Will this boy graduate high school?

subwayThe other day, on the subway in NYC, I saw this ad. It turns out there has been some commotion over it. (Approved and defended by Mayor Bloomberg, it is part of New York City’s recent campaign to raise awareness about teen pregnancy.)  I would like to add my own two or three objections to the mix.

First, this is an example of the “precision fallacy” in statistics. (That’s the best term I could find; there may be better.) Specifically, the ad confuses the individual’s probabilities with those of the group. It may be that “kids of teen moms are twice as likely not to graduate than [sic] kids whose moms were over age 22,” but this probability doesn’t hold for individuals.

Second, adults put words in this child’s mouth (and banal words at that). A baby or toddler would not say anything remotely close to this, unless someone had prepped him to do so.

That brings up a larger problem: from a young age, children are trained to describe themselves in statistical terms, at school and elsewhere. They learn to say, “My growth in such-and-such a skill is 30 percent,” or “I was one of the sixty percent who had the right answer.” In measure, in the right context, this may be fine–but when it’s the dominant lingo and mode of thought, it crowds out substance and meaning. (I wrote a satirical piece about this tendency.)

Beyond that, I did not bear this child as a teen, nor did 99.999999 percent of NYC subway riders, in all likelihood. (For all we know, this kid’s mom might have a chauffeur.) The “you” is not a real you, nor the “I” a real I. Yet here’s a tear-streaked face bringing sadness to a passenger’s day–and to what end?

What good does it do even for the target audience, teens who might get pregnant or father a child? If I were a teen looking at the picture, I’d want to wipe the little boy’s cheeks. I’d want to take out a book and read to him. Yet I wouldn’t be able to do so. I might dream of being a parent one day–and, if I were foolhardy enough, I’d want that day to come soon.

Worst of all, this ad gives the impression that the boy’s existence is a mistake and his fate sealed (or at least tipped in a direction). This is wrong. Once a child comes into the world, he or she is no mistake. Nor do we know what that child’s life will be.

Of course teen pregnancy is no light matter, no matter how it’s handled. I imagine many involved with the ad had good intentions. Still, it  fails to inform, enlighten, or persuade. And what a sad-looking kid.