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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Poverty, Inequality and Opportunity

Money or Mothering: Which Is More Important? Analyses of Teenage Motherhood


New mothers have their pick of places to go for advice. Books, Web sites, parenting classes, and support groups address every aspect of raising a child, from what type of car seat to buy to what age the child should start playing Little League baseball. These resources coach new mothers on how to effectively parent so that their children can achieve their ultimate potential.

However, there is a subgroup of parents for whom books, classes, and Web sites might not be the most beneficial way to support the development of their children: teenage mothers. As with other parents, when teen mothers use “good” parenting techniques, it often leads to better outcomes for their children, but my research on teen mothers, which is discussed in this article, shows that better financial resources can have an even greater impact. In fact, the children of “good” mothers with few social and economic resources fare worse than those of “bad” mothers with more resources. Therefore, for children with teen mothers, access to resources may matter more than parenting.

While teen fathers are also part of the subgroup of “teen parents,” they are most often not the primary caretaker of the child and often are not a common presence in the child’s life. Due to these factors, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, the source of the data in this article, focused on the children of unwed young mothers. Thus, though parenting practices of young fathers are also important to consider, this article will focus solely on young mothers. In addition, the results and recommendations from my analysis of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study are for teen mothers and cannot necessarily be generalized to adult mothers.  Teen mothers as a group are very different than the larger population of adult mothers; they are disproportionately poor, are most often minorities, and face other socioeconomic limitations.  Because there is relative homogeneity within the group that I did not control for in my statistical analysis, it is likely the relationship between parenting practices and child development could be very different for adult mothers who do not face these limitations. The findings of the research cannot be extrapolated to all mothers due to external validity issues, so the recommendations based on the research hold only for teen mothers.

Measuring Money and Mothering

To better understand how the parenting practices of teenage mothers impact child development, I analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a joint effort by Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing (CRCW) and Center for Health and Wellbeing, the Columbia Population Research Center, and the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) at Columbia University. I started by choosing three common practices that can be easily taught and incorporated into a daily routine:

1. A regular bedtime. This variable demonstrates a structured family life, with a consistent daily effort on the part of the mother to interact with the child while establishing her role as the authority figure.

2. Not spanking the child. Today, spanking is considered a negative parenting practice, even though many parents support spanking as a method of disciplining their children. In my research, children who were spanked had higher rates of aggression than children who were not. I found that in young mothers, spanking indicates authoritarian inclinations and an unwillingness or inability to communicate effectively with the child.

3. Reading to the child. This variable acts as an indicator of quality time spent with the child and an interest in the child’s intellectual development. Talking to children is integral to language development; consistent reading supports cognitive development.

To understand the full potential value of positive parenting, it is important to look at the child holistically and to examine how these practices impact a child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development. To measure these I used the following indicators:

* Physical development. A child’s body mass index (BMI) percentile can be used to measure health and physical development because children in the highest percentiles have an increased risk of being overweight or obese.[i] Further, high BMI is linked to many other health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

* Emotional development. This can be measured using the Achenbach aggression scale, which measures aggression based on internalizing and externalizing behaviors, such as whether the child has a tendency to hurt animals, other children, or themselves.[ii]

* Cognitive development. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) is designed to test a child’s ability to understand words and sounds and to test a child’s verbal aptitude by having him or her produce words to go with pictures on a flashcard.[iii]

Though certain types of parenting may lead to better developmental outcomes for children, parenting obviously does not happen in a vacuum, and access to financial resources can also have an effect. Teenage mothers very often live in poverty and have limited resources, yet some mothers will have access to more resources than others.[iv] The Fragile Families data set does not specify income or socioeconomic status, but I used the following markers in my analysis:

* Private health insurance. This is a good indicator of income because it is often very expensive or requires a certain level of employment. Thus, many teen moms and their children are on Medicaid.[v]

* Young mother living with a biological parent. It is very common for a young mother to have strained relationships with her own parents, forcing her to live on her own or with an adult that is not her parent.[vi] If a young mother does live with one of her biological parents, it indicates that the mother has a relatively stable family life and additional emotional and monetary support.

