What Being a Dad for A Day Taught My Son

What did my son learn by taking care of a fake baby for 24 hours? Parenthood is nonstop (and kind of fun).

doll baby_father for a day
Photo: Courtesy of David Sparrow

My wife and I figured our days with a baby in the house were done. Our youngest child, my daughter, is not merely out of diapers but (gasp) grade school. And our son, in high school, is taller than I am. But Matthew recently changed the family dynamic when he brought home a child of his very own. No, it wasn’t a scandalous situation. Rather, it was an assignment for his health class: to take home a computerized baby doll and care for it for 18 hours.

Sounds easy, right? Not so much. The “infant” was connected to a computer at school, so the child’s cries—and Matthew’s responses—were being recorded for the project. Whenever the baby cried or fussed, our son needed to figure out what was bugging it. Was the little one hungry? Gassy? Did he simply need to be soothed back to sleep? Or, worse, did he have a dirty diaper? (Actually, it wasn’t that bad, since the poop was virtual.)

The purpose of the assignment, I presume, was two-fold: to give the students a preview of how to care for a child, and to teach them how tough a task that is (so they avoid becoming parents before their time).

Indeed, it was a challenge, especially in a New York City apartment. We decided that Matthew couldn’t keep the baby’s bassinet in the bedroom he shares with his sister. He agreed to sleep on the couch in the living room. He had to get all his other homework done—and deal with continual demands from his child. All told the doll cried or fussed 17 times while in his care. Matthew dealt with each interruption like a trooper. He started to figure out scheduling: If he had recently fed the child, he tried something else first. And his papa bear instincts kicked in: When our daughter heard the baby mewing and poked him, Matthew warned her not to make the head wobble (though he was probably equally concerned about losing points for dropping the child). Perhaps the best part: Matthew was barely on his phone the entire evening. There was simply no time for texting or social media.

It wasn’t exactly a restful night. In the wee hours, the baby’s loud crying woke up the entire house. Feeding time. We heard Matthew shuffling around for a while. Finally he came into our room, complaining, "I've been up with the baby for an hour." It brought back memories of the early, exhausting days of parenthood.

Despite this, he actually seemed to enjoy the experience. He has displayed his nurturing nature as a camp counselor to 8-year-olds. (And, of course, as an older brother who’s nice to his sister most of the time.) He got an A+ on the project. I'm not sure that he learned any big lesson, but it was a welcome reminder for me as an editor: First-time parenthood is tough, even if caring for a creature that needs you desperately is a wonderful thing. I saw encouraging signs that Matthew will make a great dad someday. But I hope its many years down the road before he has a chance to prove it.

David Sparrow is a senior editor at Parents and a dad of two. He is currently working on a ballroom dancing performance choreographed by his daughter but can't keep up.

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