Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2002

Investing in the Future



More than 3.5 million children live in Florida, according to the 2000 US Census, yet on many indicators of child well-being, Florida ranks in the bottom half of all states. On some indicators, such as the percentage of children living in poverty, the number of teenage pregnancies and the juvenile crime rate, Florida has made the "worst ten" list.

"The many problems facing Florida's children and families are a growing concern for everyone," UF Provost David Colburn says. "Much emphasis has been placed on the older population in our state, and while this segment is important, we need to solve the problems related to children, especially since they are our future."

Last year Colburn, who directs UF's Askew Institute on Politics and Society, sponsored a statewide symposium that focused on the challenges facing Florida's children. The meeting energized the state's key policy makers to work together and set an agenda for research, community education, advocacy and social services pertaining to children. After the meeting, Colburn spoke to CLAS Dean Neil Sullivan about assembling a group of faculty to discuss establishing an institute on children and families at UF.

Sociology Professor Connie Shehan, who is also the director of the University Center for Excellence in Teaching, chairs this task force and says an institute would efficiently utilize UF's resources. "Since there is no campus-wide directory of faculty who are involved in research and teaching about children and families, scholars often work in isolation with little or no awareness of other related efforts. There is no mechanism for regular communication among these professionals, nor is there any effective way for those outside the university to tap into the large and multi-faceted research of UF's professionals."

Shehan says many of the nation's largest and most prestigious universities have multidisciplinary institutes devoted to the study of children and families. "The task force has looked at what is arguably the most successful institute in the country at the University of Minnesota. It has set a standard for others in that it not only has widespread participation among academic researchers and educators from many colleges on its own campuses, it also has built a very strong partnership with the business community and the state government, including the public schools."

There are more than 200 faculty members at UF, representing at least 11 colleges, who are actively engaged in research that seeks to understand and address the needs of children and families. "The research is so diverse, not only at the university level, but right here in CLAS," Shehan says. "So many faculty members are already investigating issues that have implications for the children and families of Florida and elsewhere, and these efforts could be magnified in scope and public visibility if they are linked through a central unit on campus."

We recently talked with CLAS researchers leading a variety of research initiatives to see what types of projects would constitute the new Institute on Children and Families.

Sociologist Terry Mills with his grandchildren, 18-month-old Kielle (right) and 5-year-old Lala (left). Mills' research examines the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.

Terry Mills

Grandparents and Grandchildren
Sociologist Terry Mills, a member of the children and families task force, focuses his research on relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. The 2000 US Census reported that roughly 5.5 million children under the age of 18 are being raised in households headed by grandparents. More than 1 million of these children live in households where neither biological parent is present. Mills says this social phenomenon has touched virtually every segment of society. "The data indicates that 12% of black children, 6% of Hispanic children and 4% of white children are being raised by grandparents. Some of the explanations for this emerging 'kinship structure' include parental drug abuse, incarceration, child abuse, parental divorce, abandonment and physical and mental health problems."

Mills has explored how the traditional grandparent role is being transformed. "This is an important issue given the significant role that grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren," Mills says. "Many grandparents are considered to be the transmitters of family history and values, providing their grandchildren with a sense of 'who they are.' However, although more grandparents have assumed responsibility for raising their grandchildren, they have virtually no legal standing. Furthermore, many of these care-giving grandparents experience tremendous burdens and stress as a consequence of having to re-enter the parenting role. Some even maintain a sense of guilt that they themselves were failures as parents, since their own children are unable to provide care for the child."

Articles about Mills' research have recently appeared in a special edition of the Journal of Family Issues titled "Grandparent-Grandchild Relationships in the New Millennium." He also co-authored a study of the portrayal of grandparents in children's literature, and the December 31, 2001 issue of Time Magazine mentioned his work.

Family Conflict Resolution
Several CLAS researchers have already joined forces with other university and community researchers, with the support of a Department of Education (DOE) grant. Principal investigator Scott Miller (psychology) along with co-principal investigators Mark Fondacaro (criminology/psychology) and Jen Woolard (criminology/psychology) are collaborating with researchers from the colleges of Health Professions and Education and the Alachua County Public Schools.

The group is looking at how lessons learned in the context of family conflict resolution, both positive and negative, are linked to how middle school students perceive and attempt to resolve conflicts with peers and teachers at school.

Fondacaro says the DOE grant will help him extend the work he has already done on family conflict resolution. "We know that adolescents learn a great deal about how to manage and resolve interpersonal conflicts through interactions with their parents. Youngsters who report that their parents treat them with personal dignity and respect (regardless of the outcome of a particular family dispute) are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior outside the family context than those who don't feel respected. One important objective of this work will be to obtain new knowledge that can be used to help develop more comprehensive conflict resolution interventions aimed at youth violence prevention and the promotion of social competence."

