Nov. 30, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 6

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    Harris School professor studies factors contributing to success of teen mothers

    Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Ariel Kalil, Assistant Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, focuses her research on very young, very poor teenage mothers, who are really, she says, “only girls themselves.”

    Ariel Kalil
    Ariel Kalil

    In ongoing research, started during her post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, Kalil examines how these young mothers, who range in age from 13 to 18, fare in school and work, how welfare reform policies affect them and how successfully they move into young adulthood.

    Kalil’s scholarly interest in the influence of the social context on a child’s development led to a more specific focus on children growing up in poverty, in single parent homes and who bear children themselves. She noted that social policies can influence the well-being of children in these “non-normative contexts.”

    Kalil is associated with both the Joint Center for Poverty Research, operated by the Harris School in conjunction with Northwestern University, as well as the Harris School’s Center for Human Potential.

    Kalil is collecting data from 90 families in and around Muskegon, Mich., an economically depressed industrial city surrounded by rural communities. “I want to discern patterns of educational and early occupational progress among these very young teenage mothers. Most studies of teenage mothers have compared them with teens who are not mothers,” Kalil noted.

    “I want to look in depth within a group of teen mothers to determine what contributes to successful outcomes.” The families chosen are at the bottom of the income scale, are both Caucasian and African-American and all receive public assistance.

    Kalil is surveying families and young mothers who would be most affected by changes in the welfare system. In order to receive cash assistance, the teen mothers in her study are all required to reside in a multigenerational household and to attend school.

    “I want to see how well they are doing by looking at the most important factors at home and in school. For example, most of these young teen mothers have remarkably high educational aspirations, most are engaged in their schoolwork and many will complete high school or obtain a GED,” she said. “However, when they perceive that their teachers have lower expectations for them (real or imagined), they perform poorly.”

    She pointed out that nearly all of the teen mothers in her study are unmarried and most of the fathers of their children are absent. Paternal grandparents are an important factor–when they are involved, there is much more likelihood that the father will participate in parental duties.

    “Not surprisingly,” Kalil noted, “the psychological health of these young women is poor. Half are at risk for clinical levels of depression. We’re still learning about the quality of life in multigenerational households like these.”

    Kalil said there is somewhat contradictory data on whether the presence of a teen’s mother is positive overall, with recent studies suggesting that the mother/daughter relationship can sometimes undermine a teen mother’s sense of well-being. “Much depends on how parenting is shared in the household, how decisions are made and whether the teen mother is viewed as autonomous or more like a child,” Kalil added.

    Kalil has a strong interest in identifying subtle interactions in these mother/daughter relationships that afford the alternative of intervention rather than the drastic step of removing a teen mother from a household.

    This offers social welfare professionals an opportunity to help the teen and her mother find solutions to keeping the family intact and promote the well-being of all family members.