Urban Girls Look Ahead

Melissa Stutzman
May 01, 1997

Rural girls, on average, want to finish college, get a good job, get married, and then have children.

Urban girls hold themselves to the same high standards as their rural counterparts, says Alina Perez-Febles, a graduate student in psychology, but the order of events is changed. In interviews with Perez, urban teenagers expressed a desire to get a good job, then graduate from college, have children, and then marry. On average, they wanted to have children around age 19, but not marry until they were 23.

Perez's question was part of a larger study into the problem of teenage pregnancy.

When asking what "causes" teenage pregnancy, other researchers have considered hormone levels, depression, lack of self-esteem, "problem-proneness," lax parental control, peer pressure, the media, and economic disadvantages. Perez would add to that list the expectations of the girl, her family, and her neighbors.

"Most research concerning adolescent pregnancy," Perez writes, "has been based on the premise that adolescent childbearing is a 'social problem.'" That assumption implies teenage motherhood is "a violation of the normative progression of the life course" from childhood to old age – that it's "deviant." "Yet this may not be true in all contexts or for all adolescents," she notes, citing the work of her adviser, Penn State professor Linda Burton. What's considered a "normal" progression from child to adult to parent to grandparent might differ considerably from culture to culture and even from neighborhood to neighborhood. Among the 20 African-American families Burton studied in a northeastern city, for instance, the average age for becoming a mother was 15 to 18 years, followed by marriage at 28 to 30, and becoming a grandmother at 34 to 36.

Perez's results agree. In interviews with 86 mixed-ethnic urban girls and their mothers from that same city, she found less of an age difference between the generations in their families than in the white rural families to which she compared them. "Urban girls see that their mothers had children at a young age and that their grandmothers had their mothers at a young age and so on," she notes. "To them, having children at a younger age is what's normal."

The desire to have children early was also not an act of rebellion or a sign of poor parenting for these girls. Although it was true that the closer a mother and daughter were, the fewer children the daughter desired to have (and vice versa), Perez notes that the girls she spoke with, regardless of how close they were to their mothers, all treated their mother's opinions with respect. "They're really listening to what their moms are saying," Perez says. "What they want for themselves and what their moms want for them are very similar." For this reason, she says, current programs that focus on improving mother/daughter relationships in order to curb teen pregnancies won't be completely effective.

In fact, for many urban girls, teen pregnancy is seen in a positive light. For those Perez interviewed, getting childbirth out of the way early in life was a priority in order to move on. "I think they feel that the sooner they give birth, the sooner their children will grow up and become self.sufficient," Perez says. Others have suggested that early childbearing is a response to "the reality of uncertain adult health and a foreshortened lifespan" of disadvantaged inner-city populations, she writes. "While in the short term, children may be seen as a liability, in the long term, they can provide security for the adolescent mother as the children are expected to provide and care for her as she ages and enters the workforce." The urban girls in her sample, Perez says, expected to be grandmothers at about age 40.

Although it may be fine for girls to expect to have children young and to marry late, Perez says, she wants to make sure they do not get pregnant before they are prepared to handle the responsibility. "These girls have hopes and dreams just like everyone else their age," Perez says. "I want to do what I can with my research to make sure they are in the best possible circumstances to reach their dreams."

In follow-up analyses, Perez will look more closely at these urban teens, comparing teen mothers with their friends and neighbors who have not been pregnant. Do they still share the same expectations for the future, she wonders, or has the fact of childbearing skewed their plans?

Alina M. Perez-Febles is a graduate student in the department of psychology. Her advisers are Linda Burton, Ph.D., professor of human development and sociology, College of Health and Human Development, 110 Henderson South, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0241; bqq@psuvm.psu.edu; and Kevin Allison, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of psychology, College of the Liberal Arts.

Last Updated May 01, 1997