If You Give A Teen A “Baby”… | Vol. 3 / No. 44.5

Time for some parenting! | Photo: Chris Dlugosz, CC BY 2.0

If you believe young adult novels and television, every child or teen in America has had a similar experience when it comes to sex ed: the teacher pairs two classmates (usually sworn enemies) and they must “parent” a bag of flour, or an egg, or a crying baby doll from the uncanny valley. There is a series of mishaps and sleepless nights, and the two classmates Grow as People, and also realize that being a parent is Super Hard.

Every child in America that is, except me. For whatever reason, my schools never did the flour/egg thing, and the uncanny-valley dolls were reserved for high school students in an advanced Family and Consumer Science (aka, home ec) class. I felt weirdly cheated, as if I was missing out on a communal experience of growth. Didn’t anyone care if I became a teenage pregnancy statistic? (I was in no danger of becoming a teenage pregnancy statistic, and they probably knew that. Teenage Elle did not bring all the boys to the yard.)

However, according to a new study coming out of Australia, it turns out that it’s a good thing that I didn’t get this experience, as it actually would have likely increased my chances of becoming a teenage pregnancy statistic. The study found that girls who are in programs that use the electronic baby dolls are actually thirty-six percent more likely to become pregnant by the time they are twenty. The dolls are meant to simulate “real” parenthood in that they cry, need attention for changing and feeding, and also sometimes just fuss for NO GODDAMN REASON OH MY GOD, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? (According to the kids in the advanced FACS class in my school, they also recorded your reaction times and other reactions– they keep track of how long it takes you to respond to a cry, and shaking the baby in frustration leads to an instant F.) The concept is somewhat similar to a “Scared Straight” program, where stress and intimidation are used as motivating factors to show students what life is like in the “real world.”

I haven’t read the original study, because I am poor and don’t have $30 to blow on a Lancet article, but a synopsis by Paige Cornwell explains that the researchers believe that the failure of the fake baby program probably comes from a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Australian program did not involve boys (even though having a baby the “old fashioned way” rather strongly requires male participation and ideally so would parenthood in a heterosexual pairing), the idea that many students may have already made up their minds about parenthood by the time they reach secondary school (if so… how?/why?), and the fact that the students with the dolls get positive attention from peers, which accentuates the positive aspects of parenthood while decreasing the negative aspects.

To these I would add: Scared Straight programs don’t work. It’s been repeatedly shown that positive prevention works better than negative reinforcement. Teaching teenagers that having babies is terrifying is not the same thing as preparing teenagers for life. And really, a doll can’t possibly be as terrifying as an actual child anyway. The doll can’t develop whooping cough from an unvaccinated classmate. A doll can’t inherit a genetic disorder you didn’t even realize you had, leading to multiple doctor visits where the doctor doesn’t believe you because you’re a “hysterical mother.” A crying doll, no matter how annoying, cannot possibly equal the experience of having a real child. But if a teenage girl thinks that it does, and thinks that managing to get a good grade with a fake doll is the same thing as being a parent? She might think she’s totally prepared to be a parent. She would be wrong, but this is what she might think.

But guess what totally does help avoid teenage pregnancy? Accurate sex education, and access to contraception! (Weird, right?)  In the neighboring square state of Colorado, providing free long-term contraception made both the teen pregnancy rate and the abortion rate drop by roughly 40%. (Which, of course, is why the Republican legislature decided to celebrate the success of the program by denying funding to that program. At least partly because they didn’t like the fact that providing contraception helped teenagers avoid some of the risks of sex. Like pregnancy. Goddamnit.) In a similar vein, the GOP will probably block Obama’s budget plan that deprives abstinence-only programs of government funding because said programs don’t effing work. But why take a realistic approach to teen pregnancy when you can toss a $1000 fake baby at a teenager and tell her to keep an aspirin between her knees?

In an ideal world, conservative lawmakers will see all of their cherished bastions of “morally decent” anti-pregnancy measures (abstinence-only education, fake dolls, scary sex talks) continue to fail and will come to their senses and fund contraception/education-focused pregnancy prevention programs.

Since we don’t live in that world, and they will never come to their senses, will you all do me a favor and freaking vote in your local elections? Because it’s pretty clear that painting a face on an egg isn’t cutting it.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to convince everyone of the ways that do and don’t work to prevent teen pregnancy, she studies gender in popular culture.


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