* Car ownership. Owning a car indicates that the mother has a stable job that enables her to consistently make monthly payments, or that she was able to pay for the car outright. Not only does it also show that she likely has steady, disposable income to pay for gas, but transportation in itself is a valuable resource for any parent.

Money Matters More

Most of the 606 young mothers in the study performed at least one form of “good” mothering: 80 percent put their children to bed at a regular time each night and 61 percent read to their children five or more days a week. In contrast, only about one-third used some form of discipline that did not include spanking and two-thirds spanked their children either as the sole form of discipline or in addition to other disciplinary measures.

The “good” parenting made a difference; these practices were generally correlated with positive developmental outcomes. But further analysis shows that socioeconomic status plays a large role in the relationship between parenting practices and child development and is almost always the driving force behind the differences.[vii] In this study, very few mothers had access to resources that indicate higher socioeconomic status: 19 percent had private health insurance, 28 percent lived with their biological parents, and 21 percent owned a car. Though there was very little variation among the mothers regarding access to resources, even slight improvements in socioeconomic status were powerful enough to translate into benefits for the children. In other words, differences in child development were not actually a result of the mothering, but instead were a result of small variations in socioeconomic status within the group of teenage mothers.

Even more importantly, socioeconomic status can also mitigate the negative effects of bad parenting. If a young mother fails to engage in any positive parenting but has access to a lot of resources, her child can still perform well on developmental measures. In the end, the children of “bad” mothers with more resources can fare better than the children of “good” mothers with fewer resources. The results of the study clearly show that what matters most for the children of teen mothers is money and resources, not mothering.

Removing Barriers, Focusing on Resources: New Priorities for Public Policy

As officials at all levels of government consider how best to allocate resources and invest in services, it is important to understand that providing access to resources for young mothers will make more of a difference than standard services like parenting classes. If, for example, a local government has enough money to either fund intensive parenting classes or subsidize child care for teen moms, subsidizing child care is the better option because it allows a young mother to invest in her education or work at a job, both of which provide economic returns that parenting classes do not.

Of course, there are many evidence-based initiatives that focus on developing a mother’s skills and ability to parent, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, and the effectiveness and value of those programs should not be minimized. However, when it comes to minor mothers, and when budget restrictions do not allow for both parenting instruction and resource provision, providing resources—even bus tokens or clothing vouchers—will have a greater impact.

One way to greatly benefit young mothers is to change the restrictions for receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a funding source that many young mothers are already eligible to receive. Cash assistance has the potential to have a real, positive impact on the children of teen mothers. The restrictions, however, prove to be an insurmountable barrier for many.

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act attempted to reduce teen childbearing and young parents’ reliance on government assistance by making it more difficult for teen parents to receive benefits.[viii] So to be eligible for cash assistance, a minor parent has to live with his or her parents or another approved adult and has to participate in school or vocational training, though the restrictions may be altered at each state’s discretion. [ix]

In terms of my specific area of focus, teen mothers, the restriction assumes the young mother has stable adult connections. Yet the reality for the vast majority of teen mothers is that they do not have a healthy family relationship with their own parents.[x] Many teen moms have a history of abuse or neglect that makes them uncomfortable living at home, and some young mothers find themselves homeless after being kicked out by their parents.[xi] So it also undermines the ability of the young mother to make decisions that are in the best interest of her and her baby by encouraging her to stay in a potentially destructive home environment. Though exemptions are possible, they can be difficult to attain because the circumstances are hard to prove or the documentation cannot be acquired. As a result, many young mothers forgo TANF completely.[xii]

The true effect of the living arrangement restriction has not deterred teenage childbearing as intended; instead, it has prevented young mothers in need of assistance from receiving support. Since the children of young mothers benefit most from monetary resources, states should consider revising or eliminating the living arrangement restriction.

