Baby Experiment Fights Teen Pregnancy

Nov 24, 2008

There are lots of ways parents -- and sometimes schools -- try to prevent teen pregnancy. They may suggest abstinence or the use of condoms. But some people argue the best way to get through to teens is to give them a taste of what it's like to be young parent.

Ann-Elise Henzl reports on a program that's underway in Whitefish Bay and some other school districts.

A few weeks ago, the 13-year-old daughter of a friend of mine told me she'd have to take home a life-sized baby doll overnight as an assignment for her health class. Hallie Mellendorf, who's in eighth grade, said the high-tech baby has a computer inside, that's programmed to make fussing and crying sounds until she figures out how to calm the baby down.

I asked her if I could watch the experiment unfold. So I was at Whitefish Bay Middle School when health teacher Roberta Stadler got ready to hand off the baby.

Roberta Stadler: "Alright, what wrist do you want that on?"
Hallie Mellendorf: "I'll do the right one."
Stadler: "So this is where you're going to be carrying the baby -- with this, supporting with this arm?"

Stadler puts what looks like a hospital bracelet around Hallie's wrist. It has a sensor that will allow her and only her to care for the baby. When the doll starts to cry, Hallie will have to scan her wrist against the baby's back until the doll makes a chiming sound.

Stadler: "Okay, what's the first thing you want to do when the baby starts going off..."
Hallie: "Chime it."
Stadler: "Chime it. You identify yourself as the parent, and then you're ready to go as far as figuring out why the baby's crying."

The baby might be programmed to be hungry. If so, Hallie will have to hold a bottle to its lips. Or its diaper might need to be changed. A computer printout the next day will show how well Hallie has met the baby's needs.

Stadler: "She is ready to go off Monday to Tuesday. I'm not telling you the times because that would be a surprise."

Hallie tentatively lifts the carrier and the diaper bag, and walks to study hall, heavy books also in tow. The baby won't do anything for a few hours. That would be too distracting, during class. But at basketball practice after school the doll, who's in its carrier near the bleachers, starts to cry. Hallie and a friend run over to try to figure out what to do.

Hallie and friend: "What the freak? Oh my God -- did it chime already? Okay, okay, okay, try rocking it. Take the pants off, Take the pants off! I honestly didn't hear it chime..."

Hallie runs through the routine, trying everything the teacher told her. Finally, she changes the diaper, and the crying stops.

Hallie: "That's okay creepy little baby, it's all good now. Thank God!"

After practice, Hallie heads outside where her sister Celia, who's 12, and her mom Cynthia Hoffman, are waiting to pick her up.

Cynthia Hoffman: "Hello, alright let's meet this baby..."
Hallie: "Please, I want to get home before it goes off!"

There's another round of crying.

Hallie: "Shoot! Diaper!"

And a quick diaper change when they get home. Then after more crying at dinner, Hallie has to tend to the baby instead of feeding herself. But while Hallie is getting frustrated, she's also chuckling a bit, because she thinks the experiment is kind of amusing.

Ann-Elise Henzl: "So Cynthia, as a parent, what do you think about this project?"
Hoffman: "Well, I'm quite curious to see how you react once the novelty wears off."

The novelty is gone by about 11 o'clock, after the baby has cried a few more times, and Hallie has been in bed for an hour.

Hallie: "Oh my God, and it's feeding, it's going to take forever. What kind of baby eats at 10 o'clock at night? Okay? Seriously, I was almost asleep, I was almost asleep. Okay, we're laying down while you eat baby, you understand?"

I decide it's time to go home and get some rest, and leave Hallie on her own. But I stop by the next day, to find out how the rest of the night went.

Henzl: "Good morning."
Hoffman: "How are you?"
Henzl: "How are you?"

Hallie says the baby cried multiple times including once, when she couldn't figure out how to make it happy.

Hallie: "I brought her up to Mom because I had no idea what to do. I was like, 'Mom, just take it, she won't stop.' She was just like, 'well you're doing the right thing, keep going.' Then she pulled the covers over her head. You're a real help, Mom!"

Hallie's teacher says the teen pregnancy prevention assignment takes place during eighth grade because that's a time when kids are easily influenced, and likely to make bad decisions. Hallie says before she decides to have sex, she'll remember what it would be like to care for an infant.

Hallie: "Like you think it's going to be fun and you actually get it and it's just totally different. Like it's cute, but it comes with a whole package of stuff that you just didn't want it to."