Sara Harkness, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor of Human Development and Pediatrics, and Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Health, and Human Development
Sara Harkness has always been fascinated by other cultures and languages. As a high school student, she learned to speak Swedish while living with a family in Stockholm and attending high school as an American Field Service exchange student. In college, Sara majored in comparative literature, then taught English language and literature at two universities in Colombia before returning to the U.S. to begin doctoral studies in Social Anthropology at Harvard. Her first research project as a graduate student was a study of children’s acquisition of basic color terms in two different language communities in Guatemala, one Spanish-speaking and the other Mam (a Mayan language).
At Harvard, Sara met and married the love of her life, Charlie Super, and together they travelled to Kenya where for the next three years they carried out research on children and families in a rural Kipsigis village of the western highlands. While there, Sara investigated children’s language socialization, the psychology of childbirth, and moral reasoning among men leaders and non-leaders. After returning to the U.S., Sara and Charlie’s work was supported by a combination of research grants, teaching, and consulting, while writing up their Kenya research and enjoying time with their growing family in Cambridge. Sara also earned a Master of Public Health degree at the Harvard School of Public Health, and subsequently taught in its department of Population Sciences. During this period, Charlie and Sara published a conceptual framework for the study of children’s development in cultural context, the “developmental niche,” which has been widely used by researchers around the world. A further elaboration on the niche idea, “parental ethnotheories,” led to a series of studies on how parents’ culturally shared belief systems are expressed in parenting practices and interactions with their children, and how parents themselves are influenced by other “expert” sources such as pediatricians.
This research agenda continued when the Harkness-Super family moved to central Pennsylvania for jobs in HDFS at Penn State University, but they soon developed a new geographic focus: cultural variability among Western societies. Returning to “the field,” but now in The Netherlands, they discovered that Dutch parental ethnotheories and practices offered a striking contrast with the hyper-focused American middle-class concern with “stimulation.” In particular, the “Three R’s” of Dutch parenting – rust (rest), regelmaat (regularity) and reinheid (cleanliness) – guided parents to avoid too much stimulation and promoted a regular schedule with plenty of sleep as the key to healthy development. A subsequent cross-cultural study of parental ethnotheories and children’s transition to school in The Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Poland, Australia, and the U.S. brought Sara and Charlie back to The Netherlands for a full year of research with parents and teachers, in collaboration with colleagues in the other countries.
Upon returning from Europe in 1996, Sara and Charlie began a new chapter in their academic careers with a move to UConn, where Charlie became Dean of the School of Family Studies for what turned out to be its last 10 years of existence, and Sara was appointed as full professor in the same school. Organizational changes at UConn resulted in the School’s becoming a department within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but Sara and Charlie’s research trajectory remained constant. In 2009, their research was recognized by the Society for Research on Child Development by its inaugural award for “Distinguished contributions to cultural and contextual factors in child development.”
A continuing motivation in Sara’s work has been the desire to “make a difference” beyond the creation of new knowledge for its own sake. Together with colleagues in the Neag School of Education, Sara helped lead a GEAR UP project (a federally funded program to promote academic achievement for students in disadvantaged schools), where the team worked with three cohorts at a K-8 school in Hartford, following them through high school to support learning and engagement in education oriented to post-secondary education. This project was recognized in 2006 by an award from UConn for Excellence in Outreach and Public Engagement. In 2012-2013, Sara spent a year in Washington D.C. as a Jefferson Science Fellow, working as a Senior Advisor in Education and Health in the Latin American and Caribbean Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development. A highlight of that year was working on a project to promote early literacy development, especially among indigenous children in Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, and Nicaragua. She has also enjoyed working with colleagues at the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood on evaluations of intervention projects designed to support vulnerable families and their children. As director of the university-wide Center for the Study of Culture, Health, and Human Development, Sara developed a graduate certificate program to train doctoral students in inter-disciplinary approaches to issues of health and development in cultural context. Most recently, the CHHD leadership team – including HDFS faculty members Alaina Brenick and Caroline Mavridis, Clewiston Challenger in Counseling Psychology, Saskia van Schaik at Radboud University (The Netherlands) and co-director Charles Super – put together a video entitled Making Voices Heard: Diversity, Disadvantage, and Discrimination in Educational Settings. Funded by a grant from the President’s Commitment to Community Initiative, the video was launched in April 2021 as a Webex Event, with opening remarks by Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Frank Tuitt, a further note of welcome by President Katsouleas, and over 150 people in attendance including HDFS faculty members and students. The video is now posted on the CHHD website, where it will be available for teaching and training purposes free of charge.
In the summer of 2019, Sara and Charlie returned to the village in Kenya where they had started their research, and their family, so long ago. They were amazed to be warmly welcomed by the people of the village, and they have since established a non-profit organization, Friends of Leldayet Kokwet, to support education at the secondary and post-secondary levels through scholarships for students as well as restoring and equipping schools in the village.
When she isn’t working, Sara enjoys playing her beloved cello, tending home and garden, and visiting with her children and grandchildren. Despite the strictures of the pandemic, Sara is grateful for the wonderful relationships that have blossomed during this time, even if remotely.