Leadership : Up Close and Personal

Vol. 12, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editors: 
Virginia L. Clark & Frances E. Andrews

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 12, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2000. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review.


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Kappa Omicron Nu


And a Child Shall Lead You

Richard M. Lerner

Dr. Lerner is Professor of Child Development, Tufts University.

Justin came into my study. I was glad that he did. I was just removing the cellophane from the “warehouse” copy of my seventeenth book, the copy the publisher sends to the author as soon as a new book reaches the distribution center.

“Hey, son, come here. I want to show you something.” His seven year-old eyes widened and he rushed over to my desk. I suppose he thought it might be a new office gadget—a “toy” he could play with.

“What do you have, Daddy?”

“See,” I said, proudly holding up the volume before him, my face beaming with a broad grin of self-congratulatory accomplishment, “it’s my new book!”

“Oh.” He breathed a deep sigh punctuated by a shrug of his shoulders and a grimace of disappointment.

I was crushed that he took no joy in my accomplishment. A moment of resounding silence filled the room. He looked at my face, which was clearly saddened by his reaction. He seemed to grasp the meaning of my changed expression.

Then, more as an explanation of his response than as a question, he asked, “Why do you write those things, anyway? Do they ever help anybody?”

His questions led to an epiphany. In the moment that his words pierced the silence, an image, a glimpse of a possible future, burst before me.

I saw a young man—my son years in the future—kneeling with a woman I imagined was his wife, in a dark attic, a tiny space illuminated by a single hanging light bulb. He had just opened a carton. He was, with his wife peering over his shoulder, staring at its contents.

“Wait, I know what these are,” he said, reaching inside the box. He pulled out a book covered in dust, and blew on its side and cover. “These are copies of the books my dad used to write.” He paused, then breathed the same sort of sigh I had heard in my study. Then, aloud, but more to himself than to her, he said, “I remember all the time he spent doing these . . . squirreled away on weekends and almost every night. I never got to spend as much time with him when I was growing up as I would have liked . . . .” His voice halted and choked a bit. “He chose to do these instead.”

I saw that this was what my work would come to, what it would mean to my son: Missed opportunities to have spent time with his dad for the sake of books that would gather dust in an unknown carton in a dark attic. And all for what? My son would believe that I had helped no one, that all my time had been wasted. The result of all that I gave up to produce these books was dust and sad memories of missed opportunities.

I guess that as a result of this vision I could have had a Scrooge-like conversion, repudiated of my “workaholic” ethic and adopted a life focused solely on spending time with my son, his younger sister, and infant brother. But that is not the resolution I made at that moment.

I decided that, in some way, I would make my work of value to my son, to his siblings, to my family. I resolved to find a way, although exactly how would not become clear to me for several months, to recast my work so that my son could say that his dad mattered, that he had done more than produce the useless and pointless knowledge that Bob Dylan described in Ballad of a Thin Man, that because of his work, life had become better.

But better for whom? I was a scholar of child and adolescent development, an expert in the study of youth and families. Clearly, it seemed, I should contribute not only to better knowledge about youth development but, as well, to using that knowledge to make development better for young people.

“Okay, then,” I thought. “This is what I’ll do.” This goal seemed certain. But how I would reach it did not.

The path this question took me on over the next two years was one that first involved coming to appreciate the implications of my own scholarship for application. I had been developing a theory that stressed that human development occurs through the bi-directional relationships individuals have with their physical and social world. One could test this theory by introducing changes into the contexts within which young people interacted; one could then evaluate whether these changes resulted in predicted developmental outcomes. I began to realize, then, that in the real ecology of human development these changes in person-context relations could be represented by programs or policies. These interventions into the course of life could be aimed at altering individual-context relations, at improving the quality and outcomes of individuals’ development. By using my ideas to design and assess the effectiveness of programs and policies, I could—at the same time—learn something about the adequacy of these interventions and the theory of development from which such community-based actions derived. Simply, if I was to use my scholarship to do more than generate dust-producing volumes of theory and research, I had to work to have my ideas inform the program and policy development, implementation, and evaluation process. I had to become an applied developmental scientist.

But this recognition led to a second realization. I could not do this work alone. To apply my ideas in real-world settings—in the communities where youth and families actually lived (as compared to an artificial “laboratory” setting)—I had to engage the cooperation of colleagues from a myriad of disciplines and professions. Their expertise in research and intervention was vital for understanding the system of interrelated issues faced by, and the numerous assets and capacities of, the people and communities with which I would have to work. And I had to engage members of the community as well—they were the experts about life in their families and neighborhoods. I had to embark on a co-learning collaboration with them if I was to help couple their ecology into high quality research and successful programs. In fact, if my scholarship was going to enhance the life chances of youth, if it was to make an effective and sustained difference in individuals’ lives, then both my research and the applications associated with it had to be valued and meaningful to the community. It had to be co-owned with them.

The task that I now had before me was finally clear. I had to induce in others—in academic colleagues and community partners—the enthusiasm I had for my vision of applied developmental science. I had to organize a “platform,” or an institutional context—for instance, a university center or institute devoted to linking outreach and scholarship in the service of youth and families—to coalesce others around my vision, to communicate and advance the idea of applying developmental science to promote positive outcomes to the lives of people of our communities. It was a short step, then, from this insight into making a commitment to pursue career opportunities involving developing and sustaining university units devoted to outreach scholarship.

This account may be nothing more than an academic odyssey motivated by a perhaps offhand or over interpreted remark by a very young boy to his father. However, if this history is an account of the genesis of leadership, then it is one that was born from the love of a father for his son, and of that father’s resulting hope that his son would remember him as having lived a life that mattered—to his own family and the families of countless others. To matter to my son I set out on a path committed to helping others matter to the children and families across our nation and world.