• The benefits of sending a preschooler to a research-based facility

  • By Jeff Cookston - prepared for SFSU Children's Campus November newsletter

  • Meeting the high standards of “evidence based best practices” is a goal of most organizations.  Although doing ones best at a job is a noble goal, the day-to-day grind of just getting through the day frequently prevents attaining the desired outcome of excellence.  That is, unless organizations include best practices as part of the mission statement.  For example, doctors who practice at a teaching hospital are required to revise old thinking based on new evidence even if it means acquiring new skills. Because the Children’s Campus at San Francisco State University has as one of its goal to be a center of teaching and research excellence, the teachers and administrators hold themselves to a similar high standard. I want to talk with you today about what it means to be a child care facility that opens its doors to observation and research.

         As someone who has sent thousands of students into the field to observe children, I know teachers have to be willing to put themselves out there to be judged. Unlike someone who works in seclusion and with little oversight, the teachers at the Children’s Campus are constantly observed.  Sometimes those observers are trained professionals in the field who’ve come to see how we offer our program locally and sometimes those observers are undergraduate students who don’t know that 3 year olds can speak in sentences.  It takes a great deal of confidence, training, and support to be willing to open your doors to experts and novices alike. 

         In addition to observers, the teachers at the Children’s Campus provide a lot of training for interns in the classroom.  Frequently, student interns come in with unrealistic expectations for classroom teaching and are unprepared for the work.  By training the next generation of teachers, the Children’s Campus is exposed to both the classical views on child care as well as the latest evidence about best practices in the classroom.

         Finally, the Children’s Campus is committed to welcoming researchers and providing access to parents and children.  In these days of increased privacy concerns about children, researching children and families has become more difficult for faculty.  By opening its doors to faculty researchers, the Children’s Campus nurtures the vital work of the University’s faculty.  Additionally, there will be benefits to the Center itself.  Bing Nursery School at Stanford has been the site of research since 1966 and many of the “big ideas” in child development came from that location.  Bandura’s Bobo Doll studies and Dweck’s work with the changing nature of beliefs about ability all started at Bing.  Someday down the road, major ideas may be credited to work that took place at the Children’s Campus.  Without opening its doors to researchers, that could not happen.

         As a parent, you benefit from the Children’s Campus commitment to excellence.  The teachers replace outdated practices with better ones, and the administrators seek to provide time for teachers to collaborate and reflect. Plus, you have access to faculty and experts who might otherwise be unavailable. In short, every wiped nose and goodbye hug is the product of best practices.


    Rad Dad – raising the bar for men and fathers one essay at a time

    A book review by Jeffrey Cookston, PhD


        The stereotype of Western parenting is that mothers are the serious, thoughtful parents and fathers the playful, irresponsible ones.  This script for fathering has been played out in films like Mr. Mom and Daddy Day Care and is shown on television in Modern Family and the Simpsons. When fathers are around in movies – they frequently aren’t (Dolphin Tale) –they tend to be violent (This Boy’s Life) or unrealistically demanding (The Great Santini) or drunk (Hoosiers). Alternatively, when mothers fail on the job (Kramer vs. Kramer) we see children suffer and fathers bumble. Likely, there will also be messes in the kitchen!  Such media depictions of fathering do very little to further the collective conversation about men and their relationships with children. Rather, they tend to engage audiences by employing familiar stereotypes that put the audience right into the scene – “I recognize that guy.  Let’s get to the story!” While such stereotypes help engage viewers, they also place limits on our expectations for characters and any deviations from expectation require exposition and explanation for the audience.  The dire need for a new dialogue about fatherhood (and maybe new stereotypes) may be reaching a tipping point with men out of work today at a rate not seen since the Great Depression.

         The contributors to the edited book Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontier of Fatherhood answer the call to redefine fatherhood by offering voices and perspectives on fatherhood that are about as traditional as a vegetarian cowboy. The thirty-nine essays contained in the tight 197 pages are grouped chronologically in the life cycle of the father into infancy, childhood and teens.  However, the essays offer perspectives and voices that are far from familiar. Readers meet a sperm donor who grapples with his genetic link to a child he does not parent, a transgender parent coming to terms with gender identity and gender socialization, a self-proclaimed “radical queer tranny vegan anarchist commie”, a former self-involved skateboarder socializing his daughter to be cautious of boys like his former self, and a man challenging himself to confront a neighbor’s domestic violence.  These essays provide readers an opportunity to walk a lifetime in the shoes of another person and are tightly written and short enough that the soles don’t wear out before the next essay begins. We also hear from fathers we’ve met before – men grappling with the transition from cool dude to the shlub being yelled at for crackers from a tyrant in a stroller, new fathers who reflect on their own boyhood relationships with their fathers, a fan of the Star Wars trilogy who muses on the deeper questions in the Lucas film (e.g., whether to explain that Han shot Greedo unprovoked at the Mos Eisley Cantina), and numerous feminist men struggling to raise open-minded children whose brains are hard-wired and socialized to embrace gender as the second-easiest category (after ethnicity) to organize social information about others.

