Bristol Palin just gave birth, teen virginity pledges are useless, and now we hear that teen birthrates are up in 26 states, which means that whatever we're doing to prevent teen pregnancy isn't working very well. The government data show significant surges for 2006, the most recent data available, for more than half of states compared with increases in just one state in two previous years.
The question is, what can we do, as women, to maximize the odds that our daughters don't become Bristol Palins?
That's a toughie because no one exactly knows why teen births are on the rise. Amy Kramer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy previously told me that movies, TV, and flashy magazine spreads romanticizing teen pregnancy may be partly to blame. She says teens report in surveys that their perceptions about relationships are often formed by watching their favorite celebrities in their real life and scripted worlds. The movie Juno particularly concerned her because it idealized its main character's pregnancy, making it seem easy to give a baby up for adoption and go on to a committed relationship with the baby's daddy.
The Campaign has a lot of resources for parents and teens on its website, including 10 helpful tips and advice for talking to your teen. What's clear is that our daughters need stronger role models than the teens they see in the cyberworld. Their peer group is certainly important, but moms of teenage daughters—I'm one—shouldn't write themselves off as insignificant. We need to find a way to foster in our daughters the self-esteem we've acquired along the path to adulthood and not simply provide them with contraception or an abstinence-only lecture.
Of course, it would help to have reinforcement in school education programs. Until now, the government has largely promoted funding for abstinence-only education programs, while many experts have argued that more comprehensive sex education that teaches kids about birth control is needed. Ideally, teens should be given a strong moral framework and psychological tools to make smart decisions about sex—as well as access to contraception should they decide to have it.
Check out this column from my colleague Bernadine Healy on the 8 traits of teens who abstain from sex.