Some states have already done this; Nebraska and Hawaii have eliminated the restriction altogether.[xiii] Some states also have blanket exemptions that make receiving benefits easier for some young mothers; in California, for example, a minor parent can be exempt if he or she has lived apart from his or her parents for at least a year.[xiv] Thus, if a young mother’s relationship with her parents has broken down and she has had to live on her own, she is not forced to attempt reconciliation in order to provide for her child. In Illinois, young parents can receive benefits for up to six nonconsecutive months without complying with the residency requirement—a revision that considers the transitory living situations of many young mothers.[xv] In Vermont, a minor parent may be exempt from living with an adult if he or she is at least seventeen and has lived independently for at least six months or if both parents live together and are at least sixteen.[xvi] In this way, Vermont respects the real-life situation and independence of older mothers while also placing a priority on demonstrated stability.

Alternatively, states can evaluate their priorities and choose to provide more leeway for teen mothers who are old enough to drive and get a job or to mothers with some history of placement stability, even if it is in a nontraditional living situation. But regardless of how states tailor the restrictions, it will greatly benefit the children of teen moms if states make it easier for them to receive the monetary support they would otherwise (without the living restriction) be eligible to receive.

Further, young mothers and their children would benefit if more states made the young mother the payee for her benefits instead of her parents or guardian. Even if a teen mother is technically receiving TANF, the benefits are actually paid to the adult she is living with.[xvii]  Ideally, there is a benevolent relationship between the young mother and the payee, but it is not uncommon for the payee to spend the teen mother’s money inappropriately and the child does not benefit.[xviii]

Rather, I argue that the mother’s minority status does not automatically make her irresponsible. While it may be appropriate to institute a minimum age to qualify as the payee—it may be unreasonable to expect twelve- and thirteen-year-old mothers to have the knowledge and maturity to spend the money wisely—allowing the young mother to be the payee not only respects her decisions as a parent but follows a more direct link to the child.

As decision makers at different levels of government step back to evaluate the services and resources offered to young mothers, they should prioritize money over mothering. This requires a policy change instead of the status quo of parenting classes, pamphlets, and educational Web sites because breaking down barriers to TANF will produce better outcomes for children.


Tara Grigg Garlinghouse is a 2014 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, as well as a 2014 Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, with a focus on legal and social issues in child welfare. While she was growing up, her family cared for foster children, and she has had more than eighty foster siblings.

[i] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2011. About BMI for children and teens.

[ii] Achenbach, Thomas M., Craig Edelbrock, and Catherine T. Howell. 1987. Empirically based assessment of the behavioral/emotional problems of 2- and 3-year-old children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 15(4): 629-650.

[iii] Jeruchimowicz, Rita, Joan Costello, and J. Susana Bagur. 1971. Knowledge of action and object words: A comparison of lower- and middle-class Negro preschoolers. Child Development 42: 455-464.

[iv] Dworsky, Amy, and Jan DeCoursey. 2009. Pregnant and parenting foster youth: Their needs, their experiences. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Kalil, Ariel, Michael S. Spencer, Susan J. Spieker, and Lewayne D. Gilchrist. 1998. Effects of grandmother coresidence and quality of family relationships on depressive symptoms in adolescent mothers. Family Relations 47(4): 433–441.

[vii] This was true for every relationship except for decreased levels of aggression in children who were not spanked. Refraining from corporal punishment has a significant positive impact on children regardless of the mother’s socioeconomic status.

[viii] Acs, Gregory, and Heather Koball. 2003. TANF and the status of teen mothers under age 18. Assessing the New Federalism Project. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Dworsky and DeCoursey, 2009.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] This is the consensus in the field, which I learned through many discussions with service providers and attorneys seeking to aid young mothers in securing benefits.

[xiii] Kassabian, David, Anne Whitesell, and Erika Huber. 2012. Welfare rules databook: State TANF policies as of July 2011. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 44-45.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Acs and Koball, 2003.

[xviii] Kalil, Ariel, and Sandra K. Danziger. 2000. How teen mothers are faring under welfare reform. Journal of Social Issues 56(4): 775-798.