Early Teen Parenting 101
The first assignment is to learn how to be totally responsible for filling another creature's needs. And yes, there is a test.
Thursday, June 8, 2000
Last month, over 50 local kids between the ages of 12 and 14 had the privilege of experiencing parenthood.
Their initial responses to the prodigious event were mixed. Some of them were excited about their new charges and thrilled by the idea of holding the future in their hands. Others worried about what sort of parents they would make. And after only a weekend with their babies, most of them were completely overwhelmed. The babies woke them up crying. During the days, they naturally needed attention--food, diaper changes, comforting--and they cried even louder and longer than at night.
But that''s the point. It''s all part of a countywide teen pregnancy prevention program called POSTPONE that started appearing in Monterey County high schools three years ago. The "babies" are lifelike dolls with computer chips, the commitment to "parenting" only a weekend long. But it''s close enough to the real thing to make kids think hard about the consequences of early unprotected sex.
In May, El Sausal Middle School in Salinas became the first middle school in the county to take advantage of the acclaimed program, which has come to Everett Alvarez and Alisal high schools in Salinas, as well as Greenfield High School and San Ardo Union School. Although El Sausal has not had any mothers among its middle school students, other schools have. Last year in Monterey County, 13 babies were born to girls between the ages of 13 and 15. And statistically speaking, the school is at risk; 85 percent of teen mothers in this county are Hispanic, and El Sausal''s student body is primarily Hispanic.
Liz Sanchez, community liaison for El Sausal Middle School, has worked closely with POSTPONE and pushed for its incorporation into the school''s seventh- and eighth-grade curricula. She says middle school is the time for children to learn about the struggles of teen pregnancy and parenting, while they''re becoming aware of sex.
"Once they see the reality, they change," she observes. "Some of these kids say, ''I won''t like to have a baby.'' The program is very positive, and parents say the program is amazing."
The program does not directly promote abstinence or other methods of contraception, but simply gives kids an opportunity to know how it feels to be a parent and what is involved. Whether mandated by a classroom or on a volunteer basis, students are issued a "Baby Think it Over" doll for a few days, along with a car seat, diaper and diaper bag, all of which make everyday activities like riding a bus or going to the mall a powerful educational tool--and a big pain.
But these dolls are a significant departure from the old carry-a-sack-of-flour-around model of parenthood awareness training. Every "Baby Think It Over" doll contains a computerized box that "cries" and detects when it is picked up, whether its head was supported, whether it has been handled roughly and if it has been shaken. All these and other signs of attention, like regular diaper changes and rocking, are recorded in the box, revealing to teachers the diligent and the neglectful alike.
"This is the most effective tool I have ever witnessed. And I''ve been working in public health for 15 years," says POSTPONE Project Coordinator Bonnie Holmer.
"With one weekend, attitudes nearly change about pregnancy," agrees Pam Bonsper, who works as POSTPONE''s project assistant. "Students have the experience of feeling responsible and being tied to someone."
There''s another catch to "Baby Think It Over." Each student has a key, tied to his or her wrist, which must be inserted into the back of the doll and held there to calm it when it cries. Sometimes the needy doll can cry for up to half an hour. Once the baby coos, signaling contentment, the key may be taken out. This forces students to care for the doll instead of relying on parents, siblings or friends to do the dirty work. And it is a challenge.
"It''s hard to take care of the baby," says Monica, an eighth grader at El Sausal. "The first night, it cried 10 times."
Monica says though the doll was difficult at times, she has had experience caring for infant family members, and thinks the program is good for students her age.
"It makes people think of not having kids," she figures.
Boys get to weigh in, too. "It was hard, because I had to wake up at night and take care of it," says Sotero, a seventh grader. Sotero reports that he enjoyed learning how to take care of babies, and he carried his doll everywhere. "The easiest part was changing the diaper," he confesses.
POSTPONE gladly runs programs for schools, essentially renting out the "Baby Think It Over" dolls, but schools can also buy their own dolls, which cost about $250 each. The babies are available in different ethnicities, including Caucasian, African-American, Asian, American Indian, and Hispanic. For an even more sobering experience, fetal alcohol syndrome and drug-addicted baby dolls are also available, complete with underweight bodies and characteristic birth defects.
Currently, California has more teen births than any other state. Many teen mothers receive inadequate prenatal care, which leads to health and physical complications. Annually, California taxpayers dish out $7 billion for public assistance for families started by teenagers, according to estimates by the state health department.
Last year there were 321 births to teens in the county, compared to 370 in 1993, and there was an 8 percent reduction in teen births from 1998 to 1999. Hopefully the number will continue to drop. In the immediate aftermath of the El Sausal students'' experience, consensus seems to be that postponement of parenthood--and the activities leading up to it--is a good idea.
"Don''t make a mistake and have a ba-by," says Sotero bluntly. "Postpone sex."
For more information, contact Pam or Bonnie at the Monterey County Health Department at 755-4514 or visit the POSTPONE project online at http://www.postpone.org.