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Baby think it over

When you are 16 or 17 and navigating the tumultuous space between youth and adulthood -searching for who you are, thinking you already know a lot of answers to life's questions, living in the moment - things like future and maturity and responsibility are rather nebulous concepts.

Love, on the other hand, seems very real.And when you are 16 or 17, identity and self-worth are often defined more by the reflections of those around you than by your own mirror. Emotions are close to the surface; hormones are surging; the body is changing. The need to belong is powerful; the desire to be loved overrides almost everything else.

And that's often how teens think of babies, says Marie Larson, teacher of the Adult Roles class at Cache High School in Logan. They think, if I have a baby, I will have someone to love and to love me unconditionally. They don't think about the responsibility, the financial commitment, the long-term implications of what they are doing. The think only of the love.

To help teens understand some of these other issues, Cache High in Logan has recently implemented a program called "Baby Think It Over" featuring lifelike baby dolls.

For years, teachers have tried care-for-an-egg or haul-around-a-bag-of-flour projects as a way to help students understand the commitment involved in giving something constant care. But it took a "rocket scientist," former NASA engineer Rick Jurmain, to come up with something a little more realistic. Baby Think It Over dolls are about the size and weight of a 3- to 6-month-old baby. They are programmed to cry at varied intervals and for varied reasons. When a baby cries, the caretaker must insert a key in the doll's back and hold it there for however long is necessary, an average of between 5 five and 30 minutes.

The doll is also programmed to record neglect, if crying intervals are allowed to go on too long; and abuse, if the dolls are knocked around. The key is attached to the student's wrist with a hospital band, so he or she cannot pass the care of the baby to another person.

Students must have their parents' permission to participate. They can take a baby for 24 hours or for a week. Those who complete the week receive one quarter credit. Parents are asked to be supportive , but to let the student do all the caretaking.

The program is new, so it is too soon to tell its long-term impact at Cache High. But other schools around the country report a 50 percent (or higher) drop in teen pregnancy after implementing the program.

And so far it's been a positive experience at the Logan school. "We've been seeing good things," says Joel Allred, principal at Cache High. "I've been impressed with the attitude of the kids. You tend to think kids this age don't have a serious bone in their bodies, that they only live life day-to-day. But they've taken the babies, and they've buckled them in the car seats and taken them to class and taken them to work. They really do take responsibility."

That's not to say it is easy.

"It was a pain in the butt," said Rachel Hugie of her experience. "It's a lot harder than everyone thinks. You have to take it everywhere." Her baby cried every two hours in the middle of the night. "I never did hear it. But it woke my mom up and she'd wake me."

Getting up in the middle of the night was the thing that bothered the kids the most. "It was tiring!" said Emily Nelson. "It wouldn't let me sleep at all."

"It kept waking me up at 3 a.m.!" added Michelle Campbell. "The first time was really hard! You do kind of get used to it."

The erratic crying could also be a problem. Emily's baby started crying in the middle of a funeral. And once when she was driving, she had to pull over to the side of the road to take care of the doll.

"You couldn't do normal things," said Reed Romney, who only had a baby for 24 hours. "I walked into ShopKo, and everyone was staring at me."

Reed bumped the baby's head when he was taking it out of the car seat. That, of course, registered as abuse. "I really felt bad. I felt stupid."

Jesse Elwood, another of the boys to take the babies, also felt bad when his baby registered abuse. "I didn't hurt it. But my friends came and squished its face. I hated it."

"It was hard, really hard," said Lindsey Haslam. "There's a lot of stress. You have to keep explaining to people that you're not just playing with dolls. That this actually has a good purpose."

And one of the hardest things, she said, was that the baby wasn't real. "You don't care, feeling-wise. You don't want to take the time to take care of it."

"I had fun with my little brother," added Jesse. "This is nothing like that. With this you don't get the joy of playing with it. You don't get anything back."

Despite the fact that they realize caring for a real baby would be a much different experience, Baby Think It Over did help them realize they were not ready for parenthood, the students said.

"I wouldn't want to have kids yet," said Jesse. "I couldn't take care of them financially."

"All teens that are thinking of having kids should try this," said Rachel. "They'd change their minds."

And from, Maria Porter: "I've learned a lot I didn't know before. I'm definitely waiting until I'm 20 or 23 to have kids."

The program has a novelty factor that makes it interesting for the students. In some ways it is like playing with dolls. They name the babies - Buzz, Bob, Junior, Cade Robert; they change their clothes and they have some interesting interaction with friends and schoolmates - some who tell them to "shut that thing up" and others who want to hold it for a time. But the students are learning some serious things as well, says Larson, and not just about the demands of early parenthood but also about the responsibilities of child care.

"For example, the doll will cry if it is placed on its stomach. And with what we are learning about SIDS deaths and sleeping on the stomach, that's good for them to know. The kids don't have to feed or change diapers, but they have to hold the baby for the time it would take to do that, so they learn something about time factors. They have to use car seats, so they learn about safety."

Larson can set the computers so the baby is "easy," "normal" or "cranky." So far, they've all been normal. "I haven't dared give anyone a cranky baby. It's hard enough with a normal one."

And the kids do take the assignment seriously. "One girl dropped her baby on its head. She was so upset, she came running in almost in tears." Another girl got sick and couldn't take care of her baby and had to bring it back early. She felt really bad, too; but she learned how the baby's demands don't stop because the parent is sick, says Larson.

"I think they have a better understanding of the responsibility involved in caring for a child," she says. "They come back saying they had no idea what was involved. It might make them think twice if they are in a situation where pregnancy could happen."

The program began when one of the student's mothers donated money to buy one of the dolls. Principal Allred thought it was such a good idea that he bought three more (dolls cost $250 each) plus accessories such as carriers and car seats.

"If we even prevent a couple of pregnancies, it will be worth it," he says. And beyond that, there is a hope that "when the students do have kids those kids will be well taken care of."

Cache High is an alternative school in Cache Valley, designed for students who for one reason or another have had problems in the traditional educational system. These are kids, says Allred, who are "at risk for graduation." And they are kids you might think would be at higher risk for things like early pregnancy. But in many ways they are no different than any teens, says Allred. "They are little kids in big bodies. They are trying to become adults. They get excited about the adult things and forget they have to follow through. They get so caught up in having a car, for example, they don't think about the insurance and all the gas they will have to buy.

"They are good kids. And bright kids. They respond well to praise and positive feedback." And, he says, they are really a microcosm of society as a whole. "All kids are at risk. The world is so crazy sometimes."

And sometimes is hard to find a place in that world, hard to sort out what's real and what isn't, hard even to find love and acceptance. But, like all teens, these kids are trying.

"You have to have patience," said Ellen Ferguson. "I think the babies teach you that there would be more joy and happiness in having kids if you are physically and emotionally and financially ready."

That's not a bad lesson to learn . . . when you are 16 or 17.