Doll teaches a loud lesson about parenthood


KATIE McDANIEL has always loved babies. The 17-year-old Crofton girl is a favorite babysitter for all the neighborhood families. Toddlers jump with glee when they see Katie visit because they know she enjoys playing with little children.

Still, after spending a recent weekend caring for a computerized doll as part of her parenting class at South River High School, Katie said, "I'm not going to have a baby until I'm 50." Of course, she was laughing when she said it.

Still, her message is very clear: Even though she has friends who have become pregnant, Katie knows for sure that 17 is much too young to have a baby. She wants to wait a long time before she becomes a mother.

She received a taste of what parenthood is like through the Baby Think It Over (BTIO) Program, which is part of her "Decisions for Responsible Parenting" class at South River High. The BTIO "baby" is a plastic doll with a computer in its back. Each Friday afternoon, a student takes the BTIO home for the weekend, watching over the doll as if it were a real baby.

The computer tracks the student's parenting skills until Monday morning, when the teacher reads the computer output to determine the student's grade.

How does a computer know about parenting skills? The doll has sensors that detect when its head is not being supported and report when it has been shaken.

The BTIO also cries - a lot.

Every time the doll cries, the student is required to turn a key in its computer. Sometimes, that stops the crying. Sometimes, the BTIO keeps right on. Katie's 16-year-old sister, Colleen, called the crying "annoying."

But Katie couldn't ignore it, partly because it was annoying and partly because the computer was clocking every minute that she wasn't taking care of the crying doll.

Baby-sitting for a few hours is one thing, but Katie said that a whole weekend of baby watching was quite a different experience.

She said she took the BTIO everywhere, even to the mall. It was a hassle to have to use the car seat every time she went anywhere. It was a hassle to have the doll crying while she was driving. And it was embarrassing to see people stare at her, thinking she had a real baby.

The BTIO also was costly. Katie had to take the day off from her job at Pat's Hallmark store. "You can't take a baby to work," she said, "So that cost me money."

Why didn't she just leave the baby at home when she went out? The rules said she had to find - and pay - a baby sitter if she did. One time, she asked Colleen to babysit. That cost her $10.

How about her parents? Her dad, Chris McDaniel, said: "No. It's not my responsibility. It's yours." Her mother, Debbie McDaniel, said that, if necessary, she would baby-sit - but she would require chores in payment. Katie decided it wasn't worth the work involved.

The worst part, Katie said, came at night, when the BTIO seemed to cry more often and for longer periods. She said she slept on the sofa downstairs so the crying wouldn't wake the whole family. But, after a weekend of a simulated crying, Katie said: "I got a max of four hours of sleep. I was extremely tired. I was so tired I didn't even want to go out."

Katie reported with pride that when she brought her BTIO back to school, she got a good grade on her parenting, but she is glad the experience is over.

"I think everyone should take home a BTIO," said Katie. "Sometimes people don't think. If they knew all the trouble, all the time and effort involved, they wouldn't have a kid."

She knows teens who have had babies and has seen the problems they encountered. But her BTIO experience made the issue real for her.

Katie said she still loves babies and that she will probably become a mother - but not for a long time.

Forum on clerical abuse

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Crofton will sponsor a parish open meeting on the topic of sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy at 7:30 p.m. today in the parish center. The Rev. Vincent Cushing, a faculty member at Washington Theological Union, will facilitate the program. The meeting will conclude with prayers for healing.

Information: 410-721-5770.

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