Teaching Teens How to Parent and Stop Having Children

Battling the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, Texas counselors have their work cut out

It's a Thursday morning at A. Maceo Smith High School, and the girls in parenting class are struggling to stay awake. There are six of them, freshmen and sophomores mostly, and not one had a full night's sleep. They are young mothers with babies, or they are in the final, uncomfortable months of pregnancy.

Crystal, who is sitting in the front row, is the resident expert on mothering. A short girl with bright eyes, she is a motormouth on the dos and don'ts of parenting. Crystal is 14 years old, with a 2-year-old at home with Grandma. According to experts, she stands a good chance of having another child before age 18.

Texas teens lead the nation in having babies, according to a recent study by the nonprofit group Child Trends. But even more alarming is the number of teenagers who are having more than one child before adulthood. According to the most recent statistics available, 24 percent of the state's teen births in 2004 were not a first delivery.

Tracie Brewer counsels teen mothers, some who don't even know how babies are conceived.
MORREY TAYLOR
Tracie Brewer counsels teen mothers, some who don't even know how babies are conceived.

"That's the thing that I guess really surprised me," says Tracie Brewer, a counselor with the YWCA Young Parent Program in Oak Cliff. "For some reason, the message is just not getting through to these girls."

Brewer is on the frontlines of what she sees as a crisis in low-income areas in and around Dallas. Almost every work day, she meets with girls like Crystal. Some do not know how they got pregnant.

"It's sort of amazing to me that even after having a child, we meet with girls who do not understand the biological process," Brewer says. "There's one girl I'm working with who is 18 and has a 2-year-old, an 8-month-old, and is pregnant again."

Some experts wonder if Texas' abstinence-only sex education is part of the problem. The state's teen birth rate dropped 19 percent between 1991 and 2004, while in California, where contraception is taught in public schools and birth control is available without parental consent at doctors' offices and community clinics, the teen birth rate dropped by 47 percent during the same period.

In Texas, the problem is especially pronounced among Latinos. According to the most recent statistics available, Hispanics between the ages of 15 and 19 accounted for 61 percent of teen births in Texas in 2004, even though they made up just 39 percent of the state's adolescent population.

"Obviously, abstinence education isn't working," says Holly Morgan, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of North Texas. "We have the highest rate of teen pregnancy and teen birth in the nation, as well as the highest rate of a second teen birth in the nation.

"Anyone can look at the situation and use their imagination and figure out how much of a cost it's going to exert on our state's resources for children and families who are not prepared to have a child."

Brewer isn't sure what the answers are, and she makes a point of not offering up her personal opinions when she meets with teen mothers. Her job, she says, is to inform them of their options.

Back at A. Maceo Smith High, Brewer asks the girls how they have been. One says it is difficult to come to school and leave her baby behind at day care. Another says her boy has been unusually fussy lately.

Brewer passes around job applications and tells the girls that if they want a summer job, now is the time to apply. Then she hands out some fliers on a teen pregnancy class she hosts at the Y and pops in a videotape of an Oprah special on caring for a baby in the first three months.

Brewer says she understands what the girls are going through. Her mother had her first child at the age of 13, and of her four sisters, three gave birth in their teens.

"I saw the effect this has on families," she says. "In my family, I was the first one to graduate from college. For my nieces, I'm the only one they know who has done that. Their mothers didn't graduate from high school.

"The biggest factor in all of this is poverty, and then the cycle repeats itself."

When the Oprah video is over, she asks the girls what they learned.

"Do you guys talk to your babies, do you sing to them?" she asks.

The girls nod.

"When they cry, do you pick them up?"

Crystal, the girl in the front row, says she used to do this, but that it made her son spoiled. When she has her next child, she says, she won't pick her up unless the baby really needs something.

The bell rings, and the girls get up to leave. Brewer stops Crystal and in hushed tones asks her if she has some birth control. Crystal says no, and Brewer promises to bring some for her next time.

As Brewer walks down the hall, on her way to her next appointment, she finds one of the fliers she handed out on the floor. She shrugs her shoulders.

"All we can do," she says, "is let them know what their options are."

Sometimes this means a bus pass to a clinic to get birth control, sometimes it's the phone number for an adoption agency, and sometimes it's for a counselor who can talk about abortion.

Brewer says one of her main goals is to keep the girls in school. Many are not aware that the Dallas Independent School District pays for day care, or that the Barbara Mann alternative high school offers classes at three different shifts to accommodate single working mothers, or that Richland College can help them get their GED and job training.

"The hardest thing for me is when I see these girls and I can see the future and what is going to happen," she says. "I can't make it happen for them; they have to make the decision."

Brewer looks at her watch. She has a full day of appointments ahead of her. One is at a Pleasant Grove apartment complex, where a community service organization with offices there has asked for information on preventing teen pregnancy. One is a home visit with one of the girls she visits regularly. They talk about education, they talk about nutrition, they talk about getting enough sleep. The next day is more of the same.

"It's a big problem, and it's not getting better," she says. "But I think I make a small difference in the lives of the girls we reach. That's all you can do."

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