Living Fast

Nancy Marie Brown
December 01, 1995

Desmond is 19. He has witnessed a shooting by 15-year-olds, known the death of friends, seen members of his family sent off to prison, become a father.

Tara is 16 and pregnant. Of her child's father, she said, "I don't expect James to be around too long. He lives fast. He has to. Most of his friends are dead or in jail. I expect the same will happen to him."

Candyce, 13, is also pregnant. "I am a grown woman," she said. "Why these people keep treating me like a kid? I don't even know what being a kid is like."

To these African-American teens in "Capitol City," a Northeastern metropolis of 230,000, teenage pregnancy is not a problem. It's normal—as are dying in your teens or twenties, going to jail, or becoming a grandparent at 37.

What's odd is the idea of adolescence: "Me, a teenager?" remarked Sam, 17. "Be for real, lady. Who's got time for that? I'm a man. I'd better be one before I lose my life out on these streets."

Sam, Candyce, Tara, and Desmond are four of the 143 adolescent males and pregnant females, ages 13-21, interviewed for IRAP, a five-year study of Intergenerational Relationships and Adolescent Pregnancy led by Penn State professor Linda Burton. Transcribing some of the interviews, after having read extensively about families in poverty, Burton's graduate student Dawn Obeidallah had an unsettling insight: These teenaged mothers and fathers, she saw, had skipped adolescence altogether. They'd learned, in Tara's words, to "live fast." They had a "truncated view of their life course," Obeidallah writes, a "foreshortened life expectancy." They didn't have time for being a teenager.

"That's the same thing people used to hear from kids in the Great Depression," Obeidallah notes. "There are no children here—like the Oprah Winfrey TV special. These kids are put into a context where they have to be adults. Basically, what we're finding is that they're timing the transitions in their lives much faster than the mainstream youth are.

"And it's not an African-American issue. It's not even an inner-city issue. It has its roots in poverty." (A monthly family income of less than $400 is normal for 45 percent of the IRAP sample.) "The classic work was done on children in the Great Depression," Obeidallah continues, "but there's been work more recently on rural families in Iowa, and they too have experienced some form of acceleration in the transitions between life events."

There's no time to be a teenager when you're the sole caretaker of your younger siblings, as are 43 percent of the pregnant girls in the IRAP sample. No time when, in the six months before your IRAP interview, you've seen a friend your own age dead or jailed—as had 80 percent of the girls.

But neither is there the same need to be a teen, in a society where the generations differ by an average of only 17 years. "Many researchers tend to view adolescence from a mainstream point of view," Obeidallah notes. "It's a time of creating your own identity, of breaking away from your parents. But these kids' families aren't hierarchical. The boundaries between generations aren't well defined. The relationship between mothers and daughters is more like a sibling relationship, because the generations are so short. Or a son is trying to get the same job as his dad."

It's a way of life familiar from hundreds of years ago, before compulsory education in the mid 1800's, says Obeidallah, "elongated your dependence on your parents, because you aren't paid for schooling.

"Yet this way of life is juxtaposed to the TV images of the American Dream. It's almost a-synchronous."

In spite of this rift between their reality and the way richer Americans live, many of these teens have not given up. "The best kids," Obeidallah says, "are not depressed, they have intact coping skills, a good support system. They tend to be religious—instead of taking drugs or drinking when they face a problem, they pray. They're resilient."

For her doctoral dissertation, Obeidallah hopes to identify coping skills that can be taught, interventions that are appropriate for these teens' lives. "It's difficult to interact with people in this environment and not think, What can be done? Resilience has to do with protective factors, with having something that buffers you from the full impact of a risk factor like poverty. High self-esteem is a protective factor. An emotionally supportive environment is a protective factor. Having meaningful day-to-day life experiences is a protective factor."

Government or social agencies hoping to foster such protection, however, need to keep in mind, Obeidallah notes, that "context changes the meaning of development, of how we grow up. Policy makers have to design interventions that keep pace with the developmental pathways of the people at risk."

If not, attempts to help will only alienate. As 15-year-old Jamal told an IRAP interviewer, "Sometimes I just don't believe how this school operates and thinks about us. Here I am a grown man. I take care of my mother and have raised my sisters. Then I come here and this know-nothing teacher treat me like I'm some dumb kid with no responsibilities. I am so frustrated."

Dawn Obeidallah is a Ph.D. student in human development and family studies, College of Health and Human Development, 717 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-9568. Her adviser, Linda Burton, Ph.D., is professor of sociology and human development; 863-9568. IRAP is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the William T. Grant Foundation.

Last Updated December 01, 1995