In my high school introduction to criminology class, the teacher asked us if we knew where our parents were on 9/11. The question opened our terrorism unit, which coincidentally started around the terrorist attack’s anniversary. After a chorus of students sharing that their parents were working at a hospital, sitting at home or, even in the case of one student, giving birth to their older brother, I recounted a loose amalgamation of my mom’s, stepdad’s and dad’s stories. At some point in the morning, their high school classes were interrupted as faculty members entered their rooms and whispered something in their teachers’ ears. A few minutes later, staff rolled in old-school televisions on carts and turned on the news.
As I relayed the story to my classmates, the entire room erupted with a reaction difficult to name, but closest to disbelief, as if I was making these details up. Multiple students called out a question, asking how old my parents were. In my sophomore year class, most students couldn’t imagine parents who were only 15 in 2001.
I was born in 2003, while my mom was 17 years old and my dad 18. Like most ’90s kids, my parents enjoyed both stupid and classic ’90s movies, Missy Elliot, Eminem and the Mortal Kombat games. They played Nintendo 64 and watched Rugrats. My dad played high school football, and my mom competed in high school wrestling. Unlike most ’90s kids, they began raising a child before they were even adults.
My mom always says that having a child at that age comes with a choice: You can either keep living your life, presumably pawning off responsibilities to parents or relatives, while you party or go to college; or you can make sacrifices. Instead of following dreams or living out your early 20s, either by traveling, getting an education or trying new things, you can choose to take care of yourself and a child. That’s what my mom did. One time, in high school, she left during her lunch period to pick me up from home. She brought me back to school, showing me off in the cafeteria and taking care of me, instead of spending time with friends, during that small gap between classes.
Now, when I look around at my friends and peers, all between 18 and 22 years old, I feel a better sense of appreciation for what my parents did for me. Rather than handing me over to grandparents, my mom raised me while my dad served in the army. Eventually, my stepdad, the same age as my mom, stepped in as well, fulfilling his role as a second father figure in his mid-20s. Personally, after seeing Instagram stories of Halloweekend parties or scrolling through the social event photos for my club sport, I can’t imagine any undergraduate at this university being a parent right now.
If I had to pinpoint the biggest difference between having young parents and older ones, it would come down to my younger parents’ lack of life experience. Inexperience is not a negative thing — it’s natural that teen parents don’t have much life experience to inform the raising of a child at 17 years old; rather, it’s an interesting approach to growing up. My parents were prematurely thrust into parenthood, and it does feel like we all grew up together. As a kid, when I made a mistake or faced a common childhood problem, it was usually my parents’ first time facing that problem, too. Whenever my parents had to punish me, they only needed to think back a handful of years to reference what my grandparents did. When I reached middle school, I could sense them improvising as they went, trying to steer my confused, pubescent self in the right directions and adapting, like everyone else, to a rapidly changing world of smartphones and technology — all while managing early careers, finding stable incomes and buying a first home.
As for my childhood experience, having young parents didn’t affect me as much as it affected the way I interacted with others. When I went to my friends’ houses, I felt a disconnect, due to our parents’ differing ages. Most of my friends’ parents, especially in middle and high school, were closer in age to my grandparents, which granted my friends a far different upbringing. In middle school, I began to notice the surprise some people experienced from my parents’ ages, and the stigma they associated with their youngness. I also became hyperaware of the very different stages of life that my parents and my friends’ parents were experiencing. In high school, when my friends had parents nearing the high points or end of their careers as surgeons, police captains or restaurant owners, mine weren’t even halfway to retirement. Even now, in college, my friends have parents who are the CEOs of nonprofit organizations or are established lawyers with practices of their own. In contrast, my parents are just now reaching the upper trajectory of their careers, earning more money and being granted promotions closer to the top of their fields.
Finding out that a 6th grader’s parents are only 28 usually elicits a strange reaction of condescension. In middle school, my mom once attended a meeting with my teachers to discuss a lisp I had retained for far too long. She had met the teachers earlier in the year at an open house event. Upon entering the meeting room, my English teacher looked at her and said, not asked, in a tone dripping with the condescending, impolite politeness of old southern women, “Oh, you’re his mother. I thought you were his sister.”
While no one expresses audible surprise now that I’m nearly 20 years old and in college, there is still a certain look I recognize when my parents’ age is mentioned. It’s not altogether condescension or shock, but it reveals a sort of jolt in the person’s brain, as if some aspect of their worldview has been momentarily broken. This specific reaction may come as a result of the demographics of the students I’m talking to. The University of Michigan ranks first among selective public universities in student family incomes, with the median income being $154,000. While teen pregnancy is by no means exclusive to people outside the top 20% of incomes, it is less common within higher-income communities. In fact, existing data suggests a correlation between teen birth rates and state income inequality: States with higher income inequality see higher teen pregnancy rates. This discrepancy isn’t because of a lack of good parenting or any moral failings. Rather, teenagers of higher-income families can simply afford abortions.
It’s important for me to note that I grew up in a middle-class household with strong familial support. I’ve grown up with all of my grandparents — an experience I recognize as uniquely beautiful. A rarely discussed side effect of having young parents is having young grandparents, as well. Even now, my grandparents are only in their late 50s. For most of my life, I experienced my grandparents in their 40s and early 50s, prime ages to not only spend time with them but get to know them as people. At every turn, every milestone of my childhood, my grandparents were there. Whether I was spending workdays at my maternal grandmother’s house with my similarly aged uncles, helping my maternal grandfather do yard work, visiting my paternal grandparents at their offices or going to my step father’s parents’ house to swim in their pool, I always valued my time with them.
Despite the social disconnect and inherent struggles, I find there to be something beautiful about having younger parents, and by extension, a younger family — the thing that most people don’t consider when they express disbelief or pity for those affected by teen pregnancy. I’m gifted with so much more time with my parents and grandparents. I’ve been able to see my grandparents and parents experience milestones, grief, retirements and the regular joy of having family at the house. If my parents had birthed me now, at the age when most parents had my friends, I would have missed out on too much. I wouldn’t know my grandparents as witty, middle-aged people, but as old retirees or not at all. I wouldn’t know how my parents were when they were my age or a little older.
I’ve been able to grow up with them and see them as the “cool and young” parents, with a lightheartedness closer to my own and a deeper understanding of my Gen Z experience. At times, my stepdad and dad are more chronically online or up-to-date with Internet happenings than I am. If I was born when they were older, not only would they not be as understanding, they’d be more tired with life overall. They’d be more mature and would not likely indulge in the same humor I share with them now. It wouldn’t be terrible, but I’d be missing out on a closer friendship with my parents, especially as I become more of their equal as an adult, instead of just their child.
My parents know memes, follow along with pop culture, and as millennials, they’re closer, overall, to myself, both in age and temperament, than my grandparents in Gen X are. I never had to say “yes sir” or “yes ma’am,” like my parents did, and I can confidently say I’m friends with them. I don’t think I would have that experience, of being able to connect with my parents more informally and as friends, if I wasn’t born when they were teenagers. We all grew up together, and we figured out what to do together. As we grow older, we’ll all still be figuring it out, and I’m more than grateful to be by each others’ side as it happens.
Statement Contributor Joshua Nicholson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.