Life & Liberty: Whatever You Do, Don't Tell the Pigeons!


My friend Jill informed me the other day that she's going to have a baby, and I am worried. This is not good news—not at all. You see, Jill has a tendency to go about anything she decides with a maniacal fervor, the kind usually associated with crazed South American dictators. Now she and her husband are very busy. Neither is seen anymore without some book in hand, written by one or another expert on this or that aspect of child-rearing. Their evenings are full. Mondays, there's the Lamaze group. And that's good. Tuesdays, it's the Le Leche League. Let me go on record, here and now, as having nothing against mother's milk. Wednesdays, they attend a seminar on "natural nutrition" for toddlers. Hey, if it's natural, what could be bad? Right? Thursdays, however, they are enrolled in a course, taught by a psychologist, entitled "Childhood Behavioral Management." I wish they would find something else to do on Thursdays. Anything.

It's not that I have anything against psychologists. In fact, I am one of their ilk. I remain in relatively good standing, and I deal with kids for the bulk of my practice. So what is my problem? I'll tell you.

I have trouble with folks who equate child rearing with managing kids' behavior. Talk to Jill and her hubby for any length of time. It doesn't take long to figure out that their new hero, the psychologist, is a behaviorist. And you know what that means.…

People who are prone to describing kids' behavior solely in terms of stimulus and response contingencies will often admit, although begrudgingly, that the little tykes seem to learn tasks much more quickly if they are told exactly what it is that is expected of them. For instance, trying to "shape" a child's behavior—as they would say—to pick up his toys goes alarmingly faster if one precedes the shaping procedures with the scientific phrase, "Hey, if you don't pick up your toys, I'm gonna break your head!" It's alarming, because to admit such a fact of life forces the behaviorist to talk about a construct he finds abhorrent—cognition.

Now one might ask why cognition would bother behaviorists. The answer, of course, is that no other animal seems to have it. It's peculiar to humans. And once introduced into the theoretical musings of the behaviorist, that which he advertises as a comprehensive psychology of children begins to take on a peculiar odor, not unlike over-age carp.

Let us recall B.F. Skinner, himself one of the greatest behaviorists. As you might remember, he began his career as an animal trainer extraordinaire for the US Army. Dr. Skinner trained pigeons to guide bombs to their morbid destinations. Each pigeon was trained so that it responded to a picture of an enemy target by pecking some electrical buttons. The buttons manipulated a cross-sight that, when centered on the target, gave the pigeon some access to food. Thus the hapless bird was trained so that when it was placed in the nose of a real bomb with the buttons attached to the steering system, and the real target was conveniently observable for the pigeon through a little window…well, you can guess the rest.

This returns us to that oddity of the behaviorist, which is the reluctance to admit cognition as a theoretical construct. Would it be safe to conjecture that one of the reasons Dr. Skinner chose pigeons rather than Army PFCs for the task is that the former lacked this quality of cognition whereas the latter clearly did not? Putting the humane element aside for a while, why didn't he train PFCs for the task if there is no fundamental difference between animal and human behavior? They would have been much more adaptable to the task.

Were PFCs perceived as less suitable subjects because, once aware of the goals of the training, they might have become—as they say in the business—"more resistant to task acquisition"? Well, then, what about more trials? If learning is the inevitable result of enough stimulus and response pairings, why couldn't Dr. Skinner have simply kept on training the PFCs until they did it—were compelled to do it—with no forethought? No? How about if they were simply kept in ignorance of the task goals?

You know, that might have worked. But to rely on something called ignorance necessarily implies the existence of its opposite, cognizance. Notice, this theoretical bugaboo doesn't crop up when we confine the behaviorist's theories to rats and pigeons—only when we try to extend those theories to humans. You would not have seen Dr. Skinner skulking around the fort and whispering, "Shhhh! Don't tell the pigeons!"

This kind of nonsense—ignoring children's cognition—makes me angry at child psychologists who pass it along to the parents and would-be parents of the universe. It's one thing to print this kind of stuff in the academic journals. Hardly anyone reads it and those who do seldom take it very seriously, at least not with their own kids. Perhaps it's okay even to peddle these ideas around college campuses. Such hypotheses, proudly void of prima facie logic and defiant of the bulk of evidence, seem at home in student unions among steaming hot mugs of coffee, tweedy sport jackets, and adoring coeds. But to offer them as legitimate contenders in the arena of ideas about why children do the things they do? To tell young people that the way one deals with a three-year-old who defecates in the middle of the living-room rug does not differ significantly from the way one deals with a toy poodle that does the same? After all, do children not have goals, choices, feelings, perceptions?

