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Teen fathers: between a rock and hard place

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, June 22 2014

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President of the Single Fathers' Association Rhondall Feeles....
President of the Single Fathers' Association Rhondall Feeles....

In his Father’s Day address, last Sunday, President Anthony Carmona urged men to rise to the challenge in fulfilling their roles as fathers to build a society that is “safe, holistic, respectful, and compassionate.”

“Let us embrace our place in the family and contribute to building a safer, holistic and compassionate society. We must wear the badge of fatherhood with eternal pride and shoulder in real terms the responsibilities that come with it,” Carmona had said.

Arguably, Carmona’s appeal may have been based on the premise that most men who become fathers are seemingly well-adjusted, gainfully employed or employable.

Truth is, though, there are large numbers of young men who stumble into parenting, devoid of the mental or financial wherewithal to shoulder their responsibilities.

Adolescent fathers are a reality in Trinidad and Tobago but sadly, are not effectively catered for in the country’s social network.

Although much attention has been directed toward teenage mothers, over the years, stakeholders argue that adolescent fathers, too, sometimes bear the brunt of the hardship, caught between the need to suddenly provide for a dependant whilst wanting to experience the joys of adolescence.

Behaviour change and communications consultant, Salorne Mc Donald, has worked extensively with young males, particularly in at-risk communities over the years.

During his stints at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and other youth-oriented programmes, Mc Donald discovered that there was a large number of teenager fathers, mainly because of the high levels of unprotected sex taking place among teens.

The situation, he says, has not changed.

“It’s often not spoken about in many places because the lens of the society is focused on the older men, younger girl scenario. Yet, there are pretty large numbers of teen boys who have children and who don’t have any programme or focal agency that teaches them how to be fathers,” Mc Donald told Sunday Newsday in an interview on Tuesday.

Police officer and director of the Single Father’s Association, Daryl Phillip, also contends there is no long term initiative in place for teenage boys who become fathers in this country.

“Many of them just have to drop out of school and find some way to maintain their babies, Phillip says.

“A lot of them just decide to find a job at a grocery, some fast food outlet or take up an apprenticeship. Some of them even take up fishing.”

Support for the unborn child is mostly dependent on the benevolence of its grandparents on both sides, Phillip says.

Phillip’s colleague, President of the Single Father’s Association Rhondall Feeles, says avenues for teen fathers are critical in creating wholesome families.

“We believe that fathers play a powerful role in the family and these adolescents need to give up a lot for the young child. Many of them have not even reached the age of mental maturity to differentiate what is important for them as opposed to a child,” he says.

Feeles notes that little attention is also paid to older women who are impregnated by young boys. He recalls an incident at a school in central Trinidad in which a female teacher had an affair with a Form Three male student, which resulted in a pregnancy. The woman’s husband, he says, is now a member of the Single Father’s Association.

Off-duty internal medicine specialist, Dr Robert Moultrie, is unsure whether there are efforts in place to assist teenage fathers.

“I am told there is one or two programmes for teen fathers but I have not seen them,” he told Sunday Newsday.

He suspects that the programmes which are in place for teenage parents focus on the mother and, as such, do “a disservice” to the family.

“They have what I call the ‘Psychosocial Pathological Disorder of Hatred of Fathers’ syndrome which pulls the girl away from the boy by discrediting his efforts,” Moultrie said on Wednesday.

There may be some truth to Moultrie’s argument.

An article, titled Teenage Fathers: The Missing-Father Myth, written by celebrated author Richard Stengel, in the June 21, 2005, edition of Time Magazine, labelled adolescent fathers as “the forgotten partners.”

“It is obvious but often overlooked for every teenage mother, there is a father, usually a teenager who finds himself treated as an outsider, receiving none of the solicitous attention that occasionally attends the mother or child,” Stengel wrote.

“These fathers are usually depicted as churlish scamps, irresponsible hit-and-run artists out to prove their sexual prowess without a thought for the consequences.”

Mc Donald, managing director of Jabulous Communications, attributes the prevalence of adolescent fatherhood, locally, to the limited focus on sexual and reproductive health education.

“So, much if that learning is left up to experiment,” he says.

“Many young men learn about sexual activity from each-other, older men with insufficient or incorrect info or from multimedia sources. A lot of the multimedia they learn from is also pornography and we know that particular kind of material develops a warped sense of what sexual activity actually is.”

Society, he feels, has also erred in focussing on building strong young men — those that are not tainted by an over-hyped view of sexual prowess.

“Much of the focus on sex is tied in with entertainment and traditional roles of masculinity that can be damaging. So, these young men go looking for conquest, some for affection, some to prove they love and end up unwitting fathers,” he says.

