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make a choice, not a child
open letter to teenage girls
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

To every teenage girl:

I’m not your mother, your grandmother, an aunt, a teacher, or your boyfriend’s stepmom. You don’t know me, so you might be surprised that I care about your future and well-being.

There’s a whole lotta hoopla surrounding you right now. Because of the rumors of a teen pregnancy pact. Because even with all the information and assistance available, teen pregnancy rates have gone up. Because of the constant debate over teaching simply abstinence as sex education or combining an abstinence message with birth control.

I’m the eldest of three children my mother had with three different fathers, so I’m going to toss this out there.

You’re out of your mind if you think getting pregnant now isn’t a big deal.

My mother had me when she was 17. She chased the time lost to motherhood for another 40 years. She never once told me she wished I hadn’t been born. But, through her actions, it was pretty obvious she wondered what her life might have been like without a child to raise, mostly on her own, for many years.

When my mother got pregnant, the Pill wasn’t in wide circulation, “free love” was the counter-culture mantra, and condom advertising had been banned. So, someone can kind of understand how it might happen.

These days, it’s easy to avoid pregnancy. Before you think I’m going to preach abstinence, don’t worry. I understand the power of attraction and curiosity. But, if you can spend 30 minutes to decide what thong and bra to wear before going to school, you can put a little forethought into birth control.

And here’s the absolute truth. You’re responsible for birth control. No guy ever claps his hands together and says, “Cool! I love wearing condoms! Here –- I’ll wear two!” More than likely, he’s going to beg off using one “just this once.”

But, preventing pregnancy isn’t simply about birth control. It’s about choice.

The choices you make for yourself that add to your self-esteem and give you a feeling of accomplishment. You know these moments. When you sit hunched over writing in a tattered notebook. When praying sheds light on your day. When memorizing the mammalian order classification is easy for you. When you run a bit longer, a smidge farther, after everyone else has left the track. When you hit the right note, and hold it. When you spend some extra time with that little kid down the hall because you know his parents won’t be home for hours.

There might be people in your circle who mock you for these actions. That’s because they don’t understand. Let them pass their judgment.

Then walk away.

The power to be good and to do good is an essential part of who you are. When you feel doubt, that’s natural. But, by not giving into it, by not letting the negative people envious of your abilities prey on it, that’s when you make the right choices that create your true future.

When you seek love, please understand that you have to accept and love yourself first before you’ll ever begin to understand romantic love. And it’s okay if you need time to work it all out.

If you decide you’re ready for sex, be aware of why you’re doing it and what it’s really about. It’s not a substitution for love you don’t have. Doing it won’t make you cool or popular. Sexual empowerment is about choice, not frequency or quantity.

I’ve talked to a lot of people your age, and the desire to make decisions on your own comes up often. So that’s why you have to understand that bringing another human being into the world now when you haven’t realized your own potential limits both of you.

I remember having a conversation with my mother when I was in my early 20s. The choices I had made up to that point weren’t perfect, but they were different from hers, and I had a level of success because of them. I asked her what kind of dreams she had when she was my age.

She started to cry. And she never answered.

So know this.

You are loved.
You are capable.
You have a natural ability in something that you must enhance.
You are allowed to explore the world, even if others around you don’t follow.
You may crave the attention of those who ignore you, but you’re probably better off without their influence.

Don’t listen to those who buried their dreams tell you that your pursuits don’t matter. Make the choices that keep you moving forward.

And when you realize the woman you were meant to be, that’s when the choice to have a child will feel like the right decision for your life, instead of a mistake you build your life around.

Here are a few more people who care about you.

Girls Inc.
Women's Sports Foundation
Crossroads Programs
Girls for Change


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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alex b
6.30.08 @ 2:25a

Tracey, this is incredibly powerful and moving. Hopefully, young girls will learn to exercise a better conscience over their sex lives. And, hopefully the ones in Massachusetts know that pregnancy is not something to form a pact over. Once the shock of that news fades, we can only hope that girls who might have behaved a little carelessly won't.

Sadly enough, even though your words are what young girls ought to hear and take to heart, they may not be the ones that actually motivate them. The active contexts of their social lives most likely revolves around sexual pressure and a boyfriend. At their ages, self-love and looking out for one's dignity don't seem as important as the pressure to be desirable, pretty, and cool.

