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Education and teenage pregnancy: Oh baby, that's too easy

The RealCare baby program, designed to discourage teen pregnancy by giving students a programmable doll, makes taking care of a baby look far too easy.

May 10, 2011

On Mother's Day, my daughter and her friend Jenny sat on our sofa rocking their baby dolls. It would have been an ordinary, sweet scene of children playing house, if Aviva and Jenny weren't teenagers.

Our affluent school district has a thing for gadgets. In some classes, students have instant-answer transmitters, paid for by the schools' fundraising foundation, that enable the teacher to find out instantly whether students understand the lesson. Less successful — and I'm being generous here — was the software that supposedly taught good writing. It would have failed F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And then, into our weekend came Sierra the programmable doll, which cries when it "needs" something — a fresh diaper, a bottle, burping or rocking. The RealCare Baby records everything that is or isn't done to it. The "bottle" utilizes a magnetic hookup to its vinyl lips. Much like a barcode, a device embedded in the diaper is duly noted by the doll's electronic innards, signaling that it's been changed. The head rolls back if not supported, and any failure on this score leads to simulated screaming, a computerized record of the infraction and a deduction of points. Throw it against the wall? Breakage is a flunk and financial catastrophe for the parents. (You can buy these babies used on EBay for about $500.)

Parents can't take over — well, more on that later — because the student wears an ID bracelet that has to be swiped across the doll's belly before it will accept care.

The idea of the program is to discourage teen pregnancy by giving students a taste of the lost sleep and sacrificed fun that go along with parenthood. From where I sat, it made babies look too easy by far. Slip a diaper under the tush, and the baby coos? Sure. It almost never screams unless abused or ignored. On what planet?

For me, the hardest parts of being a mother were the moments of insecurity, when it seemed as though my best efforts fell short. Was it time for the emergency room or a cool bath? Would anything stop the shrieking short of a ride in the car seat up and down the 405 Freeway? In later years, there was the uncertainty about how much discipline an infraction required, when to rescue, when to let them tough it out.

Aviva has no interest in ever being a mother, although two years ago she also scoffed at eye makeup and skinny jeans. She has big plans — writing bestselling novels while filling in for Ben Bernanke — and unsentimental ways.

But here she was on the couch, looking tortured because half an hour of inexpert and rather frantic patting of the doll's back had produced not a burp and a satisfied robo-coo but a painful cramp in her forearm and continued moans from Sierra. I did what any real-life grandmother would do: I got sneaky. The doll already had been "swiped." It would accept further care from anyone. I took Sierra. Two minutes of firm patting resulted in a belch.

The doll is programmed to complain for a predetermined period, regardless of burping technique. Still, it was satisfying: This was one more moment when I had delivered what my child needed. My own RealChild.

Karin Klein

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