For a single week, bundle of joylessness gives youngsters a lesson on parent trap

June 04, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

I AM THE PROUD grandmother of a 5-pound baby boy.

We call him Stewart, for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart, in keeping with our family tradition of naming boys after famous Pennsylvania sports figures.

I believe Stewart's father, my son, Joe, was named after Penn State coach Joe Paterno. I am not sure because my husband, who chose our son's name, has never actually commented on its origin. When asked by friends if "Joseph" is a family name, he says, obliquely, "It is now."

Anyway, Joe is the father of Stewart, a healthy, happy, bouncing bag of flour.

Stewart arrived home from middle school wrapped snugly in a "Terrible Towel," a gold and black hand towel usually waved at Steelers games on third-and-long to great effect.

Because of the soft spot on the top of his head and the danger of spilling flour all over the place, Little Stewart was also fitted with a kid-size Steelers helmet, held in place by duct tape.

Little Stewart was Joe's first lesson in family life as seen from the giving end, as opposed to the receiving end.

He and his sixth-grade classmates were given bags of flour and told to care for them for five days, keeping careful records of the number of times the baby was fed, changed and comforted.

Little Stewart had to go everywhere with Joe, who was also instructed to plan and record quality time activities, such as reading or rocking or playing with toys. In addition, the students were permitted only 10 hours of child care during the five days.

On this point, Joe declared himself already a better parent than I. "You'd use up 10 hours the first day," he said in a highly inaccurate reference to my work schedule. But I did not take offense, because Joe was growing more and more irritable as he discovered the sacrifices of being a parent.

"I am trapped in this house," he howled. "I can't go anywhere without this baby." And I successfully restrained my impulse to tell my story of a baby boy who nursed every two hours.

"This is a ridiculous assignment," he continued at the top of his lungs. "There is no such thing as single fathers. Mothers always get stuck with the kids." And I decided it would be childish to grab the car keys and a credit card and disappear into the Florida Keys just to prove him wrong.

Unfortunately, this assignment was an opportunity for a number of these sexual stereotypes to exhibit themselves.

For example, the girls dressed their bags of flour in adorable baby clothes, while the boys wrapped theirs in duct tape to prevent the spillage that might result from mistreatment.

The girls nestled their children in baby blankets and little wicker carry-alls while the boys carted their children around in the plastic grocery bags that are the scourge of recent anti-litter campaigns.

One girl decorated her bag of flour with synthetic corn rows and covered them with a cap of kente cloth. Another dressed hers in a frilly sunbonnet. One girl brought a change of clothes, and another had her aunt crochet a custom-fitted outfit for her baby.

I observed this with apprehension. "These girls are liking this assignment a little too much," I said warily to a teacher.

In contrast, one boy never removed his baby from his backpack and another left his behind, naked, in math class. That child was rescued and placed in foster care. It occurred to me that my son might have been right about single fathers.

"I wanted them to experience the immense amount of responsibility involved in meeting the needs of a child," said science teacher Sherry Ross.

"They said it was a pain; it was embarrassing. Not one of them said it was fun. Maybe this will give them a little bit of information they need to make decisions later in life."

Ross intentionally made her students single parents. "And they decided on their own that this assignment would have been easier with a partner," she said.

"I wanted them to understand that being a parent is a hard job and make their own connection to 'Look, you don't want to do this.'

"I told them when they are in the dark with a date and the pressure is on, I hope they remember back to Mrs. Ross' science class."

Will a long week caring for a helpless and dependent bag of flour serve as aversion therapy for sex?

I hope so.

But I worry that when hormones flood these kids, all they will recall is a distant and indistinct aversion to baking.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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