And, if pregnancy enters the picture, another factor in a teenage girl's life is the added social pressure of "behaving responsibly" from family members. Teen pregnancy will continue, and looks like it isn't going to cease.

juli mccarthy
6.30.08 @ 11:56a

There's one really simple thing young women need to remember: it is far easier to prevent a child than it is to raise one.

lucy lediaev
6.30.08 @ 12:43p

Tracey: Wow! This is a wonderful piece. How do we get it to the young women who need to read or hear it?

By sharing bits of your life, you enhanced the power of this piece. Great job!

reem al-omari
6.30.08 @ 1:04p

About three years ago, I got a retail job briefly. And in that time, I worked and talked to a lot of teenage girls. What I gathered from these otherwise good kids, was that though they weren't even seniors they had more of a sex life than me, or anyone of my friends has ever had.

It disturbed me to hear about one girl's 35-year-old ex, whom the girl broke up with because he treated her like "just a piece of ass." Kudos to leaving, but how did things get that far in the first place with a man almost 20 years her senior?

Another girl was confident in completely the wrong way and thought that dressing slutty and having the guts to go up to any guy and asking him out was confidence. Dressing slutty is never the right kind of confidence, no matter what you mix it with.

The point of me bringing this up is that teenagers are already thinking they're adult enough to get involved in very complicated relationships, and taking charge in relationships, so of course they're gonna think they are capable of having a baby and taking care of it. People just don't understand, is their reply to anything you tell them about how they have their whole lives ahead of them and to slow down. I was only 10 years older than these girls, so I wasn't old enough to be their mom, but I took that relatively small age difference to my advantage and tried to talk them into slowing down. I don't know if it worked, but I"m sure that if enough older people talk to these girls and simply tell them to slow down, it will click eventually.

Education in school and from the surrounding environment, parent involvement and the right kind of confidence need to come together to make teens all-around good kids, not just mostly.

Tracey, I hope this letter reaches all teen girls. It's wonderful.

dave lentell
7.2.08 @ 12:21p

Tracey -

I wish I could have given this letter to a girl I know about a year ago. But to be honest, even if I you had written it a year ago, I never would have thought she'd have needed to read it. Obviously, I now realize it's something EVERY girl needs to read. And I can think of one for sure who is GOING to read it. Even if I have to read it to her.

tracey kelley
7.2.08 @ 11:13p

Oh, you're going to be one of THOSE dads. :D

Thanks, all. I hear about these statistics and I remember the Little I mentored as a Big Sister. At 14, her entire peer group - about 5 girls - was pregnant. Thought nothing of it. Thought baby showers were awesome. Thought it was perfectly fine to go out and party 2 weeks after the baby was born as long as someone 16 or older was with the baby.

I can honestly say that it was a primary mission of mine to make sure she didn't get pregnant before 18. Mission accomplished. Sure, she had sex when she was 13, but that barn door had been open before our relationship was fully developed.

The manipulation at that age is incredible. To get on birth control at 13, she told her grandmother there had been a series of rapes at her junior high, and she "just wanted to protect herself." Her grandmother, a mother of five children before the age of 24, believed her.

So the true method is to talk with these girls at 8, 9, 10, and get them to start believing they have options and build their self esteem before they hit puberty. Because once the hormones start, sense is completely gone.

jason gilmore
7.4.08 @ 11:38a


This is powerful. I've always said that young women don't realize the power they have. I wish every young person could read this and believe it.

I always like to remind people that abstinence is an option, even though people feel like it isn't possible. It is very hard, but the other side is very hard too. Looking back now, I realize I could've and should've waited.

tracey kelley
7.6.08 @ 10:24p

You know, I think abstinence is just fine. I've dealt with it a time or two myself.

However, in some situations, depending on the age of the child (eep, child, there, I said it), if they haven't been taught properly, and don't have the mental fortitude to realize it's a choice, not a punishment, it's not effective.

I think it should be a joint effort between parents and school systems to teach responsible health education, which should include sex education. Teenagers need to have a clinical understanding of how their bodies and minds work and have their questions acknowledged and anticipated.

lucy lediaev
7.10.08 @ 2:12p

I believe that parents should be the primary source of information on sex and ethical/moral choices associated with being sexually active.

However, it's clear that many parents are ill-prepared or unwilling to tackle these issues. Or, they wait too late, thinking that their young teen won't get involved in sexual behavior.

Thus, the schools have a role, hopefully with parental support, in sex education. Teen pregnancies are not only a family problem, they create social problems. Young parents often don't finish school, limiting their current and future earning power; unwanted children are often neglected and/or abused. Those who argue government does not have a role in sex education don't understand that government has a responsibility in terms of preventing costly social service costs and extreme poverty that requires welfare support.

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