         In addition to the essays informed by the age of the child are two sections that have lasting impact: one debating the politics of modern fathering and a collection of interviews with “rad dads.” In these sections the reader is forced to wake up to the reality that parents are either acting with awareness that their actions matter to the future of their children or they are asleep on the job.  Two of the most important essays in the book – well worth the price of admission alone – address the issue of ethnic identity and parenting. The first, written by Shawn Taylor, recounts a benign incident on the playground that deteriorates into a hostile racially charged confrontation.  What begins as an earnest quest by a man to defy the negative stereotypes about fathering among his ethnic group demonstrates how the naivety of the majority propagates negative self-image among the minority.  The second essay by Tomas Moniz recounts the story of a young Latina girl wishing she could be white despite years of socialization to take pride in her cultural heritage.  Both of these essays (and others in the book) challenge the reader to question the status quo, to doubt certainty, to the relish questioning, and most of all to share the stories. 

         In fact, a common theme binding the essays is asking questions that don’t have answers.  Unlike the stereotypical sitcom father who we’ve seen so often, these essayists are creating themselves as they move forward…maybe even as they type out their experiences.  Because they are searching, they don’t offer a lot of explicit answers.  Many are asking questions so new to the conversation that any approximation of an answer would ring false to both reader and author.  Rather, by asking the questions the authors have fulfilled their obligation to themselves and together create an important discussion.

         The editors are skilled at addressing the shortcomings of the discourse on fatherhood and such frank consideration of the field emboldens me to share two shortcomings of the book itself.  First, the authors have collected a remarkably diverse group of contributors – sperm donors, stay-at-home dads, multiracial men, transgender individuals – who offer voices typically unheard.  The diversity of the voices is so apparent that I longed for other fathers on the margins of this discourse who are missing from the book: immigrant fathers, divorced fathers, men who are politically conservative. I have worked with fathers from these three groups and know them to also be complicated and soul-searching, and while their narratives may sound similar, the means to that end tend to differ. For example, fundamentalist Christian families tend to co-sleep and breast feed (like their liberal counterparts) but have chosen to do so because of more traditional leanings. In short, the absence of these perspectives leaves Rad Dad leaning a bit too far to the left when redefining is a national priority. My second criticism is more shallow:  I wanted to laugh more. A criticism of the more advanced mother-doubt literature is the harsh and earnest assault such women levy on themselves. While it is illuminating to read a mother describe her anger and frustration at the isolation of parenting an infant and to hear a man adopt a similar voice, there is also a great deal of humor in parenting that goes along with the embarrassment and frustration. Despite the lack of giggles, I applaud the authors for staring into the eyes of the beast without blinking.

         In short, Rad Dad raises the bar for fathers – a challenge that men today are ready to assume.  I’ll conclude with a personal story.  When my first daughter was an infant, I was a stay-at-home dad two days per week.  However, I frequently worked from home.  One day, in fact, I had to present to a group of professionals on a project I’d been tasked to lead.  The lawyers, judges, and non-profit educators I presented to were professionals with a no-nonsense approach to their work. I led the 30-minute presentation with my daughter tightly wrapped against my body in a sling, and she intermittently napped and chewed the corner of her book to a rounded nub. It’s eight years later today and the attendees at that presentation still comment what an “amazing dad” I was to have delivered that presentation while also attending to her needs.  While I originally absorbed that praise with aplomb, I’ve more recently come to realize the hypocrisy. A dad who brings his daughter to work is a hero while a mom might have been questioned about her priorities. Because the bar of success for fathers is set so low it’s easy for many men to step right over without much effort.  The Rad Dad authors claim (and I agree) that men today are ready to meet challenges that aren’t being presented.  After reading Rad Dad, you might feel compelled to help raise that bar yourself.



  • To mentor or be mentored:  That is the answer!

