Child's Play

Middle-schoolers find out what it's like to have a bun in the Easy-Bake Oven.

When the children were finished taking care of the simulators, the sixth-graders ranked the difficulty of the experience as a 2.5 and the eighth-graders ranked it a 2.8. In other words, the sixth-graders found the job to be slightly harder than they thought, while the eighth-graders said it was slightly easier.

Overall, the majority of the kids surveyed after taking care of the simulators thought that if they had their own kid, it would be easier to take care of than the doll.

"We wanted to test the doll and how it fit into sex-education curriculum," Kralewski asserts. "We were not trying to disprove the doll...but there's been a lot of hype [about the simulator], and it's slowed down, and that's not a bad thing. What's important is to find a way [to use the dolls properly]."

BTIO is less than happy with the results. They say the problem is not with the simulator but rather with the way Kralewski and Stevens-Simon refer to the simulator in the study -- as a doll.

"They are not dolls," says BTIO's Lambert. "They are baby simulators, and the fact that they are referred to as dolls and that the children [at Horace Mann] called them dolls in the surveys tells us that the simulators were introduced as dolls. How are the kids supposed to take it seriously when they are told they are taking care of dolls?"

Lambert also points out that many of the eighth-grade girls who were originally targeted for the study didn't want to participate because they said "they were too old to play with dolls," or that "people would stare at someone my age carrying a doll." The latter statement is exactly the point her company is trying to get across.

"We hear [from students who go through the program] that carrying the baby is the most realistic aspect," Lambert says. "The kids say that they are mistaken for teen parents."

But Stevens-Simon and Kralewski don't think children have the ability to learn from the experience with the simulator -- no matter what they call it -- and that this prevents the simulator from being effective. "The frontal lobes that put the brakes on [making dumb decisions] develop last," Stevens-Simon says. "It's an organic basis that explains why teenagers think differently than adults."

The two researchers believe that teenagers have feelings of invulnerability that supercede any effect that the simulator might have, something called the "personal fable of omnipotence." They say that the children who participated in the test are simply too inexperienced and egocentric to absorb the lesson the doll is supposed to teach, and that it's hard for them to learn lessons and associate negative consequences with their actions. "We kind of proved the fable," Kralewski says.

"A teenager could smoke an outrageous amount of pot and drive home," Stevens-Simon proposes. "And the kid might see themselves not as lucky, but as a very good driver when they are high, while an adult might see themselves as lucky. Some teens think, 'I did not like being a mom this time, but I will next time.'"

Despite the results, Horace Mann is still using the simulators in its sex-education curriculum. "The idea is to give the kids firsthand experience to see what it's like to have a baby," says school principal Jim Trevino. "This way the kids can see the kind of time, attention and distraction that this artificial baby requires. Anecdotal proof is that when some of these kids, especially the girls, are through with the exercise, they say, 'I want nothing to do with having a baby.'"

But Trevino wishes the researchers had gone even further. "What they should do is look at the kids who take part in a program like this over a period of six years," he says. "That way, researchers could see if tools like this really work."

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