Hard lessons learned from computerized doll Parenthood: A realistic device gives young adults a chance to see how much work an infant can be.

June 24, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Donell "Duck" White is 20 years old, a month away from his high school diploma, and he has a world of choices to make. Should he become a carpenter or an electrician? Or maybe do computer work now to finance more education later?

No question marks are attached to one decision, however: No children. Not for a long time. Not until he is settled with a solid job. "They cost some money -- Pampers, booties, clothes. And they keep growing, growing, growing," White says firmly. "I'd be stuck -- I don't want to be stuck."

His conviction springs from a long weekend -- very long, to hear him describe it -- with a doll named Baby Think It Over. The lifelike dolls are the centerpiece of an intensive Baltimore County program designed to promote responsible sexual behavior among 16- to 21-year olds, such as White, in foster care.

The computerized doll -- designed by an aerospace engineer who has sold it to schools and social service programs -- can be programmed to cry at random intervals. To quiet it, the caregiver must put a key into a tamper-resistant box in the doll's back and hold it there for one to 30 minutes. (The doll cries once to signal that the key can come out.)

The box also records how many times the doll cried for more than a minute without being picked up, and how often it was dropped or handled roughly. The doll can't be handed off to someone else because the key is attached to the caregiver's wrist with a band that must be cut off.

Each doll weighs about 7 pounds, is 21 inches long and costs about $250.

It's money well spent, says Aimee Bollinger Smith, director of the independent living program with the county's Department of Social Services, because the dolls make the point: Babies are a lot of hard work.

"Some of them really think that 'this baby is just going to pop out and love me,' " Smith says of her young clients. "It really hasn't dawned on them that the baby's life is not about them."

The program also teaches teen-agers and young adults in foster care such basic skills as finding apartments, budgeting and job hunting, counseling between 60 and 80 young clients each month.

Before handing out the dolls, Smith requires participants to scan advertising circulars from Wal-Mart and Kmart Corp. to figure out the cost of baby essentials for the first year -- diapers, clothes, cribs, carriers and medical care.

"The total comes up to $7,000 -- and they gasp," says Smith.

The dolls have traveled all over the county. After each doll returns, Smith tabulates the results recorded in the box in each doll's back. If the doll shows neglect or abuse, its "parent" gets additional counseling.

The dolls are in their fifth generation, according to the manufacturer. The newest model comes with a neck that must be supported (and a computer chip in the box that records how often it wasn't).

Baltimore County's social services department owns eight of them: two white, two light-skinned black, two dark-skinned black, and two Asian. The doll also is available in an American Indian version and a "crack baby" model that cries nearly constantly.

Baby Think It Over originated in California in 1993, when aerospace engineer Rick Jurmain and his wife Mary were watching a television program about schools using eggs and sacks of flour to simulate babies.

Remembering miserable nights with their colicky infant daughter, Jurmain told his wife, "That's not realistic -- there's no crying," according to Carol Lambert, spokeswoman for Baby Think It Over Inc. His wife challenged him to design something closer to the real thing -- and Baby Think It Over was born in the Jurmains' garage a few weeks later.

The company, headquartered in Eau Claire, Wis., has grown steadily since incorporating in 1993, and Baby Think It Over has sold about 40,000 dolls.

"We know over one million kids have gone through the program," Lambert said. "It's grown from just the babies to work sheets, budgets, diaries, pretests and post-tests."

Those tests measure attitudes of participants before and after they take care of Baby Think It Over.

Smith, the Baltimore County independent-living coordinator, said the results generally show a dramatic change of heart about having children too quickly.

"We've had very interesting comments from the girls -- one girl was back in here the very next day, saying "I can't do this,' " Smith said.

The girls also are often shocked to discover that boyfriends vanish when Baby Think It Over comes for the weekend. "Many of them think this is going to be a genuine bonding experience, especially with their lover," Smith said. Instead, the boyfriends often find other things to do -- and that message is not lost on the girls, Smith says.

The dolls work equally well for would-be fathers.

"The initial reaction was, it was something novel the first 20 hours, they got a lot of attention. By the second day, it was really wearing on them, all that crying," said Richard "Benny" Bienvenue, director of Our House in Ellicott City, where White and three other residents went through the Baby Think It Over program in October.

"They're beginning to see some of the reality of having a kid -- you can't go to a party on Friday night. They're beginning to realize what a lot of work it is."

No long-term studies have been conducted to measure the duration of attitude changes wrought by Baby Think It Over. But educators in Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Baltimore City schools where the doll has been used say the anecdotal evidence suggests the lessons linger.

They have for Donell White.

"You want to learn something about responsibility, you get yourself one of those dolls," he said, recalling his experience eight months ago.

"That doll was something else."

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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