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Keys to ensuring a happy Mother's Day

May 13, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Today is Mother's Day and good children all over the region are treating mom to a fancy restaurant meal, a flowering plant or both. Her mature children will remember her sacrifices on their behalf and perhaps apologize (again) for their youthful misbehavior.

But most of the women enjoying such a meal today probably weren't teen mothers. Their children likely can't afford a fancy dinner out, because research shows that such children are more likely to experience a life of poverty.

Those moms will be lucky to get even a card, since their offspring might not remember childhood as a happy time. That's another unpleasant truth research has uncovered - children of teen mothers are more likely to be abused and neglected and to be involved with substance abuse and the justice system at a young age.

The latest figures available show Washington County has the fourth-highest teen birth rate in the state. About 200 young women, aged 15 to 19, give birth here each year.

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These women are not just statistics, but members of the community who made unfortunate decisions.

In interviews, some of them have told me that they had been through the school system's Family Life classes and knew about birth control. In the heat of passion, however, they told themselves that it would not happen to them.

And if it did, well, they would deal with it. Many others in the community have done so, right?

This is the heart of the problem - the inability to imagine that things could be different. It is the failure to see what kind of life is possible if you delay or abstain from unprotected sexual activity.

Instead of poverty, these young mothers could have an education and careers. Instead of living in a subsidized apartment and traveling by cab or bus, they might have their own homes and cars, not to mention a father for their babies who provides his kids with more than a child-support check.

So how does the community change this no-big-deal mindset about teen pregnancy?

First, by encouraging parents to talk to their children about sex well before they're likely to face a choice. That means as soon as they're ready for middle school. Talk to them even if it seems as if they're not listening and remember that saying "Don't have sex" is not enough.

That was shown in a 2005 survey done by Shattuck & Associates of Mount Airy, Md., over several days at the Valley Mall. During that time, 288 teens and 151 parents were asked questions about sex and their families.

The Shattuck survey found that parents didn't want their children engaging in risky behavior, but were uncomfortable having a detailed discussion about sex.

Only 8 percent of the parents interviewed by Shattuck said they "rarely" had a conversation with teens about sex. Teens interviewed put that "rarely" figure at 47 percent.

Teens want more than slogans. They want someone they trust, such as their parents, to tell them why it makes sense to wait until they're older or married to have sex.

The dangers go beyond the physical risks of sexually transmitted diseases. a A 2003 study done based on responses from 6,500 adolescents funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and 17 other federal agencies found that sexually active teens are more likely to be depressed than those who are not sexually active.

For young people whose parents might be incapable or unwilling to have those talks, there is another alternative - mentoring young people through the school system or organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters. I did for several years through Fountaindale Elementary School and for all the apprehension I felt going in, I believe that I was able to make a positive difference in a couple of children's lives.

In a recent interview with Cynthia Perini, who co-chaired the last campaign of the United Way of Washington County, she told me about her own experience with the Big Sisters program. Not only did the child participate in activities with Perini, but she was able to see what life was like in a family unlike her own.

Life is different for the people who delay or abstain from having sex until they are married, but if a child seldom sees such a family, he or she probably can't imagine what it is like.

In such families, pregnancies don't just happen, they're planned. And the children are not seen as a burden, but as gifts that enrich their parents' lives. If we can just show young people the life that they will lose for just a moment's pleasure, a few more mothers might get their own special dinner on a sunny Sunday in May.

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