B.F. Skinner And The Crib Of The Future
Somewhere in the Gallery at the Centre for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio sits what might have been the most revolutionary accessory in infant and toddler care never to make it big. B.F. Skinner, famous for being the godfather of radical behaviourism — the theory that environment and genetic history play the greatest role in predicting behaviour — loved to apply his many theories to his life experiences directly. After going through the turmoil of a new baby for the first time, he was determined that their second child would not bring so much upheaval to the family life.
He and his wife Yvonne Blue decided to go through the “disheartening schedule of the young mother” and eliminate any aspects deemed not necessary to human development. The fact that Skinner and his wife were such great partners in life that they worked together to design a different way to raise their new daughter is highly impressive to me; what they came up with, though revolutionary at the time, combines a whole bunch of now common concepts about how best to deal with a baby’s sleeping arrangements.
The Skinner Air Crib was designed to be climate controlled with dials for temperature and humidity. The end result looked more like an aquarium than a crib — but when you compare it to the pack-and-plays that we’ve all grown accustomed to the air crib isn’t all that wild. Looking something like an 80’s television hutch with a glassed-in window at the front through which you could observe your baby and they could be reassured by seeing you too, the Air Crib meant that a sleeping ‘Jack’ or ‘Jill’ could wear nothing more than a diaper without the dangers of blankets, bumpers or sheets. From the ceiling dangled a variety of rings that babies could pull to trigger a built-in music box. The height of the Air Crib was also different from what almost every other family was using: instead of having to bend over to put your child to bed the air crib’s front window lowered at chest level for easy in and out access to baby.
Unfortunately, Skinner’s reputation as a controversial and often unsympathetic figure preceded him. Those who profiled his new invention came at it from the perspective that this is what’s wrong with the science of the future. Images of Skinner’s daughter Deborah, peering through the glass of her crib with tiny hands pressed up against it convinced most parents that he was a sadist, even though she was smiling in the pictures.
Despite the fact that fewer than 500 children ended up being raised in an Air Crib (at least in that initial first-run) it seems that there are more than a few modern parents who have tried replicating the experience for their own families.
Check out this modern take on the air crib design:
Skinner’s daughter Deborah, the original Air Crib baby, has nothing but good things to say about her childhood, though she hardly remembers those first few years behind glass. Numerous rumours have floated around the psychology community for decades about how ‘evil’ Professor Skinner used his baby girl as a guinea pig. Deborah meets these accusations head-on in piece she wrote for the Guardian in 2004. It is amazing how many people still love to believe the worst.
Deborah herself is perplexed as to why her father’s design never really took off with modern parents. Her sister Julie Skinner used the air crib with her own two daughters.
If you’re interested in the mechanics of the Air Crib or how to make one yourself you can read about a family with a long history of Air Crib use here.