Flour power

The authorities have decided that hauling around sacks of flour will teach middle schoolers not to get pregnant. My daughter and I think it's a half-baked idea.

By Susan Straight
Published June 25, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

It was another Dear Parents letter, and I rolled my eyes when my oldest daughter, a seventh grader, handed it to me.

FLOUR BAG BABY, it began. My daughter rolled her eyes much more dramatically than I did and folded her arms. "This is the dumbest assignment ever. I can't believe we have to do this."

I read (with errors intact): "Your student is participating in the Family Life section of Science. Part of this section includes a major project called the 'Baby Project.' Materials: One five-pound bag of flour. Please wrap the bag in plastic so that the flower doesn't leak onto the ground. You may wrap the flour with masking tape, but only making tape. Do not use packing tape, duck tape, or electrical tape."

Remembering kids walking past my house last year carrying flour bags, I shrugged, resigned. Then I read further and realized that the assignment included no actual science, and required me, the parent, to do everything to "assist your child to experience a real-life situation." We buy the flour, wrap it in plastic with them, dig out the old baby clothes (assuming we saved them), buy disposable diapers and a baby bottle (even though most of us are probably way done with those purchases). Then, we have to initial the daily log, indicating that we've shown them how to give this baby two sponge baths (swiping with a rag), three feedings and three diaper changes. And I loved this part: "Crying -- The baby will cry four times a day. Parents, this is when you get to have some fun. It is your privilege to randomly tell your student that the baby is crying and needs to be rocked (minimum of 20 minutes). Do your student a favor and pick both convenient and inconvenient times."

Have some fun? Waking her up in the middle of the night? Been there, done that, when she was a baby herself. A favor? How could this project teach any student that babies take way more care and nurturing than a middle-schooler can give when the parents were doing all the work, just as they would if their own children had children? Being realistic would have helped. Being more scientific would have helped. I looked at the daily log -- at the end of the week, the student would have a chart with a bunch of initials.

My daughter sighed. "You're supposed to make me sit there for 20 minutes at night, I guess. But we have tests this week. Math."

I got down the bag of flour, wondering how, when California students already lag so far behind other students (let's not bring up other nations), we use up weeks and weeks on anti-drug lessons, sexually transmitted disease facts and flour bag babies. My daughter knows more about heroin and cocaine and gonorrhea than I ever did.

My seventh-grade year, at a junior high a mile from here, we did actual experiments with test tubes, dissected frogs, grew a vegetable plot and kept logs on various methods of watering and fertilization and pests. We tested seeds, we went on field trips to the desert. And before it's assumed this was a "better" school, mine was the "underprivileged" junior high everyone was afraid of, with bars on the windows and an at-risk population. Yes, two eighth-graders got pregnant. But surely two more could get pregnant this year in my daughter's school, which is actually middle-income.

As "underprivileged" kids then, we needed science. Where is the science in this project? How about genetic markers and traits, how they're passed on? That would be fascinating to this class of many racial groups, including mixed-race kids like my own. The formation of the baby in the womb, followed by how the real care of a baby would include the umbilical cord falling off, the soft spot on a baby's head pulsing and vulnerable, the evolutionary reason a baby smiles: These might be actually useful and scientific, along with sociological.

I don't want Gaila to have babies until she's ready, and she's told me that won't be until she's done with college and married. I fervently hope this is true. She wants to be a marine biologist, or teach marine biology, and so this is even more ironic, because she needs science, specific science, right now. She is a girl, and of color, and in a middle-to-low-income school -- all of which puts her at risk for not having enough science and math for higher education.

Talking with parents around the state about flour bag babies, I found out that in some cities, this curriculum isn't offered at all. I wondered if that was because those districts considered their middle- or upper-income students not likely to get pregnant, which is not true, statistically. Kids of all races and income groups are having babies. But Ojai didn't offer it, San Francisco did, and Los Angeles was completely confusing. High school teachers in L.A. told me that in "at-risk" districts, it was offered, while in others, higher-income or suburban, it wasn't.

What kind of message does that send? If you're an at-risk teen, I understand parental and district concern. But aren't those the very same students who are already missing out on academics, such as more rigorous science, and who need science and math to compete at the college level, so they'll be better educated and have more incentive not to have a baby so young? Are we saying that we expect them to get pregnant, anyway?

I discussed this at a restaurant in San Francisco with two other mothers, and a member of the wait staff came over and said, with incredulity, "Am I hearing this right?"

He told us that he'd been a music teacher in Harlem. He was an avid jazz musician who loved transferring the love of art to kids, and he remembered the babies given to the students at his school: not just flour bag babies, but more lifelike, realistic babies. But the Harlem students got a crack baby, one guaranteed to be more inconsolable and shaky and desperate, just to let them know how bad that was. And the music was cut out, because it was deemed frivolous.

The second day of the baby project, our eighth-grade neighbor Whitney came in with Gaila from school and said, "I don't know why we have to do the flour bag, 'cause we have the real baby in 10th grade."

"What?" I asked.

"The baby with the key in its back, and it cries at all different times. You should hear how loud they are in church."

I looked up this real baby on a Web site, and found its name: Baby Think It Over, which, according to the site, is a "realistic educational program" that comes with a lifelike infant who cries, shakes and needs attention.

"Now a computerized doll takes over for the eggs and flour, making the experience much more like parenting and less like a Julia Child cooking class. How it works: An identification tag is attached to the teen's wrist with a tamperproof wristband to ensure that only the assigned teen can care for Baby. Baby cries for care according to schedules selected by the instructor. When Baby cries, it is the teen's responsibility to determine and provide the type of care Baby needs: feeding, rocking, burping or diapering. Sometimes Baby is just fussy and cannot be quieted by the teen. The electronics in the Baby's back monitor the quality of care Baby receives. The doll reports the number of times each type of care was provided, as well as positioning, rough handling, Shaken Baby Syndrome and more."

