Podcast Episode 21: Being BF Skinner’s Daughter: Deborah Buzan Dispels The Myths

bf skinners daughter baby boxDeborah Buzan is a well-respected London-based artist, and the daughter of one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, BF Skinner. But, too often, when she meets new people, they aren’t interested in discussing her career, or her lineage: They just want to know if it’s true that she is insane. Sometimes, they are simply surprised she never killed herself. Occasionally, they ask about her law suit against her dad. And they always want to know what it was like to be raised in a box.

Buzan isn’t insane, never attempted suicide, and wouldn’t have ever considered legal action against her father. But she was raised in a box. Sort of. This latter fact is what spurred the former rumors, most of which came into existence because people conflated the “Skinner Boxes” her father used in his experiments with the “Baby Box,” which was really no more than a high tech crib that he built for his youngest daughter to sleep in and sometimes to play in.

In this episode, I interviewed Buzan, who did an excellent job of explaining how the “Air Crib” (as it was usually called by her father) was designed to help babies and parents and wasn’t at all a “training” device. She also talked some of the other ingenious things he did for his family to try to engineer a happier and safer home for his wife, children, and even for his dog.

deborah buzan bf skinners daughter

The Ladies Home Journal article that first labeled Buzan as the “Baby in a Box”

You can read a transcript of the interview at School For The Dogs’ blog. 

Here are some of the things referenced in this episode:

Books: 

If you’re new to Skinner, About Behaviorism is a good place to start as it is, literally, about the philosophy/science that he is largely credited with founding. In Beyond Freedom and Dignityhe discusses how we can use an understanding of behavioral science to address many of the problems facing the world. Walden Two is a kind of science-fiction novel he wrote about a utopia where people are controlled by positive reinforcement delivered in a smartly engineered environment. It’s kind of like what would happen if you a government set up and run by good dog trainers!

Skinner writes about the conception of, and reactions to, the Air Crib, and also about his music-box toilet-training gadget in the second of his two autobiographies, The Shaping of a Behaviorist.

References & Sources: 

  • You can read the Ladies’ Home Journal article that planted the seed for most of the controversy about the “Air Crib” here.
  • As a teenager, Buzan worked with Karen Pryor, of the Karen Pryor Academy, at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. You can read about Pryor’s time at Sea Life Park in her book, Lad’s Before The Wind. 
  • The BF Skinner Foundation, which is run by Buzan’s sister, Julie Vargas and her husband Ernest Vargas, can be found online at BFSkinner.org. They publish a free quarterly newsletter called Operants.
  • The titular essay in Lauren Slater’s book Opening Skinner’s Box was one of the very first things I ever read about Skinner. While I recommend giving it a read, I do take issue with how she mischaracterizes the Air Crib, saying that Skinner used it to “prove his theories by putting [his daughter] for a few hours a day in a laboratory box . . . in which all her needs were controlled and shaped.” Buzan wrote a response to the article in The Guardian, aiming to correct Slater’s misrepresentation.
BF skinner daughter deborah

Deborah Buzan is an artist living in London.

Music: 

Much thanks to Melissa Mahony of the Channel Drifters thechanneldrifters.com for her cover of Hello My Baby and to David Beckingham for the rendition of The Blue Danube.

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