Raising the Bar: Hetherington Set the Standard for Studying the Family

March 11, 2008 — Thomas Oltmanns remembers vividly his intro psychology class as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. It was 1970 and the Vietnam War was raging, but Oltmanns never missed a session, even when he was supposed to be participating in the antiwar protest taking place just outside the building.

The professor, a stunning young woman with long, flaming red hair, would enter the amphitheater-style classroom from the rear, storm down the aisle onto the stage and, without using a single page of notes, hold nearly 500 students spellbound for an hour, day after day.

"She was the most fascinating, charismatic teacher I've ever met," said Oltmanns.

After one semester with Professor E. Mavis Hetherington, Oltmanns dropped his plans for law school and changed his major to psychology. Now a professor of psychology himself at Washington University in St. Louis, Oltmanns said he only wishes he could teach so well.

In a career that spanned nearly half a century — most of it spent at the University of Virginia — Mavis Hetherington seemed larger than life to colleagues and students alike. Her boundless energy, prolific scholarship, scrupulous research, uncompromising leadership and good humor earned her countless accolades, both professional and personal.

Rigor in Research

Hetherington was a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology, revolutionizing the way researchers approached the study of family dynamics. In the 1960s, when theory and practice were largely based on experimental methods using animal models or on qualitative determinations based on proscribed interactions with small groups or individuals, Hetherington was among the first to apply rigorous empiric methodology to collecting, coding and analyzing observational data from real families in their own environment.

"Mavis established a standard that said the data that come from studying something as big and complicated as a family can be as rigorous as the data that come out of somebody's rat cage," said U.Va. psychology professor Eric Turkheimer. "That changed the field forever."

A native of Canada, Hetherington spent her early career as a clinical psychologist at a child guidance clinic in Vancouver. While struggling to help distressed children and families, she often thought there must be more that was known about their psychopathology and the possible interventions than she was aware of at the time. What she discovered was disappointing.

"There were a lot of clinical theories," she said, "but there was not very much good clinical research in the 1950s. I kept thinking, 'We've got to have a research basis for what we're doing [and] how we're intervening with families. We can't just go in with folk wisdom or untested theories.' So I became more interested in research."

While she was teaching childhood psychopathology and psychotherapy at the University of Wisconsin during the 1960s, Hetherington started developing a research methodology that is now "the gold standard in social development psychology," as Turkheimer put it.

For Better or Worse

Hetherington came to Virginia from Wisconsin in 1971 when her husband, law professor John Hetherington, was recruited to teach at U.Va.'s School of Law. Mavis spent 29 years at U.Va., much of it as James M. Page Professor of Psychology, until retiring in 1999. During that time, she continued her widely respected research, developing studies that were massive and comprehensive.

Through four longitudinal investigations involving as many as 2,000 families over 30 years, the Hetherington Research Laboratory provided the most complete understanding to date of the complex effects of divorce on both children and adults. Rather than relying on survey questionnaires, which she felt were unreliable, Hetherington sent researchers directly into families' homes, schools and communities to interview them and videotape their everyday experiences and interactions.

Her book, "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," written for the popular press with John Kelly and published in 2002, is a capstone to this work. The book refutes popular myths about divorce, including assumptions that family breakups are always bad for children and that it's the men who win big in a divorce.

Being the Best

As chairwoman of U.Va.'s Department of Psychology from 1980 to 1984, Hetherington applied her own towering standards to the rest of the faculty, elevating the status of the department to one of national distinction. By the time she retired in 1999, the department of only 36 faculty was ranked 16th by U.S. News and World Report magazine.

"I had a father who had a profound influence on my career," Hetherington said. "He taught me to write and how to speak well. He was very supportive of me, but he had very high standards and expected me to excel."

Hetherington also credits her father with steering her professional interest toward the role of fathers within the family. "I thought, 'If fathers are so important in the development of children, what happens when the father isn't present in the home?' When you start from that point, you automatically start studying mother-headed families and divorce. If you study divorce, you automatically study remarriage."
Hetherington approached her role as teacher with the same intensity she put into her research. Even with classes she taught frequently, she would prepare for hours every time she entered the classroom. She would update information to include the latest research and memorize every lecture so she would be able to maintain a direct rapport with the students.

"I think teaching is really gratifying," Hetherington said. "It drives me crazy when people who are researchers don't put enough care into their teaching. I think it's a very important part of our mandate, and we have a very serious responsibility to our students."

Hetherington's commitment to her students didn't end with her retirement. Upon her departure from academia, the psychology department, with several significant gifts from the professor, established the E. Mavis Hetherington Graduate Fellowship as a means to support students who wish to study family issues. The first of these fellowships is expected to be awarded this year.

"I targeted the fellowship for the study of topics in family relations and social and personality development in children," Hetherington said. "Whether it's positive development, such as achievement, self-esteem and self-control, or negative behaviors such as delinquency, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy — these are very important issues for society."

Having it All

Despite her reputation as an academic powerhouse, Hetherington was also a "super mom" long before the term came into popular usage. Raising three boys provided many amusing examples of real-life child development, which she used frequently as anecdotes to illustrate lectures and writings.

"I'm one of the few parents who thought adolescence was just a great deal of fun. I could hardly wait for the kids to be there at the dinner table, because I thought they were so funny," she recalled. "My husband didn't feel quite the same way, though," she added with a hearty laugh.

Despite being a world-renowned expert on the psychology of divorce, Hetherington said she enjoyed a wonderfully happy marriage that lasted nearly 50 years until her husband's death in December 2006.

"I'm the most fortunate of women," she concluded. "I was fortunate to have had a really gratifying career; to have married a warm, witty, erudite man; and to have kids and grandchildren I adore."

— By Linda J. Kobert