Mavis Hetherington

Researcher of family dynamics has created an impressive lineage of psychological progeny

Mavis Hetherington

Mavis Hetherington, pioneer explorer of family dynamics, is a victim of happenstance. She really wanted to write fiction, taking psychology courses only to help with characterization. Luckily for science, the Anglo Saxon course she needed wasn’t offered by the University of British Columbia the year she was to take it, so, as she put it in a recent interview, “I waltzed over to psychology and said, ‘Here I am!’”

Years later, Hetherington is an admired scientist, devoted teacher, and affectionately termed “taskmaster” in the classroom. The Canada-born APS Fellow and Charter Member has produced not only great contributions to psychological science — earning her the APS William James Fellow award in 1993 and the James McKeen Cattell Fellow award in 2004 — but also great contributors.

When asked about the intellectual “family tree” that has sprouted from her studies and teachings, Hetherington described her academic lineage as being more akin to a wheel of spokes, radiating both outward to those she has taught and inward from those who also have influenced her.

Collegial Inspiration
Hetherington’s journey fully commenced after she received her masters in 1948 and left British Columbia for the University of California, Berkeley, where she hoped to study under the late Erik Homberger Erikson.

But circumstance intervened again. Before Hetherington could even step into his class, Erikson left, refusing to sign a McCarthy-era loyalty oath. Hetherington instead fell under the sway of Leo Postman (1918-2004), a giant of memory research listed among the Review of General Psychology‘s 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Postman, she recalled, “was the one who turned me into a scientist. He made me understand how exciting and demanding research could be.”

If Postman gave her the enthusiasm for science, it was a paper by Stanford psychologist Robert Sears (1908-1989) that steered Hetherington toward studying children and families. Sears’ article explored “the bi-directionality of influences between parent and child,” Hetherington recalled. “I thought that was one of the most important articles I’d read.” How children influence parents as well as the other way around was to be central to her lifelong research.

In 1960, Hetherington moved to the University of Wisconsin. While her husband taught law at the same university, her own career became stalled by sexism. Mincing no words, she remembers, “They hated women.” She complained to her department head that she was carrying a double load, outpublishing men three to one, yet getting the lowest pay. “I told him I was going to take a year off and grow a penis. He said, ‘You do it and you’re in.’”

Thankfully, an unwitting intervention by APS Fellow and Charter Member Willard (Bill) Hartup, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, changed her fate. He invited Hetherington to present a paper “on identification and imitation in families” at a symposium. The reaction — quick and positive — rendered Hartup’s invitation one of the major milestones in her career.

“It changed my life. It made me feel I wasn’t out in left field and that my work was really worth doing,” she says.

Not long thereafter, she encountered APS Fellow Ross Parke, now at the University of California, Irvine. In 1965, Parke was a newly minted PhD and, like Hetherington, frustrated by the prevalence of age-based textbooks. Rather than placing their focus on things like aggression in toddlers, aggression in grade school, aggression in adolescents, the team wrote a topic-based text, which crossed developmental stages. Now in its sixth edition, Child Psychology: A Contemporary Viewpoint, is a best-seller.

She was “clearly coming into her own,” Parke recalls. Their textbook signaled “the rise of experimental child psychology … a shift from description toward process, how kids learn a language, how they interact with their peers and families, what is the role of biology in families, and so on.”

Hetherington moved to the University of Virginia in 1971, where she spent the remainder of her career, but she would continue to learn from colleagues across the country. Among the colleagues Hetherington said have most influenced her work is APS Fellow and Charter Member Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) of Cornell University. Hetherington recalls that Bronfenbrenner, one of the founders of Head Start, “made me look beyond the family … [to] the peer group, the general social setting, and the cultural environment in which children live, and the historical aspects — how we think about these things over time. … He had a profound influence over me.”

Others studying family systems had long-lasting influence, including another Canadian, APS Fellow Philip Cowan. Although he came to Hetherington’s previous institution, Berkeley, in 1963, Cowan says “I didn’t meet Mavis for about 20 years. People who were there remember her vividly as a graduate student with flaming red hair and a great deal of energy and pizzazz. The hair is less flaming now, but the energy and pizzazz remain.”

“I learned two things from Mavis,” Cowan says. “When you’re discussing ideas with her, keep focused, because she does not suffer fools or foolish thoughts gladly. And, when you’re doing science, make sure you’re studying something that you care passionately about, and that you’re having fun working at. Without the fun part, the playfulness, the personal relationships involved, the enterprise itself has only the faintest chance of producing meaningful and interesting results.”

“I was motivated by her work to embark on a longitudinal study of divorce,” Maccoby says of Hetherington. “She embodies so many strengths. She is meticulous about methodology. One can always trust her data. She has exceptionally good sense about what issues are important to study; and a deep understanding that what seem to be discrete events, such as divorce, are instead complex social processes unfolding over time.”

Patricia Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a specialist in the effects of social issues on families and development and founding director of Cells to Society (C2S) at Northwestern University, credited Hetherington for her “extremely important” mentorship: “She trained me in family systems theory, and modeled a spectacular, multidisciplinary, policy-relevant research career for me.

A Shotgun Wedding
The spokes of Hetherington’s wheel extend to her interest in behavioral genetics. It was sparked by the work of Norman Garmezy, now professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, and such behavioral genetics pioneers as APS Fellow and Charter Member Robert Plomin and Michael Rutter, now of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry (and Keynote Speaker at this year’s APS annual convention). David Reiss, George Washington University Medical Center, and Tom O’Connor, University of Rochester have also had great impact.

