When I was 17, I had a baby.
Granted, I only had him for a weekend. And he was a robot. Still, that kind of experience sticks with you.
My weekend with my robot baby was a requirement for my high school child psychology class. Back then, my robot baby was called ‘Baby Think It Over’. Today, he would be known as a ‘RealCare Infant Simulator’. It sounds more techy now, but the concept is still the same – give teenagers a taste of parenthood in the hopes that they hate it and don’t go get knocked up.
But here’s the thing – a recent study in medical journal The Lancet showed that these robot babies might actually make teens MORE likely to have babies.
A randomised study of nearly 3,000 Australian schoolgirls aged 13-15 split them into two groups: one that received standard sex education classes, and one that received a ‘virtual infant parenting programme’ that included the robot babies. It found that 8% of the girls in the robot baby group went on to have babies, compared to 4% in the control group.
I found out about the study on one of my favourite podcasts, The Longest Shortest Time, and it made me think about my own experience with a robot baby.
Which, by the way, I named Elliott. After depressed indie-rock musician Elliott Smith. Because that’s the kind of thing you do when you’re 17.
Did the robot baby give me a realistic idea of what parenthood is like?
Ways that my robot baby was like a real baby:
- He cried at all times of the day and night
Ways that my robot baby was unlike a real baby:
- EVERY OTHER IMAGINABLE WAY
When Robot Elliott cried, the only way to stop him was to insert a key into him and hold it there until he stopped. This was supposed to simulate feeding. They key was attached to my wrist by one of those bands that you can only remove by cutting it off, so I was the only one who could ‘feed’ him.
So yeah, he woke me up in the middle of the night, and it sucked. But all I had to do was roll over and stick in the key in order to get him to stop. I didn’t have to get out my sore, leaking boobs so he could latch onto them and drink for 45 minutes while I desperately tried to keep myself awake by watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on my iPad on mute. I didn’t have to try to sneak Robot Elliott back into his moses basket without waking him up, and Robot Elliott never did a big, smelly poo just as I was drifting back off to sleep.
Robot Elliott only ever wanted that key. I never had to try rocking him, changing him, winding him, cuddling him, giving him Calpol, taking him for walk, giving him a dummy, singing nursery rhymes or blasting white noise in order to get him to stop crying. Robot Elliott never made me cry myself because nothing was working. He was simple. Key in. Hold it there. Crying stops. Key out.
This was 17 years ago, and RealCare Infant Simulators are more sophisticated than Baby Think It Over was. When they cry, you can try feeding, changing, rocking or burping them in order to get them to stop. The dolls also record how long you kept them in their car seat, surrounding temperatures, clothing changes, whether you supported their head properly, and whether the baby was shaken. (Baby Think It Over recorded shaking events too, but that was it.)
So are robot babies more realistic now? Yeah, probably. But nothing can really simulate the full-body exhaustion that a real baby brings on. The all-emcompassing fear that you’re going to drop them on their soft little heads. The frustration that you feel when your baby feeds for an hour then pukes it all back up onto your top. That s**t is impossible to reproduce.
Did the robot baby stop me from being a teen parent?
I didn’t have a baby until I was 32, so that looks like a win for Robot Elliott – but in reality, it had nothing to do with him. I knew I wasn’t mature enough to have a baby as a teenager long before I saw Elliott’s rubbery little face. I still didn’t think I was mature enough at 32. I’m still not sure that I am.
So why are robot babies making teens more likely to become young parents?
Some scientists theorise that it’s because the teens receive positive feedback from their peers and family when they play with the robot babies at an age when they crave attention. Or maybe it’s because caring for a robot baby gives them the impression that parenting is as easy as a simple cycle of feeding, rocking, burping and changing.
To any teens that are reading this: parenting is REALLY, REALLY F***ING HARD.
You won’t get a proper night’s sleep for at least a year. Your friends will invite you out but you won’t be able to go because it will interfere with the baby’s naptime, and you haven’t had a shower in three days anyway. You will live in leggings and baby puke-stained hoodies. You will worry constantly that you’re getting it wrong.
I’m not saying that it’s all bad. It can be great. The best. But it’s the kind of thing you should only do once you’re ready to throw everything that you have into another person. And I mean everything. All your love and energy and sanity and devotion and chutzpah.
So until you’re ready to do that, enjoy being young. Have long nights out and long lie-ins. Make stupid mistakes. See as much as the world as you can. The whole baby thing can wait.