Urie Bronfenbrenner, 88; Co-Founder of Head Start Urged Closer Family Ties

Times Staff Writer

Urie Bronfenbrenner, a co-founder of the federal Head Start program, whose theories profoundly altered the understanding of what children need to develop into successful adults, died Sunday after a long illness at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 88.

An emeritus professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, Bronfenbrenner argued that individuals develop not in isolation but within a system of relationships to family, school, community and society. He called his theory the ecology of human development.

He believed that keeping the family intact -- particularly ensuring that children have regular, sustained interaction with their parents, not just sporadic “quality time” -- was one of the most critical challenges facing society. For several decades he provided a strong voice for programs and policies to counter the forces impinging on the family, the breakdown of which he said was readily apparent in worrisome rates of teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, academic failure, violence and other problems.


His advocacy of parental involvement in children’s education led to his appointment in 1965 to a federal panel that laid the foundation for Head Start, the school readiness program that has served 20 million disadvantaged children and families over the last 40 years.

According to Melvin L. Kohn, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and former student of the Cornell child-development expert, Bronfenbrenner’s work impelled social and behavioral scientists to “realize that interpersonal relationships, even [at] the smallest level of the parent-child relationship, did not exist in a social vacuum but were embedded in the larger social structures of community, society, economics and politics.”

Born in Moscow, Bronfenbrenner moved with his family to the United States when he was 6. He was strongly influenced by his father, a neuropathologist at a New York state mental institution who tried in vain to help win the release of dozens of normal children admitted there by mistake but was stymied by bureaucratic red tape. After a few weeks in the institution, the children’s intelligence test scores plummeted so low that they were classified as mentally deficient.

“That meant remaining in the institution for the rest of their lives,” Bronfenbrenner wrote in the preface to his 1979 book, “The Ecology of Human Development.”

Bronfenbrenner went on to study psychology and music at Cornell, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938. He received a master’s in education from Harvard University in 1940 and a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Michigan in 1942.

The day after he received his PhD, he entered the Army and served as a psychologist during World War II. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1948 as an assistant professor of psychology and began the work in child development that would become the hallmark of a 50-year career, during which he would write more than 300 papers and 14 books, including “Two Worlds of Childhood” (1970), a comparison of American and Soviet childrearing.


In 1964 he testified at a congressional hearing that President Johnson’s War on Poverty should be broadened to target poverty’s most vulnerable victims, children.

His remarks earned him an invitation to the White House for tea with Lady Bird Johnson, who wanted to discuss child-care programs he had studied in other countries.

He became one of three developmental psychologists on the planning committee whose work led to the development of Head Start. The others were Mamie Clark and Edward Zigler, a Yale child-development expert often referred to as the “father” of Head Start.

Their work laid the foundation for the landmark program that features parent involvement as a cornerstone. Over the years, a number of studies have demonstrated that Head Start children have fewer adjustment problems and higher achievement levels.

In later years he was sharply critical of rising materialism, which he said was encouraging parents to spend more hours away from home working to afford nice things for their children. He saw it as just one of several societal forces that were reducing crucial family time and exacerbating the isolation and alienation of American youths.

He urged families to regularly interact and learn from each other in activities as low-key as walking together. Bronfenbrenner emphasized that the activity itself was less important than “what’s in between” -- a conversation or other interaction with a caring adult. Such interactions, he said, bolster a child’s healthy psychological development and are an essential strategy for combating the deterioration of the family and “rebuilding the nest.”

The father of six children, Bronfenbrenner acknowledged that juggling the demands of work and parenthood had often challenged him.

At the conclusion of a 1970 White House conference on American children at which he spoke, the Cornell scholar was asked by an assistant to President Nixon to extend his stay by one day. Bronfenbrenner, however, wanted to return home for a family birthday celebration.

“I said I can’t,” Bronfenbrenner recalled many years later. “[The aide] said in a stern voice, ‘Are you putting your own children ahead of the children of this country?’ I said yes.”

In addition to his children, Bronfenbrenner is survived by his wife, Liese, 13 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.