It retails for about $250. And I assume they make the crack-baby version I'd heard about. We'd have to do this in two years. It sounded like a combination of house arrest, colic and Big Brother.

"But 12-year-olds do get pregnant," other people pointed out.

And when these students have babies, who takes care of the infants, and the mothers? The grandmothers, we agreed.

I realize that we're trying to prevent unwanted pregnancy among teens. But Gaila, studying the flour bag that was wearing her old infant gown, the one that tied at the bottom, the one I'd pointed out many mothers might not have saved, felt insulted and demeaned. "I'm not even allowed to hold hands yet," she pointed out, with more eye rolls. She is a straight-A student, plays the trombone in the band, plays on a basketball team and was just confirmed in the Methodist church, where she lights the candles on the altar for services. She is 12.

I know that some 12-year-old girls in her class are not those things, that they do far more than hold hands. But many other parents I talked to that week were dismissive of the project as a deterrent. "They thought it was hilarious and threw those bags of flour all over the place," one neighbor told me.

Another friend said, "The girls made such a fuss over the babies that it seemed like it was teaching them how much fun it could be without the real messy stuff."

And without any of the actual rewards, like the smile, the warmth, the fingers grasping yours, the seductive, indescribable baby smell. What if the teen was raised by a single father who knew nothing about babies? What if the teen was afraid?

Some of Gaila's friends did seem afraid of this flour bag baby, because it meant a grade, and they weren't sure what to do with it. Perhaps their parents were around to help, or perhaps they are the kind of students who will never be comfortable with babies.

Much of the baby week seemed as arbitrary and absurd as the tape restrictions. Gaila's friend Chris, who rides his bike to school, put his flour bag baby in his backpack when leaving for the day, whereupon a math teacher who witnessed this threatened to call the science teacher and fail him for the week, and told him to carry the baby. OK, I thought, when he passed by my house as he does daily: Is it better for him, or his parents, that he have an accident on his bike, whereupon the flour bag will fly into the four-lane avenue? And is this better, litigation-wise, for the school?

At the end of the week, I asked Gaila's best friend Jackie what she'd learned. She replied, "That flour makes a big mess when you throw the bag and it breaks." I repeated my question, and she repeated her answer verbatim, quite pointedly.

I asked a few other students, and they said, "That when you wrap it with duct tape, you can kick it really hard and nothing happens."

"That my baby clothes fit the bag."

"That babies are a pain."

"That I never want a baby, not now, not never."

OK. Except babies are not just a pain, they are wonderful and fragile and when you're ready, or not, they are alive. None of this seemed proven by the flour bag, which couldn't suck at your cheek or do the aforementioned great baby things. The bag also couldn't throw up or scare the heck out of you.

One Web site, Teen-Aid, Inc., based in Spokane, Wash., agreed, saying, "When returning computerized babies or dumping the bag of sugar, students express relief at being rid of the responsibility." Using this approach, abstinence educators are merely modifying Planned Parenthood's motto, "Every child a wanted child," to "Every child is a pain."

Another Web site, Catholic Exchange, featured an article by Amy Welborn, who had been in church holding her own real baby when she encountered a teen holding a science class baby. "Undoubtedly on a timer, the baby clicked and in a tinny, taped voice, began to cry. The girl poked around in the bag, took out a bottle, put it between the doll's lips and the crying stopped. She tried to take it out after a minute or so, but the doll just started crying again."

Welborn says succinctly about the "see how much of a pain baby is" experiments that kids don't have babies because they are unaware of how much work it is, but because they have a "specific, wrenching failure of will at a very crucial time."

She's right. They have sex. They are experimenting, scientifically, and randomly, and seeking warmth, smells and smiles. They might remember a flour bag or a mechanical baby, or their parents' warnings, or they might need that moment of intimacy too much to care. And inconvenience, fear, the real frightening stuff of babies and parenthood, might have come from somewhere far from school.

Our rabbit had babies today, a planned pregnancy. My 6-year-old wanted to put Mel Jr. and Emily together, and that was really how her older sisters figured out conception and parenthood, from previous bunny litters. We came home from school and were shocked by eight babies in various states on the bottom of the cage. Two had been pushed out, and lay in the dirt. We gently put them in the nesting box, and my girls watched, fascinated and frightened and repelled, as I detached the umbilical cord from one struggling baby and put it with the others. Emily's hindquarters were very bloody, and she passed a clot just then, to the disgust and consternation of the girls. "But human mothers do that, too," said Melissa, who'd come to see with her own daughters.

"Gross," all five of our combined girls chimed, and we nodded and grinned. Gross is what it takes, most of the time, to learn the truth.

When we turned to leave, my youngest asked in a worried voice, "What if Emily's not a good mother? What if she kills them, like that bad bunny we had once?"

I raised my hands helplessly. "Then she does. She's the only one who can take care of them. Remember, we tried to save that one with kitten milk? It didn't work."

In the kitchen, Gaila whispered, "I hope we don't go out there in the morning and find them dead."

"I hope not, either," I said. She frowned and went off to her room, the weight of assisted parenthood on her face for the first time.

I opened the cupboard door, and the flour bag was still wrapped in blue Saran. I had asked Gaila, when the project was finished, what she wanted me to do with her baby, and she'd grinned and said, "Let's make brownies." I unwrapped the bag and felt it very light in my hands.

Susan Straight

Susan Straight is the author of "A Million Nightingales," "Take One Candle Light a Room," and "Between Heaven and Here."

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