Rochester Youth Development Study


The Rochester Youth Development Study’s examination of teen fatherhood was designed to identify early risk factors for increasing the likelihood of becoming a teen father. The study tracked a sample of 615 urban males from 1988 through 1996 (for more details, see "Rochester Study: Sample and Methodology"). Gathering data from regular interviews with participants and from their parents and official records, the researchers assessed a wide range of possible risk factors for teen fatherhood across 10 domains: (1) race/ethnicity, (2) neighborhood characteristics, (3) family socioeconomic position, (4) parental stress, (5) parent-child relations, (6) educational attainment and commitment, (7) early sexual activity, (8) involvement with delinquent peers or gangs, (9) individual characteristics, and (10) drug use or delinquency.

In addition to identifying how many boys become fathers over the course of their teenage years, researchers sought to discover which were the most influential risk factors in predicting whether a young man became a teen father. Finally, they investigated what impact an accumulation of such risk factors would have on an individual teenager’s likelihood of becoming a father.


The Rochester study found a high rate of teen fatherhood: more than one-quarter of their sample (28 percent, or 175 teenagers) reported that they had become fathers before their 20th birthdays. The earliest reports of fatherhood occurred at age 15 years, when seven boys reported becoming fathers, with the rate increasing steadily until age 19.1

The study’s analysis of the risk factors for teen fatherhood provides striking evidence that early involvement in delinquency and drug use is highly correlated with subsequently becoming a teen father, as shown in figure 2. While 70 percent of the high-frequency drug users became teen fathers, only 24 percent of the nonusers or low-users did. Similarly, while nearly half (47 percent) of the high-rate delinquents later became teen fathers, only 23 percent of the nondelinquents or low-rate delinquents did. Both relationships are statistically significant (p0.001).

Figure 2

In addition to finding delinquency and drug use to be significant risk factors for teen fatherhood, the study also found significant correlations with other factors, including race, neighborhood characteristics, parents’ level of education, the youth’s standardized reading score, and early sexual activity. Although teen fatherhood was not a function of any single variable, it was clearly linked to involvement in deviant behavior, according to the Rochester study. Even when researchers controlled for other variables, they found that a cluster of problem behaviors—engagement in early sexual intercourse (defined in this study as before age 16), gang membership, chronic involvement in violent behavior, and chronic drug use—substantially increased a boy’s likelihood of becoming a teen father. Chronic drug use alone more than doubled the probability of teen fatherhood.

In addition to analyzing the degree of risk associated with each variable measured, the Rochester study also looked at cumulative risk: what happens as an individual’s number of risk factors increases. Choosing nine risk factors significantly related to teen fatherhood, the researchers found that, as risk factors accumulated, a boy’s chance of fathering a child increased sharply. The results, shown in figure 3, indicate that for young men who are at risk in only a few of these areas, the probability of teen fatherhood is also fairly low. As the number of risk factors increases, the prevalence of teen fatherhood increases too, rising slowly at first. By the time a youth accumulates five or more risk factors, the teen fatherhood rate "virtually explodes," as the Rochester study states (Thornberry, Smith, and Howard, 1997:516—517). Almost a third of those with five risk factors and almost half of those with six or more risk factors become teen fathers. Although it is clear that teen fatherhood is not a function of any single risk factor, when a young man faces numerous and often interacting risks, the chance that he will become a teen father jumps dramatically.

Figure 3

Rochester Study: Sample and Methodology

The Rochester study of teen fatherhood is part of the ongoing Rochester Youth Development Study of delinquency and drug use conducted by researchers at the University at Albany. A recent OJJDP Fact Sheet on the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency (Browning et al., 1999) provides a summary of the research design for the Rochester Study. The specific study of risk factors for becoming a teenage father was conducted by Terence P. Thornberry, Carolyn A. Smith, and Gregory J. Howard. The sample for this study consists of 615 males (selected from the larger pool of males and females in the Rochester Youth Development Study). In this sample, 20 percent were white, 17 percent were Hispanic, and 63 percent were African American. (For further details on sample selection, see Thornberry, Smith, and Howard, 1997.)

Participants were interviewed in 12 waves, beginning in 1988, when they were in seventh or eighth grade, and continuing through 1996–97, when they were on average 22 years old. The first nine interviews were conducted at 6-month intervals with the teenagers and the adults primarily responsible for their care (usually their mothers), and the last three were conducted annually. Data were also collected from schools, police, courts, and social service agencies. Teen fatherhood was defined in the Rochester Study as becoming a father before the 20th birthday. The measurement of teen fatherhood is based on self-reports, which have a 95-percent agreement rate with parental reports.

The measures of risk factors are based on data from early waves of the study, generally between wave 1 (when the subjects were 13.5 years old on average) and wave 4 (when they were 14.9 years old on average). Because the first boys in this sample to become fathers were 15 years old at the time, the assessment of risk factors precedes the onset of teen fatherhood. Risk factors measured in the study were clustered into 10 general domains. Researchers conducted both bivariate and multivariate analyses of the data.

1The researchers suggest that this unusually high rate of teen fatherhood being reported may reflect a number of factors: the city of Rochester has a high rate of teen pregnancy, as compared with other cities; the project staff established a high degree of rapport with the respondents; and the sample is composed primarily of minority youth.

Teenage Fatherhood and Delinquent Behavior Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  January 2000