EPISODE #51

Real Teens, Fake Babies

EPISODE #51

Real Teens, Fake Babies

Welcome to the fourth and final episode of our Sex & Parenthood series!
We are proud to conclude the series as a co-production with the wonderful This American Life. Sex & Parenthood has generated some amazingly deep conversations about a topic we rarely talk about in a real way. Check out parts one, two, and three of the series and join the conversations in the comments!

Now, on to our story.
Did your high school health teacher ever try to teach you the risks of sex by making you carry around an egg and pretend it was a baby? These days, the pretending isn’t as much of a stretch. Lots of schools are opting to use robotic babies that cry throughout the day and night just like a real infant.

egg-squarebaby-closeup-square

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We followed two girls at Glen Ridge High School in Glen Ridge, New Jersey through their 48-hour stints with the babies.

Paige was brimming with maternal affection for her fake baby

Paige was brimming with maternal affection for her fake baby

Rachel just thought it would make for a fun story

Rachel just thought it would make for a fun story

Paige (left) identifies as Christian and conservative, and thinks premarital sex is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Rachel (right) identifies as bisexual and liberal, and thinks premarital sex is fine as long as it is consensual.

The babies accompanied the girls through their classes, and they had to stop whatever they were doing to feed, change, burp, and rock the babies each time they cried. (The cries, by the way, are pretty urgent—they are recordings of actual babies crying.)

Paige-gym-square-2Rachel-drama-square

But, like with real parenting, there were times when the girls couldn’t attend to their babies. For Rachel, it was when she was donating to the blood drive.

The baby looks peaceful here but it is screaming its little plastic head off

The baby looks peaceful here but it is screaming its little plastic head off

Paige’s most dramatic moment happened, literally, in drama club. I don’t want to give it away. But here are some hints.

Paige-EMS-squarePaige-drama-2-square

Listen to the story to hear how the girls managed the pressure of being woken up by a screaming robot all night long. And how just two nights with those robots impacted their feelings about sex … and motherhood.

Resources for talking to kids about sex
Check out our posts with great websites and books for talking to your kids about sex (or just pointing your teenager in the right direction).

Did YOU have to carry around an egg in high school?
Was it fun? Disastrous? Did it change your thoughts on sex or parenthood? Tell us EVERYTHING. Down there, in the comments. (We’d also love to hear from kids and parents of kids who have used the fake babies!)

CORRECTION: In the original intro to this story, I said that the electronic babies cost over $1000 each, including their accessories. The correct number is over $600.

Thanks to BWN, Podington Bear, Anthony Barilla & Merel van Dijk for music in this episode.

86 thoughts on “EPISODE #51: Real Teens, Fake Babies

  1. This story really cracked me up, because I too had a very similar experience in high school, around 1998 (I’m 32). In those days, as Kim & Adeline said above, only a few temperaments were pre-programmed into the dolls and all it took to quiet them was holding a key in its back , although the duration differed with each reason for the crying. It was well known at my school that one of the babies was a “crack baby” and would cry more often – as luck would have it, that one was assigned to me. I still remember getting hardly any sleep during the night, the “feedings” taking a very long time and coming quite close together. There is a picture in our yearbook showing me sitting in drama club, holding the baby with a hat pulled down low over my eyes, that are clearly swollen and baggy. I haven’t had children yet, but will soon, and I can’t wait to see how realistic this exercise really was! ;)

  2. This story was sickly satisfying because of how much I hated doing the robotic baby program in school. I had two opportunities to do it, once in middle school, and once in high school. I passed in high school because of my middle school experience. The first night, I gave up, and cut off the key and gave it to my sister to deal with (she was still in elementary school, and rocked it). I now have two children (1 yr and 3 yr), and newborn baby stage sucks every time. Granted, real babies take SO much more work, I think the robot babies are a good step in the right direction to educate. However, I think more programs where actual mothers (new and veterans) have a real talk about what it’s like to be a new mom, and all of the changes that happen (in your social life, to your body, with your relationships, etc). Maybe then we’d have less shame talking about how hard it is to be a mom, and teens (boys/girls) would have more realistic expectations. Even as a new mom in my twenties, I had so many, “why didn’t anyone tell me this?!” moments.

    1. Very much agreed! I am not a mother, but until I started listening to this podcast I felt like no one was being real with me about what motherhood is. Just like students have a career day, there should be days where moms come to schools and have open discussions with students about what their experience was/is really like. This honesty and transparency seems to be missing from the discussion about having kids, and having direct conversations at that age (that are in the middle ground between the “don’t have sex” or ” joys of motherhood” areas) would be immensely helpful.

