Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.10]

The summer flew by and I was a second grader before I knew it. The first day of school I was assigned a seat facing a boy named Harold Dubb, who kept getting exiled to the corner of the classroom because he couldn’t sit still or stay in his seat. He picked his nose and sneezed, yelling “Ah-choo” so loudly I would jump up in my seat. He’d wipe his face with his sleeve and look for snot on his desk to put his fingers in. Mrs. Smith told him to cover his nose, but then he’d just sneeze and wipe his hands on his pants. He had dirt on his face and clothes, and tangled hair that stuck straight up in the back. I’d had enough of Harold.

“Dad, he’s so gross,” I said, filling him in on the details that evening. “And he knocks my papers off my desk and bumps into me on the way to recess or lunch. Why is he like that?”

“Well, what do you do when he sneezes or bumps you?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Do you look at him when he does those things?”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Well, I think he’s trying to get your attention, and the teacher’s attention. Perhaps your attention is reinforcing his behavior. Remember when you asked me about Luke and Toby and why they seem to like getting punished?”

“Yes. I still don’t understand that. I would hate to be paddled. And they cry and seem to hate it, too.”

“Some kids need to act out in bad ways to get any attention at all. Maybe Harold is not getting enough at home, so any attention—good or bad—feels good to him. I bet no one has shown him positive ways to get attention. They don’t reinforce him when he’s behaving well. That’s sad, if you think about it.”

“Do you mean his parents aren’t nice to him?” I felt sorry for Harold all of a sudden.

“I don’t know that for sure, but there are parents out there who don’t take very good care of their children. There aren’t any classes in ‘How to Parent.’ Parents often don’t realize that they are the cause of their kid’s bad behavior. For instance, have you ever seen kids crying for candy in the checkout line at the grocery store?”

“Yes, when they want candy and their parents won’t let them have it?”

“Right. Well, typically the child asks for the candy or grabs it. The parent tells them ‘no’ and puts it back. The child starts to whine. The parent says ‘no’ again. The child starts to really cry and throw a fit. Sometimes the parent even spanks him and the child may throw himself on the ground or start hitting or kicking. Finally, the parent gets embarrassed and just needs to get the child to behave so they can get checked out. So, then the parent gives in and hands the kid the candy. Think about that for a second. What do you think the child learned from all that?”

“That he should throw a fit if he wants candy?”

“Exactly!”

“How come you’ve never spanked me when I’ve been bad?”

“Because I don’t believe in scaring or hurting you to get you to behave. Punishment might make you stop doing something in that moment, but it has unintended consequences, like you might come to fear me or learn to lie to stay out of trouble. It’s true you can control people with negative things like threats and punishments, but I’d much rather help you learn to behave and enjoy life using positive reinforcement. Although, to be honest, I’ve learned from reading B. F. Skinner that even using positive reinforcement is a form of controlling someone else. So, I have never tried to use it deliberately with you. Skinner says, and I agree, that it’s always better to let a person enjoy the true benefits of something. Like, if you already love to read or ride your bike or play, I shouldn’t reward you for that. It’s not necessary. I wouldn’t want you to start doing those things only to please me or get a reward, when you loved doing them before.”

“Dad, I think you are a good parent.”

“Thank you, Honey. I make mistakes sometimes, but I think to be a good parent you have to put your own needs aside sometimes and try to understand human behavior. B. F. Skinner has helped me a lot with that. Besides, you’re easy to parent. Your behavior is almost always positive. And I love being your parent.”

“Is that why Mom yells at me and you don’t? Because she doesn’t really want to be a parent?”

“Who told you that?”

“Well, she said I was ‘an accident’ and she never wants to play with me.”

“Well, you were an accident, in that you weren’t really planned, but once she found out about you, she—we—were both happy you were coming.”

“Then how come she won’t play with me?”

“I don’t think anyone taught her how to play or allowed her to play, so she just may not enjoy playing like we do. I don’t think your mom got a lot of attention when she was growing up, unless she did something her parents didn’t like. She definitely loves you and wants to spend time with you though.”

It was true; Mom watched TV with me and took me with her when she ran errands or visited people.

“Did you know I won the class spelling bee?”

“No. That’s great, Michelle! Do you remember the final word you had to spell?”

“‘Vacation.’ And Bridget McDunn came in second place. I’m invited to her birthday party Saturday. Can you take me?”

“If I’m home, I will.”

