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The New Black: Teen Dads

Social policymakers have started to go all gooey about teenage fathers, but there is more to it than funding a bit of help to get their lives straightened out. Teen fatherhood is about improving outcomes for babies and preventing future unplanned early pregnancies, writes Harald Breiding-Buss

Teen dads are the new black

Our Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett, has a heart for teen parents – and that includes teen dads. Within a national budget that aims to change the way social services are funded, $20m over four years has been set aside specifically for teen parents, and within this about $750,000 is ring fenced for teen dads – probably the first-ever father-specific amount written into a government budget.

Father & Child started looking into what kind of people teenage fathers are about ten years ago, and our own research gave us some surprising results. Amongst other things, we came across a number of dads under 20 who had sole care of their child – a group that even today is treated as non-existent as we commonly associate teen parenthood with young solo mothers.

One such young solo father found himself unable to even get an IRD number for his son, because he was not registered as the father on his son’s birth certificate, and therefore had no legal status as a parent. Missing dads on birth certificates is epidemic for babies born to teen mothers: a whopping 20% of those babies have fathers that are, at least officially, unknown. Other countries, such as the UK, have legislated in recent years to require authorities to ask about the father for every birth, and only allow to leave his name and details blank in exceptional circumstances.
Less than 10% of births are to mothers under 20. While that proportion is high by international standards, it is very low historically. Having your first baby in your late 20s or even 30s is a fairly new phenomenon, and as birth ages increased people started to look down on young parents. It doesn’t help public perception that, unlike back in the days of our grandparents, almost none of those young parents are in a stable relationship with each other.

Over half the babies born to a teen mother have a father over 20, and for about a third the father is also a teenager. That makes about 2,500 teen fathers we know about, and of those about one in five have babies born to a mum who is over 20. Getting involved with older women is not so uncommon for young men, and several of the teen dads we worked with at Father & Child had partners (or ex-partners) in their late twenties or even thirties.

Statistics aside, the public perception of teen dads is not good. They may have become sexy with the political establishment, but in the public eye they generally fail to be good dads, and not the least part of this is that they don’t have a proper job.

The stereotype is that the main ‘issue’ consists of young men these days not wanting to take responsibility, i.e. get married (or something like that), settle down with a job and so on – everything we still associate with a good, responsible father.

However, there is little sign that young mums are in any hurry to take on the young men as permanent partners and create a household with them. Even the most responsible young man needs the cooperation of the mother to be a good dad by whatever standard. However there is no-one telling a young mother that her baby needs a father. There are good options now for a teen mum to continue her education while having fulltime on-site childcare and pursue a career if she wants, but no assistance whatsoever for a young dad to become established. As young mums get help with parenting, career and social issues, there is no niche left for a young dad. And so the key to better dads for those babies lies with mum.

It doesn’t help that a teen mum is most likely the child of a solo mother herself and has not experienced a healthy relationship with her own father. In fact some large international studies show that it is that lack of a father especially during early childhood which put a young woman most at risk of an early pregnancy, ahead of any other social factors. Her own ideas of what a father should be or do may be modelled on Hollywood men more than real ones, and as such is pretty impossible to live up to.

There is no doubt that more father involvement would be good for those babies. Research into the benefits of father involvement has piled up over the last 20 or so years. The common thread is that for a child to reap the benefits of father involvement there has to be a close relationship, and the father has to be responsive, playful and caring. The father’s prowess as an income earner is less important, and the benefits of having a father all but disappear if that father is never at home and never gets close to his children.

A father is also not easily replaced by a step-father. New Zealand research shows that children view the parenting efforts of a step-parent completely different to those of a natural parent. When the tough decisions have to be made, children naturally assume that their biological parents still care about them and have their interests at heart. The same thing from a step-parent is viewed as coercion and power play. While step-parents are often great and much needed role models, this relationship is of a different nature to that between biological parents and their children, regardless of who provides more ‘stability’. For better or worse, a father or mother are not replaceable.

That more attention is put on teenage fathers has to be a good thing, but what we really need is a paradigm shift. We need to instil young parents with a sense of teamwork; that raising this baby is a job they do together, whether they live together or not.

Josh’s Story

Josh (17), like most parents, soon learned that babies have a schedule all of their own. Kaizah was born by Caesarean on February 2 this year.

“We were confident of our preparations,” says Josh, but they had some issues with their midwife. “She saw me as just a teenage kid.” She told him it wasn’t necessary for him to attend the midwife appointments, but he went anyway.

“We were both scared, but happy,” Josh says of he and partner Latoya (19). “The scan was awesome… seeing his face in 3D and smiling” made Josh feel like crying.

When Latoya went in for the Caesarean Josh was understandably “really worried.” When Kaizah came out Josh was “able to stand up and see…then I saw the blood and sat down again; it brought a tear to my eye.”

“It’s been up and down,” says Teena, Josh’s mother. But Josh has been quite excited about milestones throughout the pregnancy. He reads and sings to Kaizah at night.

“You can’t do it by yourself,” Josh says. “Don’t push help away. Take it.”

With regard to he and Latoya being teenage parents, Josh says it has been difficult. His friends have not been too supportive, but they have their own lives. “I don’t go out as much.”

“We’ll get there,” he says of his relationship with Latoya. “We need to be patient.”

“I have something to work towards, and for,” Josh says. “I have a kid now.”

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