By Alan Prendergast
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The most pressing things on the minds of most eleven-year-old girls is whether Mom is going to let them wear makeup before they're sixteen, or if the boys in English class are ever going to stop pulling their braids. The eleven-year-old boys, in the meantime, are busy playing Little League baseball, fighting imaginary wars in their backyards and dreaming of being the next John Elway. Maybe a few of these kids are aware of the opposite sex, but for most, even the mention of a peck on the lips brings a blush.
At least that's what some folks like to think.
While teen pregnancy in this country has dropped from 62.1 births for every 1,000 girls in 1991 to 52.9 for every 1,000 girls in 1998, the United States still leads industrialized nations in the number of kids having kids. Although all kinds of countermeasures have been enacted over the years -- sex and abstinence education in middle schools and condom distribution in high schools -- teenagers are still having sex without thinking about the consequences. The reason, according to two health professionals who studied students at Horace Mann Middle School, is because some kids think that taking care of a baby would be easier than taking care of a doll.
Three years ago, University of Colorado at Denver researchers Catherine Stevens-Simon, a physician, and Judith Kralewski, a registered nurse, decided to test a form of pregnancy prevention that has received a lot of attention recently -- the "Baby Think It Over" baby simulator. Their results were released in the March issue of Pediatrics magazine.
The simulator, which looks like a doll, is a 21-inch-long, seven-pound mannequin that randomly cries at intervals of anywhere from fifteen minutes to four hours, just like a real child. When it starts crying, whoever is taking care of it must first insert a key into the back of the mannequin to activate an internal computer chip, then go through a series of actions to ease its "worry," such as rocking, burping, feeding and changing its diaper. The computer chip records how quickly the teen responds to the simulator when it begins crying and how roughly it is handled.
The company that makes the mannequin, Baby Think It Over Inc., of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was started by Rick and Mary Jurmain to test the theory that kids could learn about childcare by carrying around a sack of flour or an egg for a week or two, thereby simulating as closely as possible the difficulties inherent with having a baby. The Jurmains wanted to use something more sophisticated than flour or eggs, however.
"[The simulator] is actually a program," explains Carol Lambert, spokeswoman for Baby Think It Over. "Car seats, education of shaking children, child abuse and budgeting are all a part of what we do."
The company also sells models that simulate babies with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and drug addiction. It has babies in a range of ethnic tones, and even one with an attachment that lets teenagers attach a nipple on their shirts to get a sense of what breast-feeding is like. It also sells a pregnancy simulator called the "Empathy Belly," which is a vest with enlarged breasts and a big round belly that adds about thirty pounds to the person who wears it, puts pressure on organs, makes the back sore and raises the wearer's body temperature, just like in a real pregnancy.
The idea is to take away the "glamour" of being a teen mom, Lambert says, and according to her company, the simulator works.
Since the babies (which cost upwards of $300) are usually used by white students from middle- and upper-class-income schools, Lambert says, Kralewski and Stevens-Simon decided to try the simulators on kids at Horace Mann, at 4130 Navajo Street, which is in a neighborhood with a low average household income and a high teen-pregnancy rate.
The Sunnyside neighborhood in northwest Denver recorded 138.8 births per every 1,000 girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, according to 1997 figures compiled by the city and the Piton Foundation, a private organization that focuses on children and families in poverty. The overall average for Denver is 95.1 births for every 1,000 girls. The average yearly household income in Sunnyside is $29,794, as compared to the city's overall average of $42,426.
To conduct the study, BTIO loaned Kralewski and Stevens-Simon fifteen simulators; funding was provided by the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. They gave the simulators to 109 sixth- and eighth-grade girls on a rotating basis over eight weeks for a three-day, two-night period and told them they were on their own.
"We were trying to find out what the girls think of the doll," Kralewski says. "Did they see it as realistic?"
Prior to the introduction of the dolls, the girls answered questionnaires dealing with demographic information, their educational and career goals, what kind of experience they had had with children and how difficult they thought it might be to care for both the simulator and a real baby.
On a scale of one to four, with four signifying very difficult, the sixth-graders said they thought the simulator would be about a 2.3 while the eighth-graders figured the experience would rank as about a straight 3.