As it turned out, Dad wasn’t home Saturday, so Mom dropped me off at Bridget’s party. Although we’d walked to school together for two years now, I’d never been invited over to her house. Five second graders from our class, plus her cousin from out of town and her babysitter Eve, were all coloring quietly at the kitchen table when I arrived.

As I walked by Bridget’s parents sitting in the living room, I said in my most polite voice, “Hello Mrs. McDunn. Hello Mr. McDunn. I’m Michelle.”

“Hello Michelle. I am Mrs. McDunn, but this is DOCTOR McDunn,” said Mrs. McDunn, emphasizing the word “doctor.”

From her tone, I could tell I’d said something wrong, but I wasn’t entirely clear what it was. I asked Eve about it later and she said Bridget’s mom was a first grade teacher and that her dad was a school principal. He had the title “doctor,” but he wasn’t a “doctor-doctor.” Although I didn’t know there were other types of doctors, I would be sure to call him “DOCTOR McDunn” on my way out.

Eve, sitting at the kitchen table with the other girls, smiled and waved me over. She handed me a Snoopy coloring sheet and my own eight-pack box of crayons that she said I could take home. Bread, meat, and cheese were neatly arranged in circles on another table for each of us to make our own sandwiches. There was also an elaborate tray of fruits and vegetables. We each got to pour our own glass of milk. After lunch, Eve cleared the table and gave each of us a piece of white paper with the word “hippopotamus” at the top. She said that whoever could spell the most words in ten minutes using the letters in “hippopotamus” would win a prize, except for Bridget, who was allowed to play, but couldn’t actually win anything.

I found thirteen words: hip, pop, pip, tip, mat, sat, hat, pat, top, mop, map, hit, and pot. I’d also found the words “poop” and “shit,” causing me to lose some thinking time, but I figured those words wouldn’t count. A girl from our class named Shannon won with fifteen words—she’d also found “sip” and “stamp.” The prize was a reading and math activity book, like the ones we used in our class only thinner. After the game, we sat in a circle while Eve handed Bridget our presents to open. Eve wrote down who each present was from and Bridget thanked us all equally. After the presents, we sang “Happy Birthday” and ate cake. It was almost time for our parents to pick us up, but I asked Bridget if I could see her hamster, Fluffy. Eve told us all to hold hands while she led us past Bridget’s parents and into Bridget’s room.

“I like your bed!” I squealed. She had a cherry wood canopy bed with lavender silk draped over the top and matching ruffles along the skirt. A large oval mirror, like something I’d seen in a fairy tale, sat in one corner. Her curtains were made of the same silk as her canopy and her matching carpet was thick and plush under my socks. There were built-in shelves along one whole wall of her room that held neatly organized books, art supplies, wooden toys, stuffed animals, and jewelry boxes. Bridget had a real school desk next to Fluffy’s hamster table. Her huge closet was open a little and I could see it was full of color-coordinated outfits. Hanging on the door knob was a beautiful yellow, red, and orange mesh genie costume. Lying on the floor under it was a bright green sequined sash and a pair of sequined green ballet slippers.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the outfit.

“The costume for my ballet recital,” Bridget said.

I was surprised. I didn’t know kids could take ballet lessons.

“Can you put it on for us?” I said, jumping up and down. I just had to see Bridget in it.

After gaining permission from Bridget’s parents, Eve took Bridget into the bathroom. Five minutes later, she came quietly and gracefully back to us in the costume. A green mesh veil was held to her head with a green sequined headband. She looked like a genie princess. Mrs. McDunn came into the room and stood proudly behind her daughter. She looked toward us other girls and said, “You girls should ask your moms to sign you up for ballet. You can start when you’re six.”

“I’m going to be in the circus this summer, too,” Bridget said. “You can start that when you’re eight.”

Really and truly there just happened to be an amateur circus in our town, but I’d never thought of joining it.

As soon as I got in the car, I told Mom about Bridget’s ballet costume and the circus. I asked her if I could have lessons too.

“We’ll see,” she said.

The circus was free to join as long as you lived in our county, but she said ballet might get expensive. I told her I wanted to join ballet right away. It was almost Christmas, so maybe ballet classes would start fresh in January. Circus training started in the spring. I could hardly wait.

After that day, Bridget took on a whole new fascination for me. Not only did I suddenly have a deep desire for everything she had, I studied her behavior and copied what I could of it. I made a point to see her grades on papers and tests and I watched her interactions with the teachers. I spent as much time around her as possible, thinking if I could act more like her, I would be treated more like she was.

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