As an undergraduate in psychology, I was never very good. I think this is why a lot of the common-sense impressions about children's behavior that I brought from my childhood home and into the classroom never completely evaporated. Let me tell you a story.

I was about five years old. I was walking with my mother down a street in Queens. We came upon my little friend and next-door neighbor, Guido, who was with his mother. The spectacle I espied went thus: Guido wanted a toy canteen he saw in a store window. His mother said he could not have it. Guido then commenced a fit that included screaming, stomping, crying, and generally making himself quite an embarrassment to his mother. She quickly gave in. The next day, there was Guido with a new canteen. I took this in with all the curiosity of a bright five-year-old, one with a list of ends yet unacquired. Suddenly, I thought, I had the means.

The next time we were in a store, I asked my mother for the first thing I saw, a phonograph record. She predictably said no. Here was a chance to experiment. I jumped up and down and gave a few feeble moans. This was no small feat, as I was a heavy child and could not pull off a tantrum with the same grace and style as could Guido. "This," I thought to myself, "ain't gonna work." But it did. My mother quickly acquiesced. She paid for the record.

It was placed in a paper bag and put into my little paw, just to quiet me. I was shocked. I didn't even really want the stupid thing, which, I swear to you, was a yellow 78 of Jimmy Durante singing "Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But it worked! While I was wasting my time discovering object permanence and representational thought, Guido had figured out what makes the world go 'round.

I don't know for how long this method worked. But I do remember being somewhat frightened by it. When would my mother smarten up? I was feeling something like fear. I remember only two more such incidents. One time, again in a store, I remember seeing a toy policeman's kit. It had everything the little aspiring Nazi could want—toy handcuffs, toy gun, toy nightstick, you name it. I asked Mom for it. She said no. I jumped up and down. I got the kit. "Life," I thought to myself, "can be so simple."

But all things come to an end. With Mr. and Mrs. Barone, it simply had to, because neither was prone to such transgressions of logic for any appreciable length of time. And fortunately, neither was an adherent of any of the latest learning theories that advised ignoring my tantrums in the hope they'd simply disappear. No. My parents had too much respect for both me and the peace for that.

In another store, I had yet another tantrum. My father stopped and took the time to explain to me carefully that if I didn't stop, if I ever again tried another tantrum, he was systematically going to rearrange several small but inessential bones around my face and neck. He was quite angry. But I wasn't—I was relieved. I was never comfortable with the thought that the restraints placed upon me by my mother and father were so malleable from day to day; it burdened me with the task of trying to find out, daily, just how far I could go.

I was not a prodigy. I am convinced that the way I was able to watch the world and make some inferences and deductions is much the same way most children are able to understand and act in their environments. To deny this is to deny what is essentially human about children. It's precisely this that the behaviorist chooses to ignore.

I didn't learn a heck of a lot about children when I went to graduate school, even though I really tried. I did learn an awful lot about rats. I can remember teaching them to bar-press for food, then trying to get them to stop bar-pressing at different levels of hunger. As you might guess, hardly a day goes by that I don't refer to those results in my practice of psychology with children!

I remember staring into that Skinner box, looking at the rat, thinking, "If only I could tell that rat what I want from him! If only he knew!" Then I wouldn't have to let him do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, until he finally stumbled across the thing that I wanted. If only he knew! But, of course, if I had found a rat that knew, one that when simply asked to bar-press 15 times for a pellet of food did just that, the august faculty would have been uninterested. "Look!" I might have said. "When I tell the rat to bar-press 15 times, he does it! He knowsl Damn it, he knowsl"

"Silly!" they would have replied. "The rat only thinks he knows!"

Which brings us back to my friend Jill. Don't let them kid you. Ignorance combined with apathy is not the worst danger a child might face. I've seen it time and time again; sometimes there's random benefit to benign neglect. I am much more afraid of misinformation, especially when combined with ardor. So as I said before, my friend Jill the other day informed me that she's going to have a baby, and I am worried.

Stephen G. Barone is a school psychologist and free-lance writer.