Parents for a day

Artificial baby teaches rigors of real life

Posted: Sunday, May 14, 2000

Elizabeth Price's baby died eight times in one day.

Seven times it was her friends' fault. Once it was her fault.

The baby was a computerized doll 16-year-old Price was carrying around to learn the realities of parenting.

Fifteen years ago, Alaska teens studying parenting spent a week toting around a raw egg or a bag of sugar. Today, parenting practice is decidedly more high tech, with the arrival of Baby Think it Over, a $350 computerized newborn.

``According to all the research, schools that have really gotten into the Baby Think it Over program find it is one of the best preventatives for teen pregnancy,'' said Price's health teacher, Diane Chapman.

Price was offended that her Baby assignment wasn't taken seriously by her peers at Juneau-Douglas High School.

``My friends would pick him up by one arm and didn't handle him right. We went in-line skating the first day I had him, and they wanted me to leave him in the car. Then we put him in a skating equipment bag so his head stuck out,'' Price said. ``He died seven times because of my friends, and once in the middle of the night because of me.''

Chapman uses two dolls -- a 6-pound normal infant and a 2-pound, drug-affected infant with a markedly smaller head. Both dolls require diaper changes, feeding and burping. Both cry. The drug-affected Baby cries longer and more often than the normal Baby, and its cry is a desperate, pulsating wail. In addition, Baby tremors as it wails.

Teens respond to Baby's demands by pressing a key in its back, where a digital readout indicates how the infant has been treated. Should the teen fall asleep during a 3 a.m. feeding and pressure slackens on the key, Baby tells the teacher.

That's what happened to Price's Baby; she fell asleep and the infant died.

Adrian Berg, now 20, believes Baby Think It Over may have helped him avoid becoming an expectant father when he was a 17-year-old at JDHS.

``They didn't have that then -- unfortunately,'' he said.

Whether at the mall or at home, Baby records four aspects of parent care and behavior: head support and head drops; rough handling; neglect; and total minutes of crying.

And Baby's disposition can be set at mild, normal or cranky -- a setting the teacher doesn't divulge to the student.

``There was one girl who really wanted a baby,'' Chapman said. ``I turned the Baby on cranky and she took it home for a weekend. Monday she said, `No way I want a child.'''

That Baby's record showed the greatest number of neglect and head drops (from an unsupported neck) that Chapman has ever seen.

Each teen ``parent'' in Chapman's class writes in a diary every half hour. While sometimes students wrote that they felt fine, they also often wrote that they felt startled, helpless, frustrated, angry, and sometimes panicky and embarrassed.

Marie Ahrens, 17, described her charge as ``like your alarm clock.'' She cared for the normal Baby, a boy, from 1 p.m. to 11:30 a.m -- less than 24 hours.

``He didn't cry the whole time I had him, but it was kind of hard to watch him and do other things. I felt like I had my hands full,'' Ahrens said.

``During government (class), the baby started crying and I was trying to take notes,'' said Sara Clauder, 17. ``I don't want to have kids, not for a long time.''

After being awakened at 3 a.m., 16-year-old Crystal Rogers anticipated another feeding at 5. She ``unplugged'' Baby so she could get some sleep.

Elizabeth Price's sister, Courtney Price, 17, took boy Baby home.

``While I was out driving, it woke up, so I had to pull over and take care of it,'' she said. ``I went to the mall and it started crying and wouldn't stop. Everybody looked at me.''

Ginny Heckler took the drug-affected Baby twice.

``The first time, it cried for 45 minutes. It was quiet after that -- my brother took the key out,'' she said. ``The second time I took it, it was complete hell. I went to the mall and had to take the kid with me. There were two guys walking around trying to look at it and asking my friends, `When did she have it?'''

``People were looking at me like I was crazy carrying a doll,'' said Heidi Rowlett, 17.

``So I put a jacket over it. I felt like a teen mom,'' she said, shaking her head in disgust.

Chapman's students visit child-care centers during their study of parenting, and quickly grasp new lessons, such as babies don't stay on schedule; holding kids in your lap is ``too cool;'' and a child with a 102-degree fever doesn't necessarily look ``sick.''

``They start realizing that there is a lot of decision-making in this parenting,'' Chapman said. ``It's not an easy job.''

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