Practice with computerized babies encourages teens to put off parenting
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Practice with computerized
babies encourages teens
to put off parenting

Candy Underwood, Cumberland County family and consumer education agent, records data from a student's computerized baby, programmed to simulate the 24-hour demands of a real infant.  (Photo by Herman Lankford)

Having a baby can change teens’ lives in ways they never imagined, from sleeping less to staying home more. Experiencing those changes first hand is a real incentive for convincing teens that putting off parenthood is a good idea.

That’s the philosophy behind “Baby, Think It Over,” an award-winning program conducted by North Carolina Cooperative Extension centers in Cumberland, Richmond and Scotland counties.

Last year, more than 500 Cumberland high school students, mostly in parenting and child development classes, participated in the program. The students take responsibility for a computerized baby doll that cries like a real baby, and in the process they learn how much work is involved in parenting.

“We give a post-evaluation and ask students if they have changed their minds about being teen parents,” said Candy Underwood, Cumberland family and consumer education (FCE) agent in charge of the program. “Eighty-five percent say they don’t want kids right now.”

Participants have attached to their arm a key that they can insert in the doll’s back to calm it when it cries. Crying spells can last anywhere from five to 30 minutes. When the dolls are returned, the internal computer records how well students responded to their doll’s needs.

Through a grant, Cumberland County’s Cooperative Extension center purchased more than 60 dolls used in the program. The equipment for each student participant, including doll, diaper bag, carrier and accessories, is valued at about $450.

Before the experience begins, program assistant Taffi Conway explains all the equipment and how the program works. Students must fill out a diary of the days spent caring for their “baby” and a budget projecting baby expenses for the first three months of life. The program’s goal of teen pregnancy prevention is rarely mentioned, but it comes through loud and clear.

Cumberland County’s program has been so successful that it was recognized last year by the state and National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences with the Florence Hall Award for programming on the state, regional and national levels.

At Fayetteville’s Pine Forest High School recently, students turned in the dolls they had nurtured for four days. Though a few expressed regrets at giving up the “babies,” nearly everyone was grateful for the prospect of a good night’s sleep.

“Oh, I get to sleep tonight, and I’m going to sleep the whole night,” one girl cheered.

The computerized baby dolls, which are racially and anatomically correct, can be set by program leaders to be normal or cranky. Sophomore Amanda Patry was convinced her baby was cranky after it cried 17 times in one day, waking her seven times during the night.

“It was a neat experience,” she said. “I liked it; I learned how much care babies need.”

Patry said the experience reinforced her conviction not to become a teen parent. “I wasn’t planning on it anyway. This just confirms it,” she said.

Underwood says that boys sometimes have a harder time overcoming the embarrassment of carrying a baby doll with them in public. Yet, the computer feedback often shows that boys do a better job of attending to the needs of their babies.

For freshman Tyrell Evans, the care-giving experience was familiar. “I’m used to taking care of my sister’s kids,” he said.

Waking in the middle of the night was hard, he said, as was responding to people in public who thought he was carrying a real baby. “I don’t want to be a teen parent,” he said.

Two other counties – Richmond and Scotland – have implemented “Baby, Think It Over” programs. Though somewhat different from Cumberland’s program, both are seeking to reduce high teen pregnancy rates in their counties.

Richmond County ranks fifth in North Carolina in teen pregnancies, and FCE agent Anne Greene is doing her part to change that. Her goal is to reach all of Richmond County’s 600 eighth-grade health and physical education students through “Baby, Think It Over.”

North Carolina requires that “abstinence education” is the only sex education curriculum that can be taught in school, Greene said, and unfortunately, many teachers shy away from the topic altogether. “Baby, Think It Over” gives teachers a way to bring the subject back into the classroom.”

In Scotland County, FCE agent Pam Riemer recently joined Cooperative Extension after teaching physical education for 24 years so she could teach the “Baby, Think It Over” program to a larger audience.

Riemer’s program is somewhat different because she spends five days of classroom time with students before they get their “babies.” This spring, she conducted the program at Sycamore Lane Middle School, with the support of Principal Rick Singletary.

Students fill out a nine-month time line to learn what happens during pregnancy. They learn about sexually transmitted diseases, what they are and how they are spread. They create an 18-year time line for their child’s life as a minor. And they develop a budget to discover what it costs to raise a child.

Then they receive their “babies” for five nights. Riemer usually hands out a special type of baby known as a “Real Care Baby.” Like the other computerized babies, these are programmed to be cared for by one person. But unlike those that require only insertion of a key to “respond” to a baby’s needs, the Real Care Babies must be fed bottles and have their diapers changed.

Sometimes they have to be rocked to quiet them down. They record how quickly the students respond to their needs, and they register any incidents of rough handling.

Riemer, who has been teaching the course since her days as a teacher, knows that it works. Students who were sexually active before taking the class tell her they now practice abstinence.

“Believe me, it is working,” she said.

—Natalie Hampton


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