Friday Weird Science: Refridgerator Mothers vs Refridgerator Kids

Jul 17 2009 Published by under Friday Weird Science

One of the great things about weird AND historical science is the great quotes that old-fashioned writing styles tend to produce. Today's quote, for example "information on the force effects of children". The force effects of children? When merely thrown? Or when using some sort of specialized device, such as a child-size trebuchet or slingshot?

Well, no, this paper is not about forces of children when used as objects. It's about the forces of children used for doors. Refrigerator doors, actually. A study like this would probably never fly now, but heck, the world of child psychology was young. It was 1958. Bain, Feagre, Wyly. "Behavior of young children under conditions simulating entrapment in refrigerators." Pediatrics, 1958.

Sci got this paper some time ago, and unfortunately, when she tried to go back online and get the pictures, was THWARTED. Grr. No pics. Too bad, some of them were incredibly 1950s. If anyone has a copy, pass it along? I can edit pics in!

So why on earth might people trap children in refrigerators? Well,it turns out that kids in the 1950s got trapped in those a lot (apparently they still do, and this is why you are supposed to take the lining off your fridge before you throw it away, to take away the airtight seal). Not just the fridge, also ice boxes. And of course, in the 1950s, it was much harder to get a good seal on your fridge or ice box, the door had to be heavier and shut tighter, to keep the food inside good for as long as possible. While deaths from being trapped in the fridge were, and are, very rare, in the 1950's they were definitely a cause for concern. The article cites up to FIVE children getting trapped in a fridge or ice box together, and suffocating. Most of the children were between 3 and 6.
Now, how does a kid go about getting trapped in the fridge? In some cases, they just wander in. In other cases, they are hiding from friends or parents, or the box has been abandoned in a dump and they found it. And in some cases, their playmates, not knowing any better, trap them inside. But one thing is certain. Most kids, when shut up in a small box, are going to want to get out. So refrigerator designers actually began trying to design safety releases for the inside of the fridge, so the child could open the door from the inside. But this wasn't really an optimal solution. First of all, how many three year olds are going to remember where the special lever is on the inside of the door to get out, when the inside of the box is dark and they are panicked. And secondly, those doors are HEAVY. It turns out that most kids between the ages of 2 and 6 can't really exert more than about 10 lbs of pressure on the inside of a door (this was a finding from preliminary studies, shutting kids up in a box designed to look like santa's chimney, and asking them to push as hard as they could to get out).
So this next set of trials was designed to test which of the release mechanisms actually worked. But the scientists weren't going to just go shutting kids in small boxes. Obviously, that's a really fear-provoking experience. They also wanted to make sure that there was nothing too closely resembling a real refrigerator, just in case the child's curiosity got the better of them, and they started exploring real ones when they got home. Instead, the scientists designed a very small, rather dense, playhouse. It looked just like a normal kid's playhouse, except that it was the exact dimensions of the average home fridge. Not only that, the house was equipped with an infrared camera on the top, which took videos of the kid while they were inside, while at the same time keeping it dark, like it would be in a fridge with the door shut.
It should also be noted that the scientists teamed up with a psychiatrist, a child psychologist, and the parents to agree on the length of time the child would be allowed to cry before they helped it out. Three minutes.
The scientists were testing three different types of devices to open the door from the inside. The first was one that would respond to pressure on the inside of the door. The second was a handle, that would have to be found and manipulated. The third was actually a latch of the scientists' own devising, shaped deliberately like a doorknob. Given the age of the children, the authors had a hunch that the kids might be feeling around for doorknobs, which are things kids are very quick to play with. And to help the kid find it, they had it glow in the dark a little. Finally, when preliminary testing showed that some kids didn't seem to move around very much, they added in a more sensitive pressure panel in the floor which would trigger the door to open.
They tested groups of children between the ages of 2 and 5. They brought them carefully into the room containing the test chamber, and allowed them to check it out for themselves. The test chamber itself had a little TV Donald Duck soundtrack playing from it, to get the kids inside. And once the kid was in, the door shut, the cartoon flicked off, and the place was dark. If the kid couldn't get himself out, the experimenter would then let the child out when they became very upset.
