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DEAR ABBY: My letter concerns the one from "Steve in Minnesota," who wrote about teen-age pregnancy. I understand why he says people don't realize how difficult parenthood is until they find out the hard way. Once it happens, their lives are changed forever. However, these points should be made to young people before they decide to have children. What does it say to those who are already parents?

I am a 17-year-old mother of a beautiful 8-month-old daughter. Teen-age mothers are often perceived as young girls who have ruined our lives. However, we haven't ruined our lives -- we have just made them a little more complicated.

I earned my high school diploma and work at a great job in an office where I make far more than minimum wage. I will soon start college to pursue my dream of becoming a registered nurse.

I played with fire and have to deal with the consequences. Having kids is a responsibility not to be taken lightly, but it's not the end of the world. There are plenty of places that help young mothers achieve their goals and open up windows of opportunity. -- OPTIMISTIC IN TEXAS

DEAR OPTIMISTIC: I commend you for your maturity. Children should be considered a blessing -- not a punishment for sexual irresponsibility.

Many counties in the United States have family social service agencies that offer classes in parenting skills to teen-age parents, maternal and child health-care clinics, job training, and individual and family counseling. However, not all very young parents are up to the task of meeting the challenges you have so responsibly assumed. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: After reading the letter from "Steve in Minnesota," may I share my experience? I am the result of a teen-age pregnancy. My parents dropped out of high school to marry six months before I was born. My sister was born three years later. Within a year of her birth, my parents divorced. I did not have a happy childhood.

My parents had little patience with children. Mother gave custody to my father because she wanted to return to school. She eventually earned an engineering degree and has a successful career, but I seldom saw her as I was growing up.

My father never completed high school and was frequently unemployed. Both my parents had many problems to deal with because they became parents at such a young age.

I am now a parent myself. I waited until I was mature enough to handle it. I can't imagine being a mother at 17, like my mother was -- but I know I wouldn't have been as good a parent as I am now. My husband is a terrific father and our daughter is a happy, well-adjusted child. -- GROWN-UP MOM IN ONTARIO, CANADA

DEAR MOM: I hope that teens who read your letter will heed its cautionary message. Although the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western world, contrary to popular belief, American teens did NOT invent sex. I have read that teens in Europe are more sexually active. However, because Europeans are far more open about discussing sex within families, their teen-agers behave more like adults than those in the United States. When European teens reach 16 or 17, they are expected to behave responsibly about sexual matters and visit family planning clinics to obtain information and contraceptives as needed. Perhaps we should take a page out of their book.

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS, and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

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