern of congruence in the way a fractured family propels young men into early fatherhood and the way such a family pushes young women toward early motherhood. However, some gender differences do show up in the researchers’ most sophisticated statistical models. To begin with, “family structure differences are greater for young women, and the divergence is clear earlier.” And, of course, the boys who become premature fathers are much more likely than their female counterparts to become “nonresidential” parents.

Understandably, the authors of the study stress that “growing up without two parents has intergenerational consequences. Young men who experienced substantial instability growing up are themselves more likely to experience disrupted fathering and go on to become absent fathers. Girls apparently do not learn appropriate relationship skills if they grow up in families without their fathers, even if the family structure is stable, and this leads them to rear children in such families themselves.”

The scholars believe it is past time for “breaking the cycle” of intergenerational family dysfunction. In particular, they call for measures “breaking the connection between family structure and poverty” and for programs fostering better “parenting skills.” Affirming abiding marital commitments as a social ideal is apparently just too radical for politically correct scholars to contemplate.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson, “New Research,” The Family in America 25.1 [Winter 2011]. Study: Sandra L. Hofferth and Frances Goldsheider, “Family Structure and the Transition to Early Parenthood,” Demography 47.2 [May 2010]: 415–37.)