Whether or not the kid ended up getting out depended a lot on their age and size. But the most successful attempts were always with pushing the door panel or turning the knob, with the sensitive floor panel coming in third. Up to 75% of the kids involved in the experiment used of one these three things to get themselves out. One clever kid, being a little pitcher with big ears, actually didn't try to get out at all, but just sat quietly on his own for 15 minutes in the box, having overheard that he was going to be in a test that would take a while.
Kids showed a very wide series of responses to being locked in a box. One kid didn't move at all, and a few went straight into panic. But three major behavior patterns emerged.
1) No activity at all, the kid sat, figuring someone would come along and let them out, or knocked politely on the door, asking to be let out.
2) Figuring out a way to get out, but not slipping in to panic: usually these kids got right down to it, pushing at the door and walls, finding knobs to turn, etc. Some yelled, at the same time trying to get out. This kind of behavior increased with age.
3) Violent panic. These kids jumped up and down and shook the box around for all it was worth, some of them purposefully, but a lot of them just through sheer panic. This was most common in the younger ages.
Obviously, the best success was in the kids who tried to get out purposefully, while most of the passive kids just sat until they were let out. Panic did let people out in some cases, but much less than purposeful activity.
The authors also recorded what moves the kids made, and note that none of them masturbated (?!), but many kicked at the walls, pushed at the walls, or tried to turn or pull things they found. The youngest children tended to cry the most, while the oldest children displayed the most concerted effort to get out (not surprising, this is a very active period of development, so you're going to see a pretty wide range of maturing behaviors).
Luckily, most kids got out within 10 seconds, and those that didn't were taken out if they panicked, or were allowed to sit in there for up to 10 minutes if they were quiet.
Of course, once the child came out of the box, the cartoon was back on, and the kid was allowed to go get his parents to come in and see the playhouse. The experiments worked very hard to make sure the kids left in a 'happy and relaxed' frame of mind. Still, I'd think twice about having people shut my kid up in a small space.
The results that the scientists were most concerned with were how the kids got out, and how they could take advantage of this to make internal releases for the doors. The most promising appeared to be the sprung floor, which, if you moved around too much, made the door open. The problem is that this would be very hard to manufacture, harder to keep clean, and, if you loaded the floor down too much (with someone other than a child, like, say, food) the door could just spring open.
So the second choice appeared to be the best: the door knob. It turns out that most kids, when faced with something to grab, will usually try to pull it or turn it BEFORE they try to push on it. Turning was the most common movement, probably because so many kids are around normal doorknobs, and see their parents turn them all the time, even if they are not tall enough to turn them themselves. So the authors concluded that it might be best to install a release for the fridge that was shaped like a knob.
The third choice also proved to be useful, a lot of kids remembered where the door was and pushed on it, pushing it open. However, they couldn't push very hard. Most five year olds could push with around 25 lbs of force, but some 2 years olds topped out around 12 lbs.
It should be noted that the scientists took a great deal of care to make sure that the kids weren't harmed, and conducted a follow-up studies with the parents of the kids, to see if there were any adverse effects (including things like going back to the bottle, thumb-sucking, or bed wetting). None of the kids exhibited any change in behavior. After the test, the kids who were old enough talked a great deal about how they went in this darkened room that way small, but they GOT OUT by THEMSELVES, though they also wondered about why they were shut in a small room. So it seems that the experimenters did a good job in making the experience less negative than it might have been.
What the experimenters were most worried about, however, was the relatively large number of children who didn't actually try to escape the box (24%), but just sat there quietly until they were let out, or until their shifting caused the door to open. Presumably part of this was due to the kids knowing that the experimenter was nearby and would let them out eventually. So hopefully, the children would behave differently if they were shut in and knew a parent wasn't around.
The results of the experiment actually ended up in a law, providing that refrigerators have a simple internal release mechanism, or, alternatively, that the door open in response to less than 20 lbs of pressure from the inside. I'm sure sure if these laws are still in effect, but hopefully they have helped some kids.
Of course, with the design of today's refrigerators and ice boxes, all those litter shelves makes it much more unlikely for a kid to crawl in there successfully and shut themselves in. These days, I've noticed more of a problem with cats:


10 responses so far

  • Mozglubov says:

    This was a very enjoyable review... I especially like a post that ends with a LOLcat. Well done!

