Disadvantage not age is the problem for teenage mothers

Policies that successfully discourage early motherhood would have some, probably modest, further benefit for the development of the next generation.

Early motherhood, particularly teen motherhood, is increasingly associated with poorer child outcomes and greater risk of family poverty. But new research based on the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) finds that this is less to do with age per se as with the characteristics of those who tend to become ‘young mothers’7.

Early mothers typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Women who have had more favoured origins and have taken up educational and career opportunities tend to delay having children (if they have children at all). Therefore, a child born to a mother who was young when she first became a parent has already inherited a disadvantaged start in life. Does having a young mother compound this disadvantage?

Researchers from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies examined children’s development, in terms of cognition and behaviour at age five. Much of the difference between the children of young and older mothers was found to be attributable either to their mothers’ social origins or inequalities (in for example, education) that had earlier origins. The developmental penalty left to be attributed to the mother’s age per se is, at most, modest. These findings are consistent with, though not proof of, the hypothesis that early motherhood compounds disadvantage in one generation into the next – to a modest rather than a major extent.

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