    By Jeff Cookston - prepared Oct 2011 as promotion for the Society for Research on Adolescence's Young Scholar's Program


         Mentorship has a long history in Western culture.  The word mentor has its origins in Homer’s Odyssey when the goddess Athena disguised herself as the father who appears to come back from war to impart wisdom to his son who was left behind.  Disguised as the father, Mentor, Athena imparted practical wisdom to the son and provided council for handling interpersonal conflicts.  Popularized in the 17th century in Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Telemaque, mentoring evokes thoughts of selflessness, compassion, patience, and wisdom. 

         In addition to the vaunted status of the mentor, the person who accepts mentorship is also celebrated.  Because of Yan Hui, the lessons of Confucius found a wider audience. Aristotle was Plato’s favored student, and it was Aristotle who separated psychology from philosophy when he wrote De Anima. Without Lucretia Mott leading the way, Elizabeth Cady Stanton might not have felt emboldened at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 to produce the Declaration of Sentiments. Being open to mentorship suggests thoughtfulness, openness to experience, and foresight.

         The Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) is committed to mentorship and seeks to nurture both the person being mentored as well as the person providing the mentorship through the third biannual Young Scholar’s Program which will occur at the 2012 SRA conference. Between now and November 1 when the application site closes, you can submit your application to be a young scholar, a junior mentor, or a senior mentor.

         Young scholars should be junior or senior undergraduates from underrepresented ethnic minority groups planning a career in adolescent psychology.  Junior mentors should be graduate students looking to mentor others.  And senior mentors should be established professionals in the field willing to share their conference experience with others. 

         Thanks to the generous support of the W T Grant Foundation and the SRA Board of Directors, there are remarkable incentives to be involved in the program that you can learn about on the website.

         The program only works when you get involved, and we hope you will. Great things are going to happen in Vancouver in March of 2012.  Don’t miss the opportunity to be touched by the divine embrace of mentorship.  Submit an application to the Young Scholar’s program.  



    Thank You, Mr. Litter Barrel

  • When my wife was a child, her father used to tell a story about a rest stop Litter Barrel who was so saddened that no one thanked him for his efforts that he wandered the world while the garbage piled up. Eventually, people learned to thank the Litter Barrel, he resumed his post, and the world was a cleaner more cordial place for it. The parable of the Litter Barrel is repeated with my own kids on our annual Tour of Texas and although the myth teems with plot holes (e.g., who socializes children to thank inanimate objects?, why didn't the Department of Highways just replace the can?), I think it also has a lesson for young academics? your research lab is more than meets the eye.

  • Working in a psychological research laboratory requires a great deal of attention to the here and now. Collaboratively, a lab absorbs information from the literature, shares new ideas, considers the past work of the lab and how it might progress, and plans for the future. However, this orientation is heavily biased towards the present and to the future but pays almost no attention to the past. Of course labs review the research literature, but I'm talking about another kind of past: last year's data.

  • In my time at SFSU, I've had the opportunity to supervise a number of Masters of Arts candidates as they have 1) reviewed the literature and defended a set of directional hypotheses with a group of faculty, 2) collected original data after obtaining IRB approval, 3) analyzed their data and tested their hypotheses, and 4) defended their data collection, analysis and interpretation. For the 75% who eventually complete step 4, about 40% never engage in basic research again and the other 60% go off to a PhD program where they collect data in the tradition of their new research lab. As a result, most MA students abandon their data for greener pastures. That means orphaned data are everywhere! Here are just a few examples from my own lab:

  • 1) A 1000+ study of the links between college student attachment to parents and peers and academic adjustment

    2) A three-wave longitudinal study of stress and coping among first-year freshman

    3) A study of the factors that influence school choice in the San Francisco Unified School District enrollment process

    4) A 700+ study of college student relationships with parents and alcohol use

    5) A study of the effects of media on gender role attitudes

    6) A study of parents' experiences of receiving a diagnosis for their child's learning disabilities

  • And that doesn't count all of the data I've collected, published from, and then left for the newest project on the block.

  • Although there's something very attractive about the next study being conducted in the lab, you should ask yourself whether there's existing data that you can use to ask your questions. Such secondary data analysis saves a lot of time in finding measures, navigating an original data collection though IRB, collecting that data, and cleaning it for analysis. Sure, you still have to do the analysis and write it up but secondary data analysis can provide an exceptional jump-start to a young career. My first paper was a secondary analysis of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. I don't consider this a great piece but it helped me secure my postdoctoral fellowship at Arizona State University's Prevention Research Center which launched me to this job.

  • So the next time you see a Litter Barrel, you don't have to say thanks but you might ask which data are sitting in the litter barrel waiting to help you start your career.