JASPER, Ind. — Brenda Allen offers the students in her child development classes a crash course in parenthood, complete with sleepless nights, bottles and dirty diapers.
For 48 hours during the semester, each student takes home a mechanical baby doll that imitates a newborn. The dolls contain a computer system that makes them cry at various intervals and decides whether the baby is hungry, needs to be burped, needs a diaper change or just wants to be held. Students wear a computerized bracelet that they have to swipe over the baby when it cries so the computer system can record that it is indeed the student doing the work and not a baby sitter. Sensors in the doll also record the doll’s head position and whether it’s been put down on its stomach or back.
At the end of the 48 hours, Allen receives a report. If the doll was ignored, placed on its stomach or had its head tilted too far back, the student loses points.
It’s a project that teaches real life unlike others, and it’s the reason a lot of students take Allen’s class.
Sophomore Lyric Darling couldn’t wait to have the doll. From Day One, she nagged Brenda, asking when they’d get the dolls. When it was time for the assignment, she was one of the first to sign up. Lyric has a handful of siblings, both older and younger. She thought the doll would be fun, but it brought her nothing but tears.
“It cried all the time,” Lyric said. “I got like four hours of sleep the whole weekend. I’m never having kids.”
She wasn’t a fan of the empathy belly either.
“My back already hurts,” she said after walking down a staircase in the school, clutching the belly up and walking sideways down the stairs, holding onto the railing for dear life. “I couldn’t do this for nine months.”
Navigating a staircase was just one task students had to complete while weighed down by the belly — a canvas contraption that has two shot-put shaped weights near the pelvis and hot water bottles in the breast pockets to mimic a pregnant body. Students also have to finagle their way through a bathroom stall, sit in a comfy couch in the classroom that engulfs people, tie their shoes and pick up a piece of paper. Lyric struggled to bend over long enough to tie her shoe, laughing the whole time.
Students who take Allen’s child development class learn more about the birds and the bees than their classmates who get their sex education from health class. In child development, the students learn reproductive anatomy, go in depth about contraceptives and get a glimpse of what pregnancy and childbirth are like through the empathy belly and mechanical dolls.
Regular sex education is not as detailed, sophomore Seth Klem said. Research backs up his observation. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive rights, sex education is not required by law in Indiana, although HIV/AIDS education is. In schools where sex education is taught, the Guttmacher Institute found, the information must stress abstinence and be medically accurate and age appropriate. It need not, however, cover contraceptives, sexual orientation, negative consequences of teen pregnancy or include life skills to avoid coercion or promote healthy decision-making and family communication.
Allen covers most of the topics sex education misses, and the mechanical dolls almost force students and parents to communicate about parenthood and pregnancy. Allen said she gets a lot of positive feedback on the project from parents.
Junior Anna Becher took the doll along when she and her mother, Chris, went to pick up pumpkins in October. Anna opted to just sit in the car with the doll while her mom selected pumpkins. She thought if she had a real baby, she would have gotten out of the car and taken the baby with her. The doll is just too awkward.
“A real baby isn’t as weird to carry around in public,” Anna said.
Apart from the pumpkin outing, Anna spent most of her weekend with the doll at home. She missed out on a camping trip with her friends because of the doll. For her, that was the worst part.
Sophomore Riley Prechtel missed out on fun with her friends when she had the doll, too. While her pals visited a haunted house, Riley sat at home with the doll, watching her friends via SnapChat.
“Seeing pictures of them having fun while I was sitting at home is not really what I wanted to do,” Riley said.
Riley didn’t let the doll steal her whole weekend, though. She took it with her to a football game one night and to a church picnic in St. Anthony. Overall, she said, she had a good experience and still wants children when she’s older. She figures her real children will be “a little” harder than the doll.
“The diapers are actually going to be poopy, and you have to buy diapers,” she said.
Forest Park isn’t the only school to use mechanical dolls in classes. Locally, students at Jasper and Northeast Dubois get to take dolls home, and similar dolls are used throughout the developed world. Opinions differ on whether the dolls are an effective deterrent to teen pregnancy, however. A study published in The Lancet health journal followed 1,267 girls with the dolls and 1,567 girls without the dolls at 57 schools in Perth, Australia, for three years. The study found that the girls who had the dolls showed a higher percentage of births and abortions than the girls without. Researchers had several possible explanations for the results.
Janette Collins, a youth counselor in London, told the Washington Post that she sees similar results to those found in the Australian study among the girls she works with. The girls who score well on the assignment will get pregnant sooner because the project has accidentally taught them that they can handle it. The Australian researchers hypothesized that part of the problem is the assignments with the dolls largely leave teen boys out because they don’t often take the classes that use the dolls (Brenda has three boys in her class right now, and that’s a high number). The students’ peers also often offer positive attention to the students with the dolls at a time in life when the students crave attention, the researchers said.
Freshman Kenlee Gelhausen received some positive attention from her teammates on the junior varsity basketball team during her weekend with the baby in November. She sat in the stands with the baby in the carrier near her feet when the baby started to cry. Her teammates crowded around her, and freshman Katelyn Englert wielded the baby bottle, eager to help. Kenlee tried the bottle, but that didn’t stop the crying. She tried burping the doll and checked the diaper. Nothing worked.
“I hate my life right now,” Kenlee said.
After five minutes of the doll’s cries and looks from others in the stands, Kenlee tried the bottle again. That time, it worked. The baby stopped crying and started making suckling sounds.
The look on Kenlee’s face intimated that the peek at parental life was exasperating.
Yet both the Australian researchers and Collins said the babies are not good portrayals of parenthood. Brenda disagrees. She thinks her students come back with a basic understanding of what caring for a baby will be like, and a lot of students will come back with the realization that they are not ready to be parents.
“In their journals they’ll say, ‘I’m not ready for this. I want to enjoy my teenage years,'” Brenda said. “Sometimes they write that they were frustrated because it was crying, and they couldn’t get it to stop.”
Seth felt that frustration during his weekend with the baby. On Friday night, the baby cried at 11:30 p.m., 2:30 a.m., 3:50 a.m. and 5 a.m. After 5 a.m., Seth gave up trying to sleep and just stayed awake.
“I was very frustrated,” he said. “I learned not to have kids at a young age.”
Still, Brenda has had students who complete the class but become pregnant. Last year, she said, two of her seniors became pregnant.
While teen pregnancy is present in Indiana, the state falls in the middle statistically among all 50 states. In 2011, the latest year for which data is available, the Guttmacher Institute found 49 teen pregnancies per 1,000 teens. Seven states fell in the range below Indiana with fewer pregnancies. Of those states, Maine, Vermont and Utah legislate more comprehensive sex education than Indiana, according to research by Guttmacher. Brenda has been teaching for 32 years and said she’s seen a handful of teen pregnancies during that time. The youngest expectant mother she’s seen was in eighth grade.
“You’re still going to have students that are sexually active,” Brenda said. “The doll doesn’t even cross their minds.”
This will be Brenda’s last year with the dolls, as she plans to retire at the end of this school year. She expects the mechanical dolls will continue to be part of the child development curriculum with the next teacher.
She’s seen an increase in using the dolls across the state with discussions she’s had with other child development teachers, and programs at other schools see success with the project.
“Everyone I know around the state that uses the dolls, it’s just nothing but positive feedback,” she said.
Students who put child development in their schedules will just have to be ready for a couple sleepless nights.