Moultrie, however, argued that the “maturity” of most girls could lead to early sexual intercourse with their male peers, some of which may end in unwanted pregnancies.

He said, “Teen girls are said to be more ‘mature’ sexually than teen boys. As such, teen girls are often more sexually aggressive and assertive than teen boys in some places, but where teen boys may understand sex at a rate on par with teen girls, they may have sex with the same age group.”

Teen boys, Moultrie argues, may not fully understand or be comfortable with sex and often are coerced or manipulated into having sex with either individual or group phrases like ‘What kind of man are you?’ or ‘You are not a real man.’

According to Mc Donald, programmes targeting young fathers on an ongoing basis are virtually non-existent.

Apart from Servol and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which carry a life skills component, Mc Donald says initiatives such as Creative Parenting For A New Era (CPNE) and Trinidad and Tobago Innovative Parenting Support (TTIPS), while filling a need, are constrained by a lack of adequate funding.

“Most young men who become parents just go about with minimal guidance or feel their way through,” he says.

The consultant feels there is need to equip young men with the tools to deal with the growth process.

“Understanding that you don’t have to prove yourself by having sex, bringing a greater understanding of their sexual and reproductive health and stronger guidance in prevention methods and the responsibilities of parenting, are key to a successful prevention strategy,” he says.

“We also need to invest in a stronger education process that gives better learning experiences on what bringing forth a child really takes.”

In the interim, having a child while still a teenager presents real challenges, Mc Donald contends.

“How does a young man who is part of a teen parenting situation get an education while providing for a child?” he asked. “How does a parent deal with a pregnant girl and the boy who was a part of the process?”

Heavy stigmatisation, Mc Donald suggests, often gives the young father less of a chance to finish his education to get a better chance at employment.

In fact, Mc Donald says in situations where the young man stands up to his responsibility in the pregnancy and afterwards, he still may not be emotionally ready to deal with the challenges and would face low-paying jobs and limited opportunities to improve his lot.

Invariably, the situation would engender a range of socio-economic crises, Mc Donald says.

He told Sunday Newsday: “Improper parenting creates angry children who grow into angry adults and we are seeing the impact of these angry, emotionally-stunted individuals on the crime situation, social unrest and community degradation. The young man is placed in a quandary, which makes frustration an easy partner in fostering abuse.”

Mc Donald said on the economic front, it has been shown that any youth placed in a parenting situation must first focus on providing for the child’s immediate needs “because their own parents are less likely to support them through such circumstances

“The option to continue on to higher income earning positions are fewer in such situations because studying with a child is exceedingly difficult,” he says.

An article in The Prevention Researcher, written by Colette Kimball, titled, Teen Fathers: An Introduction, in 2004, acknowledged that adolescent fathers face a developmental dilemma.

“They need to transition into parenthood while simultaneously going through adolescence and becoming an adult. Their fatherhood is impacted by both ethnicity and cultural norms,” Kimball wrote.

“Teenage fatherhood grows out of both personal and social contexts which influence young men’s decisions regarding being sexually active, whether to use contraception and pregnancy outcomes.”

Kimball said concern about adolescent parents has focused attention almost exclusively on teen mothers.

“Consequently, teen fathers are often neglected as potential resources for their children, as well as clients who have their own, usually unmet, needs,” she wrote.

Kimball said, then, that despite common stereotypes, there was increasing evidence to suggest that teen fathers want to be (and are) involved with their children in some ways.

She said teen parent programmes which help young fathers with the legal aspects of fatherhood, help them become self-sufficient, teach effective parenting skills and promote healthy lifestyles, have shown to be effective. In moving forward, Phillip said it must first be recognised that teenage fathers do exist “and given the same priorities as girls their age.”

“We can’t stop it (teenagers having sex) but we need social workers and counsellors to guide them through the situation,” Phillip said, adding that sex education must be made an integral part of the school’s curriculum.

“Far too often the boys are treated like criminals and the girls like victims.” He claimed there were many young girls who deliberately set out to get pregnant.

“I know of three girls in my area who are friends and they were all pregnant together,” Phillip said.

Moultrie said the solution to the issue of adolescent fathers should be in sync with continuing what he called the “family unit of humankind.”

“Any issues that arise, simply address them,” he said. “None of us would be here if it weren’t for teen pregnancy of our ancestors. We shouldn’t denigrate them by denying something in our genes....

“If they need jobs, assist with a work/school programme. Have them meet and discuss issues with other teen fathers and where there is difficulty with the mother, address the issue with him and her appropriately and without favour or bias.”

Feeles said parents, the media and the education system all had a role to play in drawing greater awareness to the challenges of teenage fatherhood.

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