“Although Mavis is primarily known for her work on divorce, remarriage and step-parenting,” says Plomin, “she has played an important — and probably unknown — role in the integration of genetics in developmental psychology. Twenty years ago, Mavis, Reiss, and I were brought together in a shotgun wedding to study genetics and family environment from our very different perspectives of child development (Mavis), family systems (David) and genetics (me).

Eric Turkheimer


“Although we tottered on the brink of divorce at times, it was a very productive marriage, including several offspring who have gone on to be leaders in the interdisciplinary field of developmental behavioral genetics. It was a good lesson for me in the synergism that can come from interdisciplinary collaboration when — and this is an important caveat — the collaborators are as stimulating and fun as Mavis.”

Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia, who studies genetic and environmental pathways to development, calls Hetherington’s influence “deep and many-faceted. She is on the one hand an originator of what became the dominant empirical paradigm of the developmental psychology of her era: large scale studies of families, based on direct observation rather than questionnaires …. In my own field, Mavis’ work set a standard for genetically informed studies that remained true to the psychological complexity of families; it remains the standard to this day.”

And there is Steve Nock, a University of Virginia sociologist, with whom she team-taught a seminar during her final four years before retirement. Hetherington describes the experience: “We had a lot of fun, and the students liked it because we disagreed with each other, but he made me more aware of the problems that most psychologists have … and I made him more aware of the terrible problems sociologists have with their methods.”

Nock called the experience “one of the most rewarding of my academic career. We often took very different approaches and came to somewhat different conclusions. True, we did disagree. And true, we sometimes argued. But now that Mavis has retired, and I no longer have such frequent exchanges on these matters, I realize how much they changed me. I no longer teach the same way. Her influence endures every day I walk into a classroom, write an article, or read someone else’s work.”

Hetherington deflects such praise. “I feel I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve always had interesting people around me who were very helpful and who were very open to discussing issues.”

Passing it On
“You put students in contact with people you admire, if they’re bright and perceptive, they’ll interact with them. At conferences, I always have my students around me and introduce them to all the big names in the field. They’re very excited about it.”

Marjorie Gunnoe


To be sure, some of those students dubbed her “the dragon lady,” in part because of her red hair, says Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe, now at Calvin College, but also because “some were pretty intimidated by her. I never actually saw her breathe fire, but if you weren’t assertive enough to establish some limits, she’d work you into your grave, or out of the lab, or right out of graduate school.”

One student almost succumbed, Gunnoe recalls. After receiving his masters’ thesis back for revision a third time, he packed his car to leave school. “But,” Gunnoe recalls, “he was a keeper, so she [Hetherington] drove over to his house and unpacked him.” He now studies how children and families respond to divorce and remarriage.

But Hetherington could also be supportive and motherly, Gunnoe said, adding that “her enthusiasm for research was contagious.”

Hetherington remembers Gunnoe equally well. During one brainstorming session, Gunnoe told her, ” ‘You know, Mavis, I don’t want to grow up to be just like you. I want to have time for my family and church and other activities.’ Everyone else looked away afraid to see how I’d react. I laughed, it was so typical of Marjorie. People don’t have to go on to be exactly like you and have your values and lifestyle to have you consider them successful. I think Marjorie is one of my best products.”

A true story, Gunnoe confirms, “but ultimately, the joke’s on me. I have two biological sons and one preschool daughter recently adopted from Russia, I teach five to six courses a year, I am active in children’s ministry at my church, and I publish more than I really have to, but I can’t stop myself. Why? Because Mavis taught me that it’s so much fun when those results appear on the computer screen.”

The Fruits of Her Labors
Hetherington’s students have carried on her legacy and include some of the most distinguished and accomplished scientists in the field.

Thomas Oltmanns


APS Fellow and Charter Member Thomas Oltmanns, now exploring interpersonal perception of psychopathology at Washington University in St. Louis, recalls that in 1969, “I was planning to go to law school. I happened to wander into the introductory psychology course that Mavis taught at Wisconsin. It’s hard to describe the excitement that she was able to convey in her lectures. Her eye contact was riveting. She stood up on the stage and managed to hold us spellbound for the entire period.

“Halfway through the semester, my roommates told me that if I didn’t stop trying to repeat her lecture every evening, they were going to ask me to move out. Everything she told us about was so fascinating that I couldn’t resist the urge to try to share it. My passion for the field can be traced directly to Mavis. She lit the fire, and I will always be grateful to her for that.”

APS Fellow and Charter Member Richard Weinberg, studying developmental behavior genetics at the University of Minnesota, first encountered Hetherington when he was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, expecting to eventually go to law school and follow his father’s footsteps. Instead, “I had the good fortune of taking introductory child psychology from Mavis Hetherington. I was smitten. Her amazing teaching ability matched by her passion for the field drove me to major in psychology,” he wrote in an Observer guest column in April 2004. He recalled in an interview that Hetherington’s “talents as a superb teacher influenced my career,” notably by diverting his interest from law to psychology. “I quickly realized that if you could not effectively communicate your knowledge to students and guide their thinking, you were not fulfilling your role as a mentor and teacher.”

Another former student at the University of Wisconsin who has gone on to make an impact is John Gottman — now professor emeritus at the University of Washington. Gottman founded an institute for the study of parenting that the media dubbed “The Love Lab” and is a world renowned expert on interaction in couples. Hetherington recalls Gottman’s influence on her: “He helped shape the way I did methodology. He’s an example of how bright students influence you as well as you influence them. I think he took every seminar I gave” at Wisconsin.

Observer Vol.19, No.3 March, 2006

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