Monday, February 7, 2022

The Electronic Baby

My youngest daughter is taking a child development class in high school, as part of which she had to spend a weekend with the electronic baby. Before this could happen we had to sign a stack of forms acknowledging that this baby cost $800 and we would be responsible for any damage. To head off, I suppose, family members dismembering it if it made too much trouble. The cost is for all the sensors, for example the ones that know if you try to transport the baby in a car without strapping it into a proper car seat. Which is why my wife picked up our daughter and the baby at school on Friday.

Barnabas, as my daughter named him, looked to be about three months old. He made noises but did not move, and his body was rigid plastic. He had to be fed, burped, changed, and dandled on the right schedule or he would start to wail. When treated well he made happy noises.

He was very cranky when he arrived at our house, and had not been here half an hour before my daughter came running downstairs yelling, "Mom, the baby won't stop crying!" My wife picked him up, patted his back, rocked him a little and he quieted right down. My assembled older children found this a hilarious glimpse at something they feel certain will happen for real in the future, since they know nothing about babies themselves but have complete trust in my wife's expertise. (Besides having raised five, she is a nurse in a maternity ward.)

I said, "Relax. Babies can sense fear."

My daughter eventually got the hang of Barnabas, and he made little more trouble. He did wake up in the middle of the night, but my daughter is an intermittent sleeper anyway, so that didn't bother her much. I drove them back to the high school this morning and that was that.

The harder I think about this strange exercise, the less sense it makes to me. If the point is to give young people some idea of what it is like to have a baby, it fails utterly. The electronic baby has demands, but they are predictable and limited to four basic needs: feeding, burping, changing, holding. Real babies are a lot more complicated than that. On the other hand, real babies are about a thousand times more rewarding than rigid plastic machines. It's true that newborns are strange alien life forms, but three-month-olds have already become interactive; you can tell when you are giving them pleasure, tell when they trust you, feel their relief when you give them what they need. They know who their parents are, recognize their voices. But what I missed most, doing my turn holding Barnabas, was the smell. Little babies produce a scent that I'm convinced clicks into some deep hormonal loop in their parents, rendering them wonderful.

My elder daughter said that this is obviously a plot to force the birth rate down even more, and I honestly can't think of a better explanation. Back when I was in high school the birth rate among teenagers was much, much higher than it is is now, so maybe it made sense to put kids off reproducing, but a quick search shows that the rate has fallen by about 80% since 1980. With total fertility falling below replacement across five continents, what are we doing? Seems like another solution to a problem that no longer really exists.


David said...

It seems obvious to me that the educators who design this and carry it out are just desperately trying to gin up a little student engagement.

G. Verloren said...

With total fertility falling below replacement across five continents, what are we doing?

We could rather stand to keep fertility modestly under replacement globally for a good long time to come, to be honest. We have quite enough humans on this rock of ours already, to the point that it causes severe problems in terms of fair distribution of resources and the health of the environment. We would honestly benefit greatly from having quite a few less of us, on the order of several billion less.

Also, it seems rather odd to bring up how fertility is falling across five continents when you're talking about a regional schooling practice. It's far from universal in our country to have children look after dummy babies - and many other countries don't seem to use the practice much at all. Fertility rates have fallen in many places without any contribution from 'electronic babies', so it doesn't seem worth being concerned about to me.