Child's Play

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.

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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Sean Neumann