For better or for worse, project 'weds' students Psychology class to learn how to care for baby, pay bills in mock marriages

February 19, 1996|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

More than 160 Mount Hebron High School psychology students said "I do" last week, agreeing to be eternally faithful -- for two months -- as part of an educational experiment.

Just hours after flowers, rings and hugs were exchanged in front of hundreds of their peers in the school's auditorium, some of the 84 couples became parents of flour-bag babies -- 5 or 10 pounds each.

But no flour baby would be dropped off for 17-year-old psychology student Danielle Temple, who refused to participate in the mock marriages and chose instead to learn about living as an adult on her own.

Under school rules, she could only be a childless bridesmaid.

Miss Temple decided that marriage to another boy -- however fictional -- would interfere with her relationship with her boyfriend outside class. And although she'd still like a flour baby, Mount Hebron teachers only will entrust the flour babies to the "married" couples who request them.

"They're trying to show us that in society, people should be married and having kids together," Miss Temple said, adding that single people having children are "looked down upon, but I think we should be able to."

The idea behind the two-month mock unions, which appropriately began on Valentine's Day, is for students to learn about what it takes to make marriages work. As part of their psychology class, the high school juniors and seniors simulate finding apartments and jobs, shopping, paying bills and raising children.

Mount Hebron has held the simulated weddings for 15 years. Their popularity is responsible for the jump in the psychology class' enrollment from 50 students to the 180, said Diane McAllister, head of the social studies department and founder of the experiment at the school.

"I'm hoping it will give me a chance to find out what it's like in reality," said Heather Seitz, a 17-year-old "bride."

But the reality about which the students are learning is limited to two-parent households -- even though single-parent families have been on the rise.

"They see a lot of single parents around them," said Celeste Baar, a Fulton family and child therapist, so excluding single-parent roles from the experiment "might anger some of them who are in single-parent families."

Even those students who plan to raise children in two-parent families may end up raising children alone because of divorce or a spouse's death, she noted.

Half of the marriages in the United States and Maryland end in divorce.

Mount Hebron faculty members are aware of the changing demographics, but they believe in limiting the marriage experiment to traditional, two-parent households, Ms. McAllister said.

"We're realizing that times are changing," said Kelly Borowski, a Mount Hebron psychology teacher.

In her classes, she teaches a unit on alternative families that includes single-parent homes and homosexual marriages. And in the future, the school might address such different lifestyles in its wedding experiment, Ms. McAllister said.

Recently, the school opened the experiment to "single" students who -- while they do not receive flour babies -- simulate living on their own.

Ms. Baar, who has worked with teens who want to be single parents, said that allowing teens to play the role of single parents in the experiment might discourage them from becoming single parents.

"I think it could be a learning opportunity to see how much more difficult it is to raise a child in a single-parent situation," she said. "Young people tend to think that they can do anything. They feel they can handle any situation, but they don't see the reality of the situation."

Faculty members say the experiment's guidelines are appropriate for their community.

"We've found that this is a rather conservative community, and what we're trying to teach here are traditional values -- the two-parent American family," Ms. Borowski said. "We're trying to emphasize that this is a positive thing and to hold on to those traditional values and the importance of family."

The importance of those values isn't lost on the students.

Danielle Temple might have wanted to be a single parent in the experiment, but not in real life: "I give [single parents] a lot of credit for keeping a job and raising kids alone, but I wouldn't want to do it."

And they generally recognize that the experiment is giving them a chance to put into action the lessons they've learned watching their parents' marriages succeed -- or fail.

What do real marriages need to survive? "Love and commitment," said 17-year-old Mike Gihis, a participant whose parents are divorced.

Added Miss Seitz, whose parents are divorced: "It takes a lot of work on both parts. A lot of tolerance, patience and understanding. It's not always getting your own way. It's having to compromise."

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