  • wenchacha says:

    I clicked to read this, thinking it was about the theory of all childhood problems back in the old days: refrigerator mothers. Moms who were cold and unaffectionate were to blame for their childrens' autism, homosexuality, or other "abnormal" diagnoses.
    Not so!
    It also reminds me of my own mother-in-law. Now 80, she still shivers when she recounts the day she was trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator. She and her younger brother got into all sorts of hijinks as kids, and this one definitely left its mark on her. I think she still relives it when she sees tragic news stories about children in similar circumstances.
    Oddly enough, her own mom was indeed the epitome of the older definition of "refrigerator mom."

  • Warren says:

    I'd think twice about having people shut my kid up in a small space.

    Particularly if they seemed to show an interest in the kids' masturbatory habits.
    On a more serious note I knew a boy in the early 80s who died in a freezer. His father owned an ice cream truck, and it had a small chest freezer with a latching door in it. The kid (about 10 years old) climbed in -- I don't think anyone ever knew why -- and eventually suffocated.
    It really does happen all the time, though with non-latching refrigerator doors much more the norm now, a refrigerator or freezer is less likely to become a child's penultimate coffin.

  • Donna B. says:

    I used to hear horror stories about this all the time when I was a child. Some of the really old refrigerators still in use at that time had a latching handle and if you were inside you weren't going to get out until somebody released that latch from the outside.
    The last I heard on the subject was that discarded refrigerators should have the doors completely removed, not just the seals.

  • AJ Pasl says:

    If I remember correctly from an engineering ethics class, refrigerator doors and child entrapment litigation actually forced manufacturers to adopt the modern method of sealing with a weak magnetic strip, which not only eliminated the need for a latching handle but provided a better, more air-tight seal anyway.

  • AK says:

    I've been playing around for a while with an idea for an air-transfer heat exchanger, that would bring warm air from outside and cool it against the cool air inside (which was being expelled warm at the same time as the warm air was being cooled and brought in). The design was intended for living spaces, but I wonder if it wouldn't work for refrigerators as well. Of course, there's the question of condensate, but except for that with good design the actual energy loss from inefficiencies in heat transfer could be kept really small. (And even with condensate, it would simply be acting as a dehumidifier, which in many climates would reduce the load on the air conditioning.) That way, a kid (or cat) stuck in a refrigerator could survive until they starved.

  • Joe says:

    Pediatrics is available online back to 1948. If your school does not have access to that database, you can ask them to get you a copy through ILL.

  • rb says:

    give me an e-mail address to send it to and I will send you a pdf of the article

  • Elf Eye says:

    My parents have had the same refrigerator for their entire married life (60 yrs.). It is still humming away, keeping the milk fresh and the ice cream hard, but it has exactly the sort of handle that would trap a child. I had been thinking that it would be a shame to see this refrigerator discarded when my parents pass away; now I think I will be sure to see that it is discarded! (One problem with discarding it, though: given its age, it must surely contain ozone-depleting chemicals.)

  • Dirk Faegre says:

    My grandmother, Marion L Faegre, was the prime "scientist" or "experimenter" on this project. She told me the story many times of what they went thru inventing the magnetic catch for the doors. As I recall they worked with Hotpoint on the final designs/testing. At the time she worked for the "Children's Bureau" of the Dept. of Health Education and Welfare. A search will show that she wrote many respected books on the subject of child rearing. Quite the woman and a wonderful grandma.

Leave a Reply