July/August 2001

Leadbeater and her new book (Becky Lockhart photo).Building a rock to stand on

A psychologist’s new book challenges our stereotypes of teenage mothers

by Becky Lockhart

The stereotype that poor, minority group teenage girls ruin their lives when they get pregnant is challenged in a new book by UVic psychology professor Dr. Bonnie Leadbeater.

Growing Up Fast: Transitions into Adulthood of Inner-city Adolescent Mothers, is based on a six-year study of poor African-American and Hispanic adolescent mothers living in New York City. The vast majority of these young mothers are leading responsible, productive lives by the time the study ends.

“The stereotype that all these girls are going to ruin their lives now that they’re pregnant and are already poor is really inaccurate,” says Leadbeater, explaining that most of the time these young moms are written off by society. If they do succeed, they’re seen as exceptions to the norm.

Leadbeater, who conducted the study and co-wrote the book with Dr. Niobe Way of New York University, was interested in who did and who didn’t do well within the study group, and why.

By and large, the study found that the key to a good transition is the foundation the girl has before she gets pregnant. “The pregnancy made much less of a difference compared to what their lives were like before they became pregnant,” says Leadbeater.

The study looked at the obstacles the young mothers faced, and what helped some of them make a successful transition to adulthood. This involved interviews that examined the girls’ relationships with themselves, their families and boyfriends, and their lives as mothers, students, employees, and welfare recipients.

Girls who succeeded tended to share common themes like good relationships, success in school prior to the pregnancy, clear goals for the future and conditional support from stricter parents who required sticking with these goals and staying in school.

“We know that if girls have strong foundations, if they’re doing well in school and they’re engaged in school, if they have some sense of where they’re going and they have a parent whose saying that this is really important, then these girls will weather crises of other sorts better. With these foundations you’re just better able to manage the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” says Leadbeater.

Girls who were in or were close to the appropriate grade level for their age who either stayed in school or only took a bit of time off during their pregnancy made better transitions. Those who dropped out of school and were already falling behind were less likely to have positive long-term outcomes.

“One of the big shifts that took place for many of them was moving away from the traditional view that someone would take care of them to realizing they were probably the only ones who were going to be there for their children,” says Leadbeater. “They were the ones who were going to make a difference in how things ended up.”

A large chunk of the book is devoted to how social policies and programs can help these girls build the right kind of foundation at an early age. “What you’re trying to do is strengthen the rock that they’re already standing on, you’re not waiting until they get pregnant and have children,” says Leadbeater.

This rock includes introducing these girls in elementary school to what kinds of jobs are out there, how much they pay, and what it takes to get these jobs, says Leadbeater. Seeing people doing these jobs through participation with occupational mentors, and learning to set higher income goals are also important.

The researchers also make recommendations in the book for policy changes to address social programs that work against the girls. “When girls have children, it’s really a key time to get them educated and reconnected to society, instead of making it complicated and hard by limiting their income,” says Leadbeater.

The researchers hope their book will give people a chance to see what adolescent mothers are like. “These girls are truly remarkable. They’re willing to do almost anything for their babies,” says Leadbeater, adding that something the study also found was that by being parents these girls were inspired to become better people.

Growing Up Fast: Transitions to Early Adulthood of Inner-City Adolescent Mothers (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 2001) is available at the UVic Bookstore.

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