  3. Great episode! A few observations:
    It would have been great to shadow a guy doing the project, in addition to girls. Hopefully the class/project was co-ed, and not just intended for future mothers…

    I had to carry a sack of flour around in middle school as part of health class, so I think it’s great that the scenario is a bit more realistic now. In addition to the plastic babies, I love one of the other commenter’s idea about encouraging these classes to have conversations with actual moms to get at the human side of parenting a bit more, as a complement to the dolls. Taking care of a plastic baby doesn’t really get you much insight into the social, physical, and relationship changes that take place. It also doesn’t get at the rewarding part or the love. Also, in spite of the fact that it was considered “cheating,” I actually love that the girls figured out how to arrange “childcare” for their plastic kids (by taking the bracelet off and enlisting willing friends) because that’s the reality of being a parent – you can’t do it all alone.

    Side point, there are plenty of people who identify as Christian who don’t consider purity rings and abstinence-until-marriage to be part of their identity as Christians. I know just as many people who would describe themselves the way Rachel is described (liberal, bisexual, etc.) who would also describe themselves as Christian as I know people who lean toward the more conservative characterization of “Christian.”

  4. I am listening to the podcast real teens, fake babies where teenagers get robot babies. I don’t understand what the purpose is. I don’t see what fake babies have to do with learning about real babies. I never really cared about babies until I had my own. You don’t have the hormones and the motivation for it. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted a fake baby when I was 17.

    If this should encourage kids to abstain, forget it. A lot of them will do it anyway and think that it won’t happen to them. They will hide it from there parents and will take more risks. Like a girls parking with a guy whom she only wants to kiss and she will get pressured to do more.

    In the Netherlands where I’m from, there’s an annual safe sex campaign that is aimed at teenagers. They are always really great, clear, in teen speak and not patronising and uncool.
    Before I really knew what sex was I knew it was something with a condom.

    At my Catholic high school there was an anti aids campaign when we were about 14,15. They thought us a lot about sex and STDs. We had to ask each other questions about sex (we got cards with questions to ask) and practised rolling a condom over our fingers. Of course there was a lot of nervous laughter, sweating and red heads during those classes, but we all understood the importance.

    Oh no they are actually graded for those robot babies! Do guys get those robot babies too? Or do they get graded for assembling Ikea baby furniture?
    Is part of the ‘abstain only’ campaign?

    I always practised safe sex as have many of my friends. Whenever a relationship became serious you both got tested for STDs and then you only needed the pill. I got the anti baby pill when I was 15. I told my mother it was so I wouldn’t have to miss school because of very painful period cramps, I could plan my periods in the weekend and stay in bed then. That was of course only part of the reason. I thought pill & condom would be the best way to have safe sex when the time came.

    I am not sure about the exact numbers but the Netherlands have (one of) the lowest rate(s) of teen pregnancy!

    I am happy that I had al the information and that I could have the right amount of safe sex for me before I settled down. I think virginity is not such a big deal. For me thinking of marrying someone when we were both virgins is a horror scenario. How do you know what you like when you haven’t experimented? How do you know if you are sexually compatible and will never be curious about being with someone else. And how do you know how to do it when you haven’t had any information. At least now there is the internet…

    I will definitely get age appropriate books about sexuality and reproduction for my children and will start talking about it when they are about 9 or earlier when they want. Like the mum of Callum.

    1. Love this! Sounds like the Netherlands is doing it right. American Catholic schools would have a fit if they had to teach an anti-AIDS campaign that included talking about sex, STDs, and condoms!

  5. Are these projects meant only for girls. I really hope that is not the case because that would be really disappointing, not to mention the kind of message that would send out. If that is not the case, i think you should have included a male teen’s experience too. It would have been interesting to hear how they react to the pressure.

    1. Hi Himani — No, boys (and a trans student) participated in the project. We talked to some male students but ultimately felt that the personality differences between Rachel and Paige made for a more compelling story than any of the gender differences we observed.

  6. This was a great podcast, just heard it now via This American Life. I was listening to Paige and Rachel talk and thinking how intelligent and funny they were, and how kids in general these days seem so much more mature than we were. I mean, yeah, I’m a guy but still, to me it seemed like in high school we were all a bunch of immature idiots.
    My wife and I waited until our 30s to have our first child, who is 17 months old now. And that was the right choice for us. No way was I mature enough even in my 20s to handle a baby. Our baby is healthy but was SUPER colicky for the first 8 months and it was extremely tough. Like all three of us were crying together at 3am type of tough. But we are past that, and the entire experience of being a parent, and the idea of this little life that we created, that is learning the world around him so fast…it’s indescribable. I’m glad though that the programs continue to improve for teaching high schoolers about birth control and being responsible, what it’s like to be a parent. Having a child is great, but life goes by SO fast. You will be done with school and in your 20s in the blink of an eye. Enjoy your youth and have kids later.

  7. This is pretty hilarious. If they want a real challenge someone should invent a 2 or 3 year old doll that walks around and tries to kill itself.

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