Claim: Psychologist B. F. Skinner raised his own daughter in a "Skinner box"; as a result, she grew up psychologically damaged, sued her father, and committed suicide.
Origins: B.F. Skinner was a renowned behavioral psychologist who began his career in the 1930s and is best known for his development of the
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 (and therefore smaller) 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:
The result was an inexpensive apparatus in which our baby daughter has now been living for eleven months. Her remarkable good health and happiness and my wife’s welcome leisure have exceeded our most optimistic predictions, and we are convinced that a new deal for both mother and baby is at hand.
We tackled first the problem of warmth. The usual solution is to wrap the baby in half-a-dozen layers of cloth-shirt, nightdress, sheet, and blankets. This is never completely successful. The baby is likely to be found steaming in its own fluids or lying cold and uncovered. Schemes to prevent uncovering may be dangerous, and in fact they have sometimes even proved fatal. Clothing and bedding also interfere with normal exercise and growth and keep the baby from taking comfortable postures or changing posture during sleep. They also encourage rashes and sores. Nothing can be said for the system on the score of convenience, because frequent changes and launderings are necessary.
Why not, we thought, dispense with clothing
After a little experimentation we found that our baby, when first home from the hospital, was completely comfortable and relaxed without benefit of clothing at
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 50s 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.
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."
In 2004 author Lauren Slater touched off a brouhaha and accusations of shoddy research when she repeated many of the familiar "Skinner box" rumors in her book Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. According to legend, she wrote, Skinner kept Deborah:
The plain reality is that Lauren Slater never bothered to check the truth of [these rumors] (although she claims to have tried to track me down). Instead, she chose to do me and my family a disservice and, at the same time, to debase the intellectual history of psychology.
Beam, Alex. "Author Opens a 'Box,' and a Can of Worms." Boston Globe. 16 March 2004. Buzan, Deborah Skinner. "I Was Not a Lab Rat." The Guardian. 12 March 2004. Morgan, Hal and Kerry Tucker. More Rumor! New York: Penguin Books, 1987. ISBN 0-14-009720-1 (pp. 72-75). Skinner, B.F. "Baby in a Box." Ladies' Home Journal. October 1945. Slater, Lauren. Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 0-393-05095-5.