The early years

B.F. Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 in Susquehanna, a small railroad town located in northeastern Pennsylvania. Skinner wrote three volumes of autobiography during his later years, and much of what we know of his earliest years comes from his own recollection.

Skinner was the older of two children and was brought up in a home with "rigid standards" enforced by his mother Grace Burrhus. Like most children in the early 20th century, Skinner and his younger brother Edward (called "Ebbie") grew up in an atmosphere where a strict code of conduct was followed. Grace clearly attempted to pass this strong social code to Skinner (called Fred), by expressing disapproval when he wavered from the expected norm. Skinner seemed to be especially receptive to praise from his parents, though it was apparently not given in great quantity. It is an interesting parallel that later his theory of operant conditioning would emphasize the crucial effect of "positive" reinforcement on behavior.

Skinner's father, William, was an only child and lived most of his life in Susquehanna. After finishing high school, William worked for a short period as a draftsman in the Erie Railroad Engineering Department. Because he showed little mechanical aptitude, he decided in 1895 to enroll in law school in New York. After passing the bar examination in 1896, he opened a law practice and was interested in making his mark amid the opportunities that were present in the ever-changing cultural landscape of the early twentieth century. He was successful as an attorney, political orator, and town booster, but was also notoriously boastful about his accomplishments to peers and underlings.

Skinner recalled his father as a gentle parent who never physically punished him, preferring verbal disappointment or good-natured ridicule as the preferred form of discipline. His father never missed an opportunity, however, to inform him of the punishments which were waiting for him if he turned out to have a criminal mind. His father once took his eldest son through the county jail to show what life would be like inside a prison.

Despite William's verbosity in the community, at home he seemed to live under the control of his wife's domineering personality. She acted in a condescending way toward her husband, and according to Skinner's account, the two were never very close emotionally.

Grace, Skinner's mother, was the oldest of four children and three years younger than her husband. She apparently was quite attractive and had a gifted singing voice, which she regularly used in her performances at the Susquehanna Hogan Opera. She attended Susquehanna High School and had ambitions to become a secretary, which she eventually realized when she was hired by the Erie Railroad in 1901. It was during this time that she met William and was impressed by his rising reputation as a lawyer and political speaker. They were married in 1902 and had a much more promising future since the economic depression and widespread labor unrest of the 1890s had abated. American women of that era were expected to sacrifice their careers when they married, and Grace was no exception. Even though she still cared a great deal about her standing in the community, her status would be associated with William's professional position.

Skinner's brother Ebbie was two and a half years younger than he and appeared to be the favored child of his parents. Ebbie was an affable child who raised pigeons and played the clarinet. Ebbie was more outgoing than Fred and seemed to have a social grace that Fred lacked. Yet Fred was apparently not jealous of his brother and even appeared to like him. As Ebbie

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