IN THE days before Mother's Day, the country got some good news: Teen birthrates have continued a downward trend that began in 1991.
The decline is across the board, but it is most pronounced among African-Americans, with the rate of births in that group reaching its lowest recorded level.
Given the alarms raised about teen pregnancy and childbirth since rates began a sharp climb in the mid-1980s, the historical perspective might surprise many people: The '80s teen birthrates that created a social crisis were substantially lower than such rates in the 1950s and '60s. In 1957, the country recorded its highest teen-age birthrate.
But there is a big difference between then and now: In those days, a pregnant teen-ager was much more likely to get married. And her husband was more likely to hold a job that paid enough to support a family.
Without marriage -- and the economic stability and personal support provided by a mate -- the difficult business of mothering a child gets even harder.
A social problem
No wonder that, of all the social problems facing our country, teen pregnancy has been singled out as one of the most troublesome.
The problems begin in pregnancy when young mothers are less likely to get prenatal care. Their babies are more likely to be underweight at birth, risking serious health problems.
The likelihood of problems continues as these mothers face more difficulty completing high school and holding a job. Later on, their children run a higher risk of having difficulties in school and getting into trouble with the law. In short, unmarried teen mothers and their children face greater obstacles to success and self-sufficiency.
All of which has turned births to teen-age mothers -- a phenomenon that was once relatively unremarkable -- into what many social critics consider a crisis. There the agreement ends.
Even the recent data released by the National Center for Health Statistics elicited ideological explanations. Supporters of the "just say no" approach to sex education hailed the latest figures -- along with studies that show fewer teen-agers are engaging in sexual relations -- as evidence that abstinence programs work.
Meanwhile, other groups are crediting wider use of condoms and more use of reliable contraceptives, including injected and implanted varieties.
However, nobody knows for sure why more teens are abstaining from sex and fewer are giving birth. It is likely that both liberals and conservatives are right. Campaigns that discourage sexual activity and childbearing help, and so do reliable contraceptives.
It would be a shame if ideological squabbling over those questions obscured other recent news about teens -- studies showing that one of the best protections adults can give young people is a strong relationship.
Role models needed
Teen-agers, it turns out, want their parents to discuss values and standards and morals -- and, yes, even those awkward (at least for parents) questions about sexuality.
These young people are facing hard choices in a tough world, and despite the swagger and hormonal storms of adolescence and the contradictory messages they often send, they need an adult to listen and respond.
It's great news that fewer girls are mothers before they are ready. It's equally important news for adults, who so often sit in judgment of these young people, that their attitudes and actions can make a huge difference in the lives of the teen-agers behind the statistics.
Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/10/98