Bridal Shop

A new version of home economics class has arrived, and it involves a marriage-simulation project designed to teach teens about the responsibilities that come with starting a family.

May 06, 2002|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like many couples, Patricia Ellinger and Antwon Hinkson had trouble agreeing on a name for their unborn child. He liked Marie, she wanted Alyssa.

They argued and discussed for two days until deciding on Alyssa Marie. It seemed like the perfect compromise, Patricia said, and it was the first of many issues they would face.

But, unlike most couples, their "baby" would be a 5-pound sack of flour.

Patricia, a junior, and Antwon, a senior, aren't really a couple but are high school classmates who took part in a monthlong marriage-simulation project in their elective psychology class at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County.

"Married" as teen-agers, students in two upper-level psychology classes learned some lessons of married life without actually taking the plunge. The goal is to teach students that there's more to marriage than it may seem.

"It's not all about Prince Charming arriving on a white charger," said psychology teacher Lorna Klingner, who has been running the simulations for 19 years. "There can be a lot of work and a lot of stressful situations involved in all the issues that come up in a lifetime together."

The idea for the marriage project began two decades ago with Connie Evans, a psychology teacher at Howard High School.

"At the time, the divorce rate was soaring," Evans said. "According to the data I have, the divorce rate peaked in 1981, but 60 percent of all first marriages still end in divorce today."

Evans thought that if people were aware of the problems they might face in married life, and learned how to discuss them, more marriages would succeed.

"From what I could see, there wasn't any preparation for getting married," she said. "If you were pregnant, there were childbirth classes, then books about child rearing. But nothing about the issues married couples face."

It was important to present situations to students that might cause conflicts in married life, said Evans, who wrote the original marriage-simulation project. The program is popular, growing by word-of-mouth among students, and is used by at least seven schools, said Mark Stout, social studies supervisor for the Howard County Board of Education.

Nationally, an estimated 2,000 schools now offer formal instruction on marriage and relationship skills and "this number is growing," according to a recent report by New York's Institute for American Values, a marriage advocacy group. Florida requires "marriage and relationship skills" education for all high school students. And the Bush administration, which is trying to encourage marriage among the poor, wants to give states money to promote and maintain marriage through classes and counseling.

As in real life, Patricia and Antwon's simulated marriage began with a ceremony, appropriately on Valentine's Day. They were among 30 "couples" at Oakland Mills participating in the project.

Nervous "grooms" straightened their ties, and blushing "brides" fixed their makeup before joining hands and promising to "work together and compromise until we are parted at the end of this project."

And as in life, the effort didn't end with the last notes of the bridal recessional. After the ceremony and reception, the real work began.

Students were required to work together to "find jobs" in entry-level positions that interested them. They needed to find housing in neighborhoods where they would want to live and then furnish their homes - within or close to their budget. Of course, the students did not actually sign leases or buy furniture, but they had to acquire rental agreements and window-shop, not simply look through catalogs.

"For many, this is their first pass through some of life's realities," Klingner said.

As if that weren't enough, then came the "babies." About one week into the project, all couples were assigned "babies." The number and sexes were selected at random, with one member of the couple choosing from a hat a slip of paper that would decide their future.

Patricia and Antwon became "parents" of a baby girl after buying their 5-pound sack of flour.

Patricia spent hours, she said, turning her flour sack into her own. She applied duct tape and used stockings for arms, legs and a head. She made the hair and ironed on a face. She dressed it in clothes that an aunt provided.

Some students went further and for extra credit went to school "pregnant" for two days. Kate Finnegan, a senior, found the pregnancy hard on her back because the weight of the bicycle helmet she wore under her sweatshirt pulled her forward.

She also said it was a bit embarrassing to be in her "condition."

"Some people thought I was really pregnant," she said. "It was weird."

After the "birth" of their children, Patricia, Antwon, Kate and their classmates were required to care for the infants as if they were real.

"Some students actually asked me if they had to bring their babies to school on the days they don't have this class," Klingner said. "As in life, the babies are not something you can leave at home in the closet."

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