NEW YORK — According to popular mythology, teen-agers who father children out of wedlock are poor providers, irresponsible, unavailable to their young families and too self-absorbed to be concerned with the needs of their children--or for that matter, almost anyone else at all.
Legend has it, in short, that teen-age males are hit-and-run fathers who specialize in victimizing teen-age females and carelessly abandoning the byproduct.
These stereotypes are shattered, however, by a study sponsored by the Ford Foundation and released here Tuesday.
In this first national study of 400 teen fathers in 15 cities, 82% reported having daily contact with their child, even though they lived apart, and 74% said they contributed financially to the child's support. Nearly 90% said they had ongoing relationships with the mother, whom they had known on average for about two years.
"What we found was that, No. 1, these young fathers come (to service programs geared toward them) in numbers that exceeded our expectations," said Debra Klinman of the Bank Street College of Education in New York, an educational training and research institution that coordinated the teenage father project.
"Two," Klinman said, "they will stay and take advantage of programs that are offered to them. Three, the young fathers who do come in tend to be highly committed. They are highly motivated to establish close relationships with their children."
As for concrete results from programs designed to aid teen fathers, Klinman said that "nearly half" of the young men who entered such programs as school dropouts "experience positive educational changes." Further, she said that "nearly two-thirds of the young men who entered the programs without jobs did obtain jobs."
Added Klinman: "These young men who we got a chance to meet and talk with were so pleased to know that there was someone who cared about them."
In fact, Klinman said she and her colleagues were mildly astonished to discover that teen-age fathers may be among the most under-recognized groups in the country. No statistics exist on the actual number of teen fathers, she said, although "the best estimate is somewhere around 350,000."
Demographics simply ignore the teen father, Klinman said, apparently operating on the assumption that "he's going to walk away, so why bother counting him?"
But Amy Williams, representing San Francisco's Teen-Age Pregnancy and Parenting Project at the presentation of the Ford Foundation report, suggested that a further misconception about the numbers and roles of teen fathers may stem from certain hard-set stereotypes about the family in general.
"Traditionally," she said, "the female has been seen as the nurturing party, and the father has been viewed as the breadwinner. Only recently have we seen a change in that image with any men."
Besides, Williams went on, public service agencies have largely targeted females as their clients in cases of out-of-wedlock births. Funds from state and federal sources generally are issued on the basis of the client population, she said, so that "the monies have followed females."
"Psychologically, for us," Williams said, "'we have tended not to get involved except peripherally with the other members of the family.
"It's absurd," she said, "but these funds are what make us determine where we will go."
As such, Williams said that one of the unexpected benefits of the new study of teen fathers might be to help raise bureaucratic consciousnesses, and to demonstrate that "the sex equity issue includes men as well as women." Clearly, Williams said, "in the case of teen-age pregnancy, males are not getting their share" of possible public service opportunities.
Indeed, 19-year-old Terry Hollins, now a peer counselor at the San Francisco project, known as TAPPP, remembered that when Dana, the mother of his now-6-month-old son, Terry Jr., was about six months pregnant, she "started nagging me--really nagging" to attend TAPPP's teen fathers program. "To get her off my back," Hollins finally went to a meeting of teen fathers.
Change of Attitude
"It changed my mind completely," Hollins said in a statement distributed with the report. "I thought I was alone, that I was the only one in the world who was going to be a teen father. I didn't know what I was going to do, basically I didn't. And I found out that I was wrong. I'm not alone.
"And I listened to a lot of their stories--a lot of the things they were saying, and I said, 'Whoa! This dude is telling my story here.' "
Calling his young son "the pride of my life," Hollins added in a telephone interview that one of the hardest parts of being a teen father was living with the negative connotations of the title. "It's not just parents that let you know you're a teen father. It's adults, period," Hollins said, explaining that many adults consider teen fathers "no good" on two counts, both in getting a young woman pregnant and for failing to stick by his partner afterward.