Scientific Management and Child Rearing

March 12, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Listen to the opening minutes of the 2006 episode of This American Life that was rerun this past weekend. (If you don’t want to listen, a transcript is here. The clip ends with Ira saying, “and this is the way it was for decades.”)

The John Watson mentioned in this excerpt — the psychologist who thought that kissing your child more than once a year was “overkissing” — wasn’t just president of the American Psychological Association, he was the founder of behaviorism, which dominated academic psychology in the US for much of the twentieth century. Behaviorism focused on behavior. Thoughts, emotions, desires, personal attachment — these internal states were invisible, and behavioral psychology brushed them aside as unimportant or irrelevant.

Behaviorism in psychology was a close cousin of Taylorism in business. Both had little use for these human feelings. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” reduced work to a carefully controlled series of steps for workers to carry out with machine-like consistency. It was an inconvenient fact for Taylorism that the workers were people, not machines. They would just have to suppress those human qualities, at least on the job.

Behaviorists usually did their experiments on animals. The lives of these lab animals, as far as the experimenters were concerned, consisted entirely of learning — learning to get food, learning  to avoid electric shocks. These subjects could not convincingly protest to the psychologists that their thoughts and emotions were being ignored.

It’s only a short step from the psych lab to the nursery, white rats to children and the idea that raising kids was, or should be, a matter of conditioning. In both settings, but especially with children, the person in charge was imposing order and control on what in nature tended to be messy. And in bringing order to this messiness, scientific rationality was better than relying unthinkingly on what seemed natural. Scheduled feeding was better than on-demand feeding, and scientifically produced formula was better than breast milk. Half a million years of evolution may be telling you to respond to your child physically and emotionally, but John Watson says, “Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap.”

As I listened to the podcast, glad that the days of behaviorist conditioning had been left behind, I suddenly remembered “Ferberizing.” In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber published Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Its centerpiece was a technique that would condition your child to sleep through the night. When the child cries, do you wake up and give comfort? Bad strategy. Instead, well here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the Ferber approach:

1. At bedtime, leave the child in bed and leave the room. 

2. Return at progressively increasing intervals to comfort the baby (without picking him or her up). For example, on the first night, some scenarios call for returning first after three minutes, then after five minutes, and thereafter each ten minutes, until the baby is asleep. 

3. Each subsequent night, return at intervals longer than the night before. For example, the second night may call for returning first after five minutes, then after ten minutes, and thereafter each twelve minutes, until the baby is asleep.

It’s pure behaviorism. Instead of rewarding the undesirable behavior, the parents “extinguish” (as behaviorists say) the crying response.

You don’t ignore the child completely. It’s OK, even good, to stand in the doorway so that the poor kid doesn’t think you’ve abandoned them. But do not go into the room and comfort the child. Let them “cry it out.”

It works, said my fellow parents. The nights of crying it out had been followed by uninterrupted slumber for all. So my wife and I decided to try it. I cannot remember how old our son was at the time, nor do I remember the hour when he awoke crying, maybe around eleven p.m. We went to the door of his room. I checked my watch and mentally started counting down the three minutes. Our son, seeing us through the bars of his crib, cried even harder. And why not? The parents who he knew as reliable sources of comfort were now choosing to let him suffer.

After thirty seconds or so, I knew there was no way I could last three minutes.I turned to my wife.  “Dr. Ferber is saying let him cry.  Half a million years of evolution is saying go pick up the kid and hold him.”

And that was our one attempt at Ferberization.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Kicking behaviorists isn't nice. But it's fun. A quote I remember from my undergraduate days went to the effect: "Behaviorism has two good things to say for itself: it's graduate students make great circus animal trainers. And they have very quiet children."

Speaking of kicking behaviorists, Chomsky is, of course, the most famous behaviorist kicker ever, but in my view, Chomsky made (and continues to make) exactly the same error, namely, exactly as the behaviorists did, Chomsky refuses to accept that it's possible to have a theory that explains (or even admits the existence of) human intelligence and reason. Therefor linguistics, as a science, must completely and totally excluded any discussion of meaning and thinking from the science of linguistics itself and from the "language module" (in the human brain). Since what we use language for is talking about the stuff we're thinking about, this is a highly dubious idea, that deserves a lot of kicking.

Unfortunately the blokes who took the opposite attitude, the generative semanticists and the like, failed to make their case, and crashed and burned spectacularly in the so-called "Linguistics Wars in America". For my interests, though, those guys had a lot more useful things to say about language than the Chomskians. (E.g. Metaphors We Live By.)

As a "scruffy AI" person from the 70s and 80s (I have lots of other hats, though) the above stuff is real easy for me to say.