This is Urban Child Institute’s Doug Imig’s Perceptions :

Recently, both the national and Memphis news have focused their attention on the high number of pregnant girls in high school in Memphis. Every year, one in six births in Shelby County is to a mother still in her teens. What difference does teen parenting make for children?

In 2006, the median age at first birth for all mothers in the U.S. was 25. For the same year, the median age of first-time moms in Shelby County was 23. Meanwhile, minority mothers and unmarried mothers are likely to become parents at earlier ages in our community. The average age of first-time unmarried mothers in Shelby County is 21; and the average income of these young women is $12,858, meaning these families are living in poverty.

What does the future hold for these children?

Certainly, we would wish that every newborn in our community grow up in a loving and nurturing home and family; that they develop to their full capacity and reach school ready to learn; that they thrive academically; that they finish high school and go on to college; that they find and keep jobs that are fulfilling and pay a decent wage; and that they become happy, healthy and productive adults.

But the odds against these outcomes are steep for a baby born to a teen-aged mother. The first three years of a child’s life are a period of astonishing brain development, and brain development occurs as a young child interacts with the people and environments that surround her. When families have access to necessary resources, and protection from negative influences such as crime, maternal depression and disease, children have the greatest opportunity to develop to their full potential. Early brain development in turn is the foundation for later success in school and life.

Children do better when they’re not raised by children

From the fields of early childhood development, brain science, education and public policy, we know that babies born to teen-agers are at risk for many negative outcomes. The majority of children born to teen mothers will spend their early childhoods in poverty. An early childhood in poverty is associated with much higher levels of turmoil, disruption and chaos.

Young families in poverty simply have fewer resources – meaning that they have a much less secure connection to stable housing, healthy food, reliable transportation, or developmentally appropriate books and toys. In Memphis, these young families are frequently uprooted, moving an average of five times before their children reach kindergarten – compared to one or fewer moves by middle-class families over the same years.

A child who spends his or her first years in poverty, raised by a single, teen mother, who probably did not finish high school, is likely to develop a smaller vocabulary than a child in a middle class family. A typical three-year-old raised in a family on welfare typically has a vocabulary a third the size of a three-year-old raised by professional parents. Early deficits in language development, in turn, mean that these kids will be far behind their middle-class peers when they reach kindergarten. By fourth grade, nearly all of the kids in this group are likely to be below grade level in readying, and half of this group is unlikely to finish high school.

What about these young mothers?

What about the young women who now find themselves with another serious complication standing in the way of their finishing high school, let alone enrolling in college? Without a meaningful education, they will have a much harder time finding and keeping a job that pays a living wage. Trends in Shelby County also suggest that girls who have their first child as teen-agers are highly likely to have more children in the next few years. Having more children deepens family poverty, and leaves even less time to play, sing, read, and otherwise nurture the early development of these kids.

When mothers are out of their teens they are more likely to have higher levels of education and income. Additionally, delaying motherhood makes infant mortality less likely and increases the length of time between subsequent births.

Education is the most powerful birth control

In Shelby County, it isn’t until age 24 that a first-time single mother is likely to be above the poverty line. There are good reasons why the mid-twenties are a period of life in which women begin to earn enough money to support themselves and a child. By this age, women are much more likely to have finished school and found a steady job. The relationship between a woman’s education and the timing of her first birth is important: Women who parent young are much less likely to finish school. On the other hand, women who are determined to go to college are much more likely to put off starting a family. In other words: education (and the desire for more) is a powerful prophylactic.

Moving toward a better future for young children and families in Memphis

The well-being of children in our community requires that we begin to make the connections between a family’s access to fundamental resources, a child’s protec¬tion from risk factors in their earliest years, and the implications of early childhood development for later life outcomes.

Children in Memphis will do better when their parents complete the education needed to earn a living wage. In Memphis, large numbers of low-income women begin parenting before they finish school, before they can count on have an employed partner, and before they find a living wage job. For these women, the complications of raising a child (or children) derail dreams of completing their educations and becoming financially stable.

So what’s the solution?

Young women in our community will be more likely to delay parenting when they believe that there are realistic reasons to do so: when they believe that delaying a family and finishing school will lead to a more meaningful life, a better paying job that helps them afford a home and decent transportation, or a loving marriage that improves the quality of life for themselves and their children.

Are these goals realistic for young women in Shelby County? If not, then young women are left with few reasons to delay motherhood, and our community is left with another generation of children raising children, undermining the well-being and life prospects of both. To learn more about what works when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy and parenting, see the recent column by Rebecca Terrell in the Commercial-Appeal.