Charles Super, HDFS Faculty Spotlight, November 2021


Charles M. SuperCharlie Super learned early in life that people in different places behave differently. He grew up in suburban New Jersey, but spent many summers with his mother’s parents in rural Georgia. His father, though American-born, grew up in Europe; Charlie had his own taste of Europe as a teenager, when the family spent a year in Paris.

After undergraduate education in conventional psychology at Yale, and graduate training in developmental psychology at Harvard’s interdisciplinary Social Relations department, Charlie thought he knew a great deal about the development of American children, but was unsure how much of that was relevant to children in other places; he wanted to live and work for an extended period in someplace very different. In the meantime, he had discovered True Love. He and Sara Harkness were married not long before she needed to do field work for her doctorate in Anthropology. The cooperative exchange program between Harvard and the University of Nairobi offered a perfect opportunity for both of them. With support from the Carnegie and W. T. Grant foundations, Charlie and Sara moved to a farming community in western Kenya. They lived there for three years and started their family among the Kipsigis peoples of Kokwet.

Returning to the U.S. offered many opportunities, but not academic jobs. Cambridge proved a good base for research grants, short-term teaching, consulting, and raising children in an urban, family-friendly environment. It also offered a window to re-engage in applied work; a stint working for the 1970 White House Conference on Children during graduate school had sharpened Charlie’s understanding of the need for scientifically informed interventions, and the time in rural Kenya had only expanded on that. In these Cambridge years, he worked with two large intervention programs for infant and child health, in Bangladesh and in Colombia, and completed the necessary training for licensure as a child-clinical psychologist.

The Harkness-Super family moved to Penn State in 1988 when both Charlie and Sara were offered tenured positions, Charlie as Head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. In addition to initiation into academic administration and Land Grant values, central Pennsylvania also offered a remarkable clinical experience. State College, home to the university, is “centrally isolated”, as the locals say, smack in the middle of Appalachia. As the only doctoral-level child clinician in a four-county area, he saw a range of mental suffering and resilience unavailable in a Boston practice, everything from infant sleep problems to childhood dissociative identity disorder. There was also more field work during this period, this time in the Netherlands, and now as a family journey. It was a period of ethnographic discovery and intellectual adventure, setting the stage for a return visit four years later.

At the end of that second work in the Netherlands, Charlie and Sara accepted offers from the University of Connecticut. Charlie came as Dean of the School of Family Studies, and this presented an opportunity to advance his ideas on a culturally informed curriculum in the context of an institutional history that appreciated the interplay of theory and practice. For him, this combined the interdisciplinary vision of Social Relations and the use of knowledge exemplified in the Land Grant tradition. Over the next decade, HDFS became the largest undergraduate major at UConn, expanded to the Regional Campuses, began to weave culture and diversity into the fabric of its educational programs, eliminated cronyism in the faculty merit system, increased research funding six-fold and outside gifts ten-fold, founded the Family Studies Alumni Society and the Family Studies Advisory Board, and established two research and outreach Centers, a student Writing Center, HDFS’s own high-tech seminar room, the “Grad Lab,” and Lu’s Café. When the University reorganized in 2006, eliminating three Colleges, HDFS became a department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Charlie returned to the faculty.

Research and writing have always been a vital part of Charlie’s academic life; in 2009 he and Sara shared the inaugural award for Cultural and Contextual Factors in Child Development of the Society for Research in Child Development. Two contributions lie at the center of their contributions; first, the developmental niche framework, derived directly from the African work. This theoretical construct helps identify how “culture” shapes early development, including gross motor skills, sleep, play, emotions, language, responsibility, and intelligence.  The second contribution stems in part from the realization that theoretical understanding of parental ethnotheories – culturally shared beliefs and values about children and the family — was still weak. Research started in Cambridge came to fruition in the Dutch fieldwork and its sequel, the International Study of Parents Children and Schools, which explored variation within Europe and its diaspora, working with colleagues from sites in Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Australia, and the U.S. A further follow-up – the International Baby Study –advanced our understanding of how differences in the developmental niche in samples of U.S. and Dutch infants lead to dramatic differences in sleep (a two-hour difference at 6 months) and the related biology of arousal. A book specifically on parental ethnotheories (edited by Harkness and Super) brought the niche framework to a broad audience of developmentalists and psychological anthropologists. The concepts are now widely used in research on culture and child development.

The importance of action continues as a theme in Charlie’s academic and personal life. Through the Center for the Study of Culture, Health, and Human Development (which he co-directs), Charlie helps oversee the National Family Development Credential Program, a nation-wide training that annually certifies about 1,000 front-line family workers in supportive and empowerment skills. He is Principal Investigator on a series of contracts with the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood to provide evaluations of this and other interventions. On the leadership front, he has recently rotated off eight years of service on the U.S. National Committee for Psychological Science, organized by the National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences. In that role he co-organized two national conferences on the issues facing the discipline in a globalizing world. He continues to serve on the Credentials Committee for the International Union of Psychological Sciences.

Outside his professional life, Charlie chairs the Woodstock Democratic Town Committee, enjoys being a husband, father, and grandfather, and occasionally plays ragtime piano.

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