Child Development Professor Dies

Fred Rothbaum, who taught at Eliot-Pearson since 1979, is remembered by colleagues and students for his insights and his compassion
August 29, 2011

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Fred Rothbaum, a longtime professor of child development in the School of Arts and Sciences, died Aug. 24 of a heart attack while on vacation in Maine. An expert in parent-child and family relationships, he had taught at Tufts since 1979.

Rothbaum, 61, had been director of the graduate program at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development for the past five years, and was chair of the department twice, from 1986 to 1989 and from 2003 to 2006. His scholarship and research were wide-ranging, and focused on such topics as problem behavior in children and anxiety and depression in youth. He also studied differences between parent-child relationships in the United States and Japan, as well as perceptions of control and emotion regulation.

Rothbaum, who received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1976, published extensively, with more than 50 journal articles and a book on children’s emotional problems and the development of their beliefs about control. Drawing on research in child development and psychology, including his work on the influence of culture in social-emotional development, he wrote seminal papers with new insights.

Fred Rothbaum at the 2011 Graduate Student Awards ceremony. Photo: J.D. SloanIn 2000, along with a former doctoral student of his, Nancy Martland, G01, he established the Child & Family WebGuide, a widely cited repository of trustworthy advice for parents and professionals.

“Fred was a very well-liked, wonderful citizen of the department,” says Jayanthi Mistry, chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. “He was a very valued mentor, and worked a lot for the department and university communities. This is a great loss for us, immeasurable for the community.”

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, recalls him fondly. “Fred was one of the first faculty members I met at Tufts,” she says. “He had a generous spirit and helped with issues both small and large, such as how to navigate the Arts and Sciences faculty meetings and the best way to get to campus from Route 2.”

Rothbaum worked next door to George Scarlett, deputy chair of the department, who remembers his “office neighbor” with affection. The walls separating them were thin, and Scarlett says he couldn’t help but overhear Rothbaum’s interactions with his students.

“What I heard was a man who deeply cared about ideas and his students,” Scarlett says. “Fred and his students, especially his graduate students, could sit for hours discussing ideas. I never listened closely enough to get the details or follow the gentle arguments. But I heard just enough to know that there was always something good transpiring. The conversation was always spirited but never heated: two people, mentor and mentee, playing a kind of intellectual tennis in which both could win the game.”

As a colleague, Rothbaum was “a hard-working citizen of our little Eliot-Pearson community,” adds Scarlett. “He pulled his weight and then some. No member of the department arrived earlier, and only a few left later.”

His students are equally appreciative. “Fred was one of the kindest, most tolerant and respectful people I’ve ever known in my life,” says Martland, who stayed on at Tufts to work on the Child & Family Webguide with Rothbaum for six years after receiving her Ph.D.

“The thing that comes to mind most strongly about Fred is that he was so respectful of students and of their ideas,” she says. “He trusted students’ ideas, and allowed students to carry them out. I would see him do this in a meeting or a group, and think, ‘Wow, he’s really taking a risk.’ But he had faith that if you laid a problem before the students, they will give you an honest solution, and it worked time after time.”

Another colleague echoed that sentiment. “Combined with a thoughtful and reflective intellectual curiosity, Fred had an authentic and genuine interest in fostering the development of students,” says Ann Easterbrooks, a professor of child development. “Both undergraduates, who thronged to his course on parent-child relationships, and graduate students, many of whom he helped cure of their statistics-phobia, considered him a gifted teacher and mentor.”

Natalie Rusk, G11, worked with him closely for the past five years as a graduate student. She says Rothbaum offered a rare combination “of being consistently supportive and responsive to students’ ideas, and at the same time provoking students to take intellectual risks and to base their work solidly on existing research. He was generous in praise as well as rigorous in questioning ideas.”

Rothbaum modeled great intellectual curiosity, Rusk notes. “It was inspiring to see a tenured faculty member pursuing a new area of interest—most recently how to treat and prevent depression in adolescents—and exciting for those of us included in the inquiry process,” she says.

One of his current doctoral students, Melissa Orkin, G13, says she will especially miss his supportive role in her studies. “For me, working with Fred was like no other academic experience. He held his students to very high standards and regularly challenged me to think about topics on a deeper level,” she says. “Yet he was also wonderfully supportive and had an ability to validate students’ ideas, while also pushing them to produce well conceived, high quality work.”

“Fred was one of the most gifted and talented professors I have ever had the privilege to learn from,” says Linda M. Sullivan, G10, who studied with him and is currently assistant director of the Academic Resource Center at Tufts. “He was a credit to every aspect of his profession. In the classroom, he was inspiring. He was gifted at creating an atmosphere where his students continuously strove to be better.” 

When it came to personal matters, Rothbaum deeply affected his colleagues, who considered him a friend. “On serious issues—life issues, issues about our children and personal stuff—Fred could be counted on,” says Scarlett. “He was never sentimental or sloppy, and though he was a clinician, he never fell into the clinician’s trap of becoming a clinician with a friend. Fred remained himself, and that was always more than enough to make people feel supported and cared for.”

In the end, Scarlett says, “I will miss Fred a lot—for the kind and caring person he was, for his consistent loyalty to Eliot-Pearson and Tufts, but mostly for his friendship.”

Rothbaum is survived by his wife, Vickie, and two sons.

A celebration of Fred Rothbaum’s life will be held on Saturday, Sept. 24, at Cohen Auditorium, Aidekman Art Center, 40 Talbot Ave., from 10-11:30 a.m.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.