Parenting: all work, no play

Dec. 19, 2004, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 16 years, 1 month ago

Reality Works dolls test students' child-rearing skills

Junior Chauncea Carothers loves to dance. She adores the excitement of being on-stage, the queasy feeling of butterflies in her stomach and the sound of applause ringing in her ears. But during the weekend of Nov. 20, Carothers missed her first dance rehearsal in a year for 48 hours; she had a baby to look after.

Carothers and 20 other students are participating this semester in a hands-on learning experience to combat teenage pregnancy called "Baby Think It Over," a part of Blair's Family Life class. This particular program, started by the Reality Works Company, requires students to "adopt" an electronic baby doll for a weekend and experience the realities of early parenthood.

Before experiencing "Baby Think It Over," Carothers was looking forward to taking a cute, cuddly baby home for the weekend. She liked the idea of "having a little one that you love and that loves you back," she says.

But after sacrificing her dance practice, a Montgomery College entrepreneur conference and 14 hours of valuable sleeping time for the demands made by "Precious," her electronic baby, Carothers realizes that now is not the time for raising a real child.

The hardest part of the weekend for Carothers was her loss of sleep from the baby's relentless crying. To stop the baby from wailing, a key must be placed and held in the baby's back for about ten minutes, says Carothers. "I was so tired I'd try and sleep and hold the key in at the same time. I woke up about six times every night," she says.

Carothers took the experience seriously because her grade depended on it. When the babies are returned to school Monday morning, Family Life teacher Susan Soulé can tell just how well the students cared for them; a computer chip inside of each "Think It Over" baby doll records rough handling, neglected head support and the number of minutes the baby cried unattended.

These characteristics, says Reality Works sales representative Linda Elwell, make the baby dolls "pretty darn close to the actual thing."

Senior Lawrence Lyons was eight years old when he experienced "the actual thing." When his mother told him that his 16-year-old sister was having a baby, he did not understand why his family was not celebrating. "I thought it was a good thing; I was thinking, 'Hooray for Nikki!' he says of his sister. "I didn't realize how much of a struggle it was going to be for her."

When Lyons took his baby doll home, he began to empathize: "Me being alone and having to care for the baby really helped me understand what my sister went through. I was able to connect with her in a great way," he says.

He kept close watch on his baby for the entire weekend and grew very protective of it. "I was afraid that if I went downstairs for five minutes to put my clothes in the laundry, the baby could start to cry.

But it felt good to be there for it whenever it cried. I wanted my face to be the first one she saw," says Lyons of the experience.

However, babies of young parents are not necessarily embraced by the public, as Lyons discovered when he and a female friend went out to a restaurant with the baby. "People were like, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with you people?'" says Lyons. "When we were eating, their eyes would wander over to us, and we just waved back."

Senior Mary Monfort was confronted by one stranger accusing her of neglecting the baby. "I told her it wasn't real, and she said, 'Good; if it were real, you would have killed it by holding it like that.'
Everywhere I went, I thought I was being judged," says Monfort.

When Carothers's baby started crying during church, she attracted many dirty looks from the congregation. Embarrassed, she struggled to keep the baby quiet while holding her hymnal and singing with the choir.

By Monday, Carothers was not very happy. "I had an attitude with all my teachers. When they asked what the problem was, I said, 'If you had a baby you would know!'" she says.

The success of this program is evident in the students who participate. According to a 2001 study by the Reality Works company of 247 female and male teenagers in ninth through 12th grades, a significantly larger number of those who took part in the program than those who did not participate would be "very upset" if they discovered they or their girlfriends were pregnant.

Elwell believes that the "Think It Over Babies" are an effective deterrent to teenage pregnancy for those who take part. "Students are so excited Friday when they get the babies, and then Monday they're not so excited anymore. The [electronic] babies create awareness of what you need in life before you can have one," she says.

Lyons learned just that. "[A child] should be the most important thing in your life. You should be able to be there for the kid when it's crying, feed it when it's hungry and make sure it always knows you're there," says Lyons.

After participating in the program, Carothers recognizes that trying to fit a child into her life on top of all her other involvements would simply be impossible. "At this point, I couldn't have another life in my hands," she laughs. "I'm still trying to get mine together."

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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