Friday, April 30, 2010

Baby Drama

Our school has several vocational programs. One of them includes a unit that is anticipated with both delight and dread every term: the Robot Baby Project.

Robot Babies are life-size plastic dolls with a small computer inside, a switch on their backs, and a shrill, tinny speaker. Every two or three hours, on schedule, the speakers play a "crying" noise. In order to make the crying stop, the switch has to be pressed continuously for anywhere from thirty seconds to thirty minutes (the speakers play a "cooing" sound when enough time has passed). If the switch is released too early, the "crying" resumes.

For years, I've rolled my eyes when the babies come out of storage. Sure, it might be amusing to watch the students' reactions, but it seems like an expensive waste of time. The entire program strikes me as completely inauthentic for several reasons.

First of all, the response is always the same: turn the key. The student hears the robot and knows exactly what to do. This is patently unrealistic. There are numerous reasons why a baby might be crying, and particularly as a new parent, sometimes you just don't know why.

Second, and IMO more importantly, there is NOTHING pleasant about dragging an annoying robot everywhere. When the robot baby wakes you up in the middle of the night and you have to get up and keep that key turned, it just sucks. But with a real baby, a late-night feeding is an opportunity to bond. You can cuddle, count freckles, tickle toes, sing lullabies... it's exhausting, but it isn't ALL BAD. With the robot baby, all you get is teh suck. :P

Finally (but sort of connected to the other points), everyone KNOWS it isn't a real baby. By day two of the project, the baby is no longer "him" or "her" but "IT." Or better yet: That Thing, as in, "God, can't you turn That Thing off?" No one would respond to a real baby as they do to the robots (at least I certainly hope not!). Other students threaten to drop-kick it or throw it out the window. Teachers will - no joke - refuse to have That Thing in the classroom. No one ever asks how old it is or how it's doing or even touches its fingers. The robot babies are pretty much universally loathed.

The project leaves students with two false impressions. Their first reaction is, across the board, "I am never EVER having kids," because according to the project, taking care of a baby is a unilaterally awful experience.

But in a little while, they begin rethinking that reaction. They start to believe that they wouldn't be so annoyed with That Thing if it was a real baby. They explain away the completely legitimate frustration they felt during the project. As a result, these students end up not just back at square one, but at, like, square ZERO.

Lately I've started wondering if there isn't some potential value in the project with an appropriately guided reflection at the end. Students need to understand that what makes the Robot Babies so frustrating isn't just the endless attention and lack of sleep, but the lack of support. Taking care of a baby is an incredibly challenging task, but if you have others who can help you and encourage you, the work is much more feasible.

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