Teens learn parenthood with life-like babies

Chilliwack teens learn the challenges of parenthood with electronic babies that mimic the acts of real infants.

Chilliwack secondary has five electronic babies that students in the family management class are responsible for taking care of.

Sixteen-year-old Kasie Smith had never felt so much judgement in her life.

The teen had just sat down at a Chilliwack restaurant with her mom, sister, and new baby. Instantly, she felt the eyes of everyone in the establishment boring into her. She heard their hushed, but cutting criticisms.

She didn’t get smiles. Her baby didn’t get cutesy coos. Unlike most new moms, Kasie was made to feel they didn’t belong.

She tried ignoring it.

Shortly after their meals were served, the baby began to fuss. Kasie pushed her pangs of hunger aside to cradle, rock, feed her child – anything to calm the cries.

The heated, unsolicited comments grew louder.

“They kept giving me these dirty looks and saying you shouldn’t be a mom,” Kasie said. “But they kept talking around me, not to me.

“It was horrible.”

Kasie is a Grade 11 student at Chilliwack secondary taking a family management course. Her baby was not a real baby. It was an electronic RealCare Baby.

Gone are the eggs, sugar bags, stuffed dolls used previously for this course. RealCare Baby, which is similar in size and has a lot of the same mannerisms as a real infant, gives teens a comparable look at what being a mom at their age would be like.

They breathe, they coo, they burp, they cough, they fuss, they cry, they all out scream. It doesn’t matter what time of the day, whether the baby’s “parent” is in the middle of class, hanging out with friends, or sleeping – these babies have no time clock.

Just like real infants.

“Mine started screaming in science class,” said Grade 10 student Ceilidh Gillis.

“Mine was so bad, I fed it three times in a row for like 40 minutes each time; I wanted to throw it out the window,” said Grade 11 student Chelsea Nerbas.

Students couldn’t ignore their baby’s cries, or pass the baby off to a parent or friend. A computer sensor inside the baby, that only responds to the tamper-proof ID bracelet attached to the wrist of the student responsible for it, records every parent-baby interaction.

For three days, they were solely responsible for their baby, caring for it day and night.

That meant, social activities, after-school activities, sports, hobbies, even school were all impacted.

Just like the life of a real parent.

RealCare babies have a difficulty scale between one and 15, which was determined after its creators followed around 15 real infants. For CSS students, they typically had one easy – ish – day and one bad day.

Every second of crying is recorded, if the baby is rough handled, or picked up without providing head support, or kept in a car seat for too long, or not adequately clothed, that’s all documented and grades docked accordingly.

Ceilidh Gillis slept with her baby in the carseat next to her bed.

“I was so worried I wouldn’t get to it in time if it woke up crying in the middle of the night,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I got to her before she started full out screaming.”

Grade 10 student Meghan McCarthy wouldn’t let anyone hold her baby for fear they wouldn’t provide the necessary head support.

Another student fed her baby, while standing in the drive-thru line at McDonald’s. And another was pulled over by the police after strapping her baby’s carseat in the front seat of her mom’s car.

For teachers Christa VanKlei and Barb Kroeker, they hope RealCare Baby is the closest their students will get to becoming teen moms.

Kroeker pushed for the program after seeing the rise of teen pregnancies at Chilliwack secondary.

“This course needed some purpose,” said Kroeker. “A lot of girls would take this course because it was four easy credits, I wanted to give it meaning – show these kids what it’s like to be a teen mom.

“We had high rates of pregnancy here. I thought, let’s see how cool it is when you get woken up in the middle of the night.

“These babies look so life like,” said Kroeker. And because of that, students were given “a realistic look at what being a teen mom is like, and they experienced the way they’d viewed by the public as a teen mom.”