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May 17, 2023

Skinner Air Crib: The Story of Psychologist B. F. Skinner Raised His Own Daughter in a “Skinner Box” in the 1940s

B.F. Skinner was a renowned behavioral psychologist who began his career in the 1930s and is best known for his development of the Skinner box, a laboratory apparatus used to conduct and record the results of operant conditioning experiments with animals.

When Skinner’s second daughter, Deborah, was born in 1944, Skinner (who then lived in Minnesota) constructed an alternative type of crib for her that was something like a large version of a hospital incubator, a tall box with a door at its base and a glass window in front. This “baby tender,” as Skinner called it, provided Deborah with a place to sleep and remain comfortably warm throughout the severe Minnesota winters without having to be wrapped in numerous layers of clothing and blankets (and developing the attendant rashes). Deborah slept in her novel crib until she was two and a half years old, and by all accounts grew up a happy, healthy, thriving child.

The trouble began in October 1945, when the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal ran an article by Skinner about his baby tender. The article featured a picture of Deborah in a portable version of the box, her hands pressed against the glass, under the headline “Baby in a Box.” People who didn’t read the article carefully, or who merely glanced at the picture or heard about the article from someone else but didn’t read it themselves confused the baby tender with a Skinner box, even though the article clearly explained that the baby tender was something quite different.

As Deborah Skinner described her experience with the baby tender many years later:
“My father’s intentions were simple, and based on removing what he and my mother saw as the worst aspects of a baby’s typical sleeping arrangements: clothes, sheets and blankets. These not only have to be washed, but they restrict arm and leg movement and are a highly imperfect method of keeping a baby comfortable. My mother was happy. She had to give me fewer baths and of course had fewer clothes and blankets to wash, so allowing her more time to enjoy her baby. I was very happy, too, though I must report at this stage that I remember nothing of those first two and a half years. I am told that I never once objected to being put back inside. I had a clear view through the glass front and, instead of being semi-swaddled and covered with blankets, I luxuriated semi-naked in warm, humidified air. The air was filtered but not germ-free, and when the glass front was lowered into place, the noise from me and from my parents and sister was dampened, not silenced. 
The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn’t have a cold until I was six. I’ve enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I’m surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 1950s and ’60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.”
Nonetheless, many people jumped to the conclusion that Skinner was raising his daughter in a cramped box equipped with bells and food trays and was conducting psychological experiments of the “rewards and punishments” variety on her. Outraged letter-writers protested that a child should not be “kept in a box” and “subjected to experiments like an animal.” Over the years the details about Skinner’s baby tender (which was unsuccessfully marketed under the names “Heir Conditioner” and “Aircrib”) became more fuzzily remembered, and by the mid-1960s (when Deborah turned twenty-one), the rumor had started that Skinner’s psychotic daughter had sued him for traumatizing her by raising her in a box and conducting psychological experiments upon her, and that she had eventually committed suicide.

In fact, Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Skinner Buzan) grew up about as normally as can be, remained close to her father, and has been living and working in London as an artist since the mid-1970s. She quipped years later that “I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy. And I don’t seem to have committed suicide,” and of her unusual upbringing she said, “It wasn’t really a psychological experiment but what you might call a happiness-through-health experience. I think I was a very happy baby. Most of the criticisms of the box are by people who don’t understand what it was.”

(via Snopes)

1 comment:

  1. We raised both of our kids in homebuilt Air Cribs. Definitely recommend!




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