Miller says the project, while focused on questions of school violence and safety, is intended to be broad in scope. "We plan to tap into a variety of issues and concerns in the lives of today's middle school students. We hope it will provide information about this age group that has not been available in previous large-scale survey projects."

The group plans to use data collected from school districts in Florida, California, New Jersey and Texas. Woolard says they have already conducted some initial student surveys at schools in Alachua County. "We've asked questions relating to the atmosphere of school, the experiences the students have had with violent behavior, their attitudes and beliefs about aggression and resolving conflict, racial and ethnic identity, and the kind of relationships they have with their parents, peers and teachers."

Drawings of people by Yaqui children from the foothills (less exposure to pesticides) and the valley (most exposure to pesticides) of Sonora, Mexico.

Drawings of people by Yaqui children

Pesticide Exposure
Research on children and families extends well beyond Florida and the US. Elizabeth Guillette, an adjunct professor of anthropology, has spent six years examining the effects of pesticides on children in Mexico. "When Mexico's Yaqui Indians split into two different agricultural camps in the 1950s, their children became an unusually perfect test group for the effects of pesticide exposure," Guillette says. "Some embraced the new methods and formed towns in the valley. Others preferred the customary ranching and agricultural methods and congregated in a separate town in the foothills."

In a recent article in the journal Alternatives, Guillette explains how the two groups are similar in genetic make-up, diet and technological skills. However, the group living in the valley has used insecticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals. The foothill population has rejected the use of these chemicals. In order to determine the possible impact of pesticide exposure, Guillette asked children from the two groups, ages four and five, to perform a series of play activities representative of their developmental skills. "The differences this revealed were significant," Guillette says. "The valley children exhibited more neuromuscular and mental deficits than the foothill children. They were less proficient at catching a ball, reflecting poor eye-hand coordination. Stamina levels, measured by jumping contests, were also lower." Drawings made by the children illustrate their development differences (see picture above).

Guillette evaluated the same children two years later, and the group exposed to pesticides was still behind and also faced more health problems. "The exposed children exhibited symptoms of illness at a rate three to four times that of the others. Of special concern was the high rate of upper respiratory infection, suggesting a suppressed immune system, and other symptoms such as allergies and rashes."

Guillette plans to conduct additional research in India and Puerto Rico on the relationship between reproductive problems in women and exposure to chemicals.

Typical Teenagers
It may seem that the majority of research related to children and families explores problematic issues. Sociology graduate student Kristin Joos is trying to change that. "The vast majority of the more than 88 million youth who comprise more than one quarter of America's population are not 'delinquent.' Often, the existing literature approaches adolescence as a difficult life stage and casts teenagers as potential problems," Joos says.

Joos decided to examine the attitudes of teenagers from advantaged backgrounds, seeking to understand how these future leaders perceive themselves and their communities. "My goal is to look at the 'typical' teenager, since 'typical' is a term that has many assumptions behind it. Part of my research is to question some of these notions of what it means to be an 'average' or 'normal' teenager."

Joos began with an analysis of the 1999 Monitoring the Future surveys of 60,000 high school students. In its 25th year, Monitoring the Future is an annual survey of a representative sample of high school seniors in the US. It explores changes in values, behaviors and lifestyles of contemporary American youth. Joos is focusing on the students' responses to the questions regarding the "importance of being a success" versus the "importance of making a contribution to society." Her preliminary results indicate that a vast majority of youth, around 90%, consider being a success "very or extremely important," but only one-third of students rate "making a contribution to society" as "very or extremely important." Interestingly, these trends seem to have flip-flopped since the 1960s, when a majority of youth considered it more important to make a contribution to society.

She has not analyzed all of the data yet, but so far Joos has found that many of the teenagers she interviewed define success not merely in terms of their financial or career goals, but also in terms of making a contribution to society. Joos recently received Institutional Review Board approval to ask the students follow-up questions about how the events of September 11 have possibly changed their thoughts about success and making a contribution to society. She plans to finish her dissertation this fall.

 

Solving the problems related to children and families cannot be done overnight, but Colburn says that because many UF researchers are already studying these concerns, the university would make an ideal home for the Institute on Children and Families. "Other states look at Florida as a model to see how we address and solve our problems because we have such a diverse population," Colburn says. "UF should be the lead institution on this initiative because we have many talented faculty who study problems and situations, analyze the data and then make recommendations for improvements."

Shehan says by combining UF's unparalleled strengths in the health sciences, law, education and the social and behavioral sciences, the university can build a team of scholars who will be able to approach these complex problems from multiple perspectives. "Florida's status as the most populated state in the Southeast and its position as a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean is so relevant here. Many of the problems that confront Florida's children and families involve migration into the state from other states and nations," Shehan says. "UF's status as the flagship university in the largest state of this region demands that we step forward to take a leadership role in understanding and addressing the socio-economic issues facing children and families."

--Allyson A. Beutke


Photo:
Courtesy Terry Mills

Drawing:
Courtesy Elizabeth Guillette

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