Journal Archive > 2002 > May

TUCC conference

Scholars work together to help the world's children

The plight of children around the world—children suffering from violence, displacement and starvation—was described during a day-long conference sponsored by the Tufts University Center for Children during which President Lawrence S. Bacow urged scholars to work together collaboratively to help children.

At TUCC's fourth annual conference, held April 10 in Ballou Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus, researchers from throughout the university presented work ranging from whether dogs can alleviate distress in children visiting the dentist to the effect of war on children and families.

Jayanthi J. Mistry says that in some cultures, children are part of the adult world without spaces they can call their own. © Mark Morelli

The featured speakers were Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Dr. Barry Levy, adjunct professor of family medicine and community health at Tufts School of Medicine. Prothrow-Stith told the audience that violence must be viewed as a societal disease that can be prevented through public health strategies rather than as a law-and-order issue.

Levy talked about the physical, psychological and sexual impact that war has on children. He co-authored a paper on child prostitution published in the April edition of the journal Lancet. UNICEF estimates that of the world's 10 million children, one million are sold into sexually slavery each year, sometimes by family members.

Community of scholars
Bacow spoke in response to three presentations from the Community of Scholars, a group of Tufts faculty interested in international children's issues and the consequences of immigration. The 17 scholars, whose disciplines include economics, child development, medicine, anthropology, history and sociology, meet weekly to promote intellectual exchange among diverse disciplines and to try to find a common way to discuss children.

The scholars' presentations were offered by Jayanthi J. Mistry, associate professor of child development; Rosalind H. Shaw, associate professor of anthropology; and Paula Aymer, associate professor of sociology. The three presented vignettes from their research and discussed how culture is learned. They were introduced by Drusilla Brown, associate professor of economics and a founder of the Community of Scholars.

Mistry talked about how societal institutions maintain cultural patterns. She discussed strategies parents use in two peasant and two middle-class communities around the world. She noted that in some cultures, children are part of the adult world, helping to take care of younger children and perhaps remaining near parents who are working in fields.

Understanding cultural context
"There are no separate spaces for children such as school and day care," Mistry said. "There is a sense that children and adults spend time in the same world…In our society, children have to learn to read and write to participate in the adult world," she said. "It brought home to me that there can be a lot of differences [in child rearing], but we can see internal coherence within communities. We should not apply standards or norms without understanding larger context."

Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow urges university scholars to "make connections across disciplines" for the benefit of children around the world. © Mark Morelli

Aymer studied immigration from the eastern Caribbean to Venezuela and Aruba, where migrants work in the oil industry. She studied how the women who worked took care of their children and found they used extended family to find child care, including lending their children to other women. "What do host countries owe workers who are dedicated and hard working?" she asked. "What do school systems owe these children and families who are on the margins?"

Shaw looked at Freetown in Sierra Leone, studying youth who joined the Pentecostal churches. Many of these youth have been displaced by war and have witnessed the death of a parent or sibling. "With religion, they created a spiritual war between good and bad that they could control," Shaw said. "A world view of light versus dark was used to reshape their lives."

Cross-disciplinary collaboration
Bacow responded to the presentations by saying that the way to achieve change for children is for disciplines to work together and to find ways of communicating with each other. Biologists, he noted, study different systems, "but the questions are the same, whether they are looking at fruit flies or zebra fish or yeast."

In the same way, he said, "we must find ways to come together to address the fundamental questions of development and find a common language in which to discuss them…We have done a good job of tunneling down within a discipline. Where we [Tufts University] can make a contribution is to make connections across disciplines."