Heir Conditioning

It seemed like such a good idea.

After the birth of his second daughter, Deborah, in 1944, B. F.Skinner came up with one of his most famous (or notorious according to some) inventions. To help his wife, Yvonne, Skinner devised a new labour-saving device for childcare. Originally dubbed the aircrib, Skinner's invention basically consisted of a temperature and humidity-controlled box with a clear glass screen in which babies could be placed for hours each day to sleep. In the aircrib, the baby could be kept without diapers or blankets (the mattress was designed for easy removal for cleaning). The idea was to permit greater freedom of movement for the baby and to encourage independence as well as reducing the need for washing diapers or bathing the infant. Yvonne Skinner provided her husband with ample input to help improve the aircrib. During the first two and a half years of Deborah Skinner's life, she spent most of her sleeping hours in the aircrib but, contrary to later reports,Babyinbox was never "raised in a box".

The trouble probably began when B.F, Skinner, inspired by his success, decided to write an article for the Ladies' Home Journal which he titled, "Baby Care Can Be Modernized". The fact that the editors changed the title to "Baby In A Box" should have warned him about what would come later. The article described the aircrib in detail and presented it as a way to relieve parents of some of the drudgery associated with baby care. Considering that the Baby Boom was underway, magazines were often presenting "better living" ideas. Numerous articles on the "baby box" were described in Life and Time magazine (among others) describing other babies who were being raised in the "modern" way. The Skinners were besieged with requests for instructions from parents wanting to build their own baby tenders and wrote enthusiastic letters about their experiences.

Unfortunately, the response wasn't completely positive. There was some confusion between Skinner's aircrib and the Skinner Box (the other invention for which he was well known). B.F. Skinner was subjected to numerous letters expressing outrage that he was raising his baby as an experiment. A letter was even sent to the local District Attorney's office demanding that the Skinners be prosecuted over how they were raising Deborah. One anonymous letter written in 1945 denounced the aircrib as "the most ridiculous, crazy invention ever heard of.  Caging the baby up  like an animal, just to relieve the Mother of a little work".

It probably didn't help that J.B. Watson (the other name most commonly associated with behaviourism) had written a book in 1928 titled Psychological Care of Infant and Child in which he urged parents to dispense with the coddling that prolonged the child's need for dependency and to treat children like small adults instead. The rise of a new generation of child-care experts who railed against behavourist theories of child-care (starting with Benjamin Spock) led to a backlash against "mechanical" approaches to child-care and the aircrib got an sinister reputation as a result.

Despite the opposition, there was enough interest in the aircrib for the Skinners to investigate its commercial possibilities. Shortly after his article came out, B.F. Skinner was approached by a Cleveland businessman named J. Weston Judd about launching a new business for manufacturing aircribs (it was Judd who suggested the "Heir Conditioner" brand name). Although Skinner signed a commercial agreement with Judd, he would quickly come to regret it. As more parents asked for instructions on making an aircrib, Skinner passed their names on to Judd who placed them on his mailing list and took their orders for the commercial baby tender (including advance payments).

And then the complaints began.

The very few aircribs that Judd ever built showed serious design flaws (Judd had apparently built them without without showing Skinner the plans first). Skinner also began receiving letters from angry parents demanding the aircribs for which they had paid. After months of delay, Skinner found out in 1946 that Judd had disappeared with all the money collected to date. When he went to Cleveland to investigate, he found Judd's shop in chaos (with no sign of the mass production that Judd had promised). While Skinner wasn't legally responsible, he felt guilty over referring so many customers to Judd in the first place and made what restitution he could. Although he didn't totally lose hope in his idea and later went into another aircrib business with engineerJohn Grey, whatever dreams B.F. Skinner had of "making it big" financially with his aircrib never materialized.

By the time the Aircrib Corporation (the new business Skinner started with Grey) went out of business in 1957, about one thousand aircribs had been sold although there are no available statistics on how many babies were successfully raised in them. Given that the aircrib is essentially an air-conditioned glass box, there is no way to protect the idea with patents and the plans are freely available to any interested parent. Even Deborah's older sister Julie raised her two children in aircribs and, along with most parents who used them, was enthused about the results.

One unfortunate legacy of the aircrib remained with Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Buzan).Despite her extremely close relationship with her father (who died in 1990), Deborah has been dealing with lingering rumours about the effect that her experience with the aircrib supposedly had on her. According to the rumours, Deborah grew up psychologically damaged, sued her father for his cruelty, and eventually committed suicide. The rumours resurfaced in 2004 when Lauren Slater, in her book, Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments in the 20th Century, repeated many of the old stories about the aircrib's effect on Deborah.While Slater stressed that most of the rumors concerning Deborah and her father were untrue, Deborah Buzan was sufficiently enraged about Slater's book to write her own rebuttal in the Guardian.  Titled, I Was Not A Lab Rat, Deborah Buzan takes Slater to task for raising the old rumours in her book and failing to interview her directly concerning some of her conclusions.

Whether or not the aircrib ever becomes popular, the legends surrounding its use have guaranteed that Skinner's attempt at modernizing childcare will forever be linked to his name.


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