As for his two sons from his later marriage, how they were raised often led to disagreements between him and Rosalie. A 1930 article that she wrote in Parent's Magazine reflected the issues that she had with her husband's ideas about child-rearing. Titled, "I Am The Mother of a Behaviorist's Sons", the article showed only lukewarm support for John Watson's stern behaviourist principles. She even went so far as to suggest that her children be raised with an appreciation of art and music (which her husband often dismissed as frivolous). Rosalie added that "In some respects I bow to the great wisdom in the science of behaviorism, and in others I am rebellious. ... I like being merry and gay and having the giggles. The behaviorists think giggling is a sign of maladjustment." Unfortunately, her positive influence on her sons would be brief. After a bout with dysentery which grew worse despite treatment, Rosalie Rayner Watson died at the age of 35 leaving John Watson to raise their children alone. Devastated by Rosalie's death, he would never mention her name in his children's presence again. As William and James Watson would later describe, his announcing to them that their mother had died was one of the few times that he had ever hugged them.
Aside from advertising work (from which he eventually retired after a few years), John Watson became a virtual recluse on his farm. While he would be involved with other women, he never remarried and began to neglect his personal appearance and hygiene as he grew more eccentric. In 1957, he was surprised when the American Psychological Association told him that he would be awarded a gold medal for his contributions to psychology. Despite going with his sons to New York to receive the award, he asked one of them to stand in for him at the last moment out of fear that he would burst into tears during the public ceremony. The inscription on the medal read:
To John B. Watson whose work has been one of the vital determinants of the form and substance of modern psychology. He initiated a revolution in psychological thought and his writings have been the point of departure for continuing lines of fruitful research.
Considering that John Watson's academic contributions had been overshadowed by later theorists and even his staunchest defenders had since rejected his extreme behaviourist position, it was a magnaminous tribute. He died a year later at the age of eighty. His older son William, who suffered from longstanding emotional problems despite becoming a successful Freudian psychoanalyst (which likely grieved his behaviourist father), eventually commited suicide four years after his father's death. Ironically, William Watson's suicide may have led to a persistent urban legend surrounding the supposed suicide of B.F. Skinner's younger daughter Deborah due to her spending part of her infancy in an Air Crib designed by her father (Deborah Skinner Buzan has since devoted many years of her life debunking that particular rumour).
As for his other son, James Watson did relatively better in life. In a 1981 symposium at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Los Angeles, he would say that:
Both dad and mother, although she died when I was still a child, rigorously pursued the foundation teachings of behaviorism. Frankly, I think that a better end product would have resulted if the process of growing up had been [tempered] with some measure of affection -- it certainly would have made growing up less like a business proposition where one is judged by bottom-line performance. It is my hope that the teachings of his disciples and others who have followed him have tempered the emotionally spartan upbringing that he espoused. His behavioristic theories on child development unquestionably have value in terms of life's preparation through the setting of standards and developing an understanding of the parameters of acceptable and responsible behavior, but they could have been much improved if one were permitted to mix in a big helping of parental affection. I believe to do so would provide a better psychological foundation for all of us who, at one time or another in life, are ultimately put to the test of weathering the emotional storms that often topple people because of the frail egos and low levels of self-esteem, which usually result from a childhood diet that lacks a deeper sense of human connection.
Although James Watson would later backtrack on his criticism of his father's ideas, other members of John's family would be less generous. The most well-known of John Watson's descendants is his granddaughter, actress Mariette Hartley (of whom I happen to be a long-time fan). In her 1990 book, Breaking the Silence, she described her own emotional problems growing up with her mother, John Watson's daughter Polly. While Ms. Hartley eventually survived her mother's alcoholism and suicide attempts as well as many of the other tragedies that nearly overwhelmed her, the consequences of John Watson's theories definitely had an influence. As Ms. Hartley would state in her book:
Grandfather's theories infected my mother's life, my life, and the lives of millions. How do you break a legacy? How do you keep from passing a debilitating inheritance down, generation to generation, like a genetic flaw?
While John Watson died believing to the end that the psychological revolution that he had helped bring about would change psychology forever, he was largely mistaken. Even in his lifetime, neobehaviourists such as Clark Hull and B.F. Skinner would demonstrate that the radical behaviourism endorsed by Watson was far too simplistic to explain something as complex as behaviour (whether in humans or animals). As new models of cognitive, motivational, and biological psychology came along, Watson's old theories seemed increasingly out of step with the more diversified view of psychology favoured today.
Despite his extreme behaviourism falling out of favour, John Broadus Watson is still considered to be one of the central figures in psychology's history. From the "Little Albert" experiment to his highly controversial theories on raising children, he may well be remembered more as a showman for his own special brand of psychology than as a scientist. Whatever his impact, both personal and professional, he remains larger than life.
And that may well be the legacy he would have wanted most.