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Frances Litman, 86, pioneer in the study of parenting

FRANCES LITMAN

An advocate for children and parents, Frances Litman believed all families needed and deserved support and education.

“Fran always said that when you work with children, you don’t just work with the child, but with the whole family,’’ said Eleonora Villegas-Reimers, a professor at Wheelock College, where Mrs. Litman had taught. “She always asked, ‘How can we help parents do the best job they can do for their children?’ ’’

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In 1978, Mrs. Litman founded at Wheelock the Center for Parenting Studies, which offered workshops for parents and teachers and “elevated the study of parenting,’’ said Villegas-Reimers, who called her former colleague a pioneer in the field.

Mrs. Litman, who had also served as academic dean at Wheelock, died of cancer April 13 in Casa de la Luz Hospice in Tucson. She was 86 and had lived in Newton for many years before moving to Tucson in 2001.

“What Fran understood was that parents want what’s best for their children,’’ said Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund, for which Mrs. Litman was a board member. “She was the inspiration for our making sure that when parents need information, it’s available to them.’’

Mrs. Litman was often quoted on advice and information for parents and the people who support them. She taught at Tufts University’s early childhood education department for five years before moving to Wheelock, where she remained for 31 years.

“Today everyone talks about parenting engagement,’’ Villegas-Reimers said. “Fran was talking about that before anyone else was. She was very thoughtful, very practical, and just a joy.’’

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Around the time Mrs. Litman retired from Wheelock as professor emeritus in 1998, the Center for Parenting Studies dissolved. Villegas-Reimers said its staff and curriculum shifted to other departments, and its influence spread in Greater Boston.

With Linda Braun, another Wheelock faculty member, Mrs. Litman founded Families First Parenting Programs, a nonprofit that among other activities runs workshops designed to build and strengthen parenting skills.

“Fran was extremely dynamic and very positive, a real can-do person,’’ Braun said. “She was creative, with her finger on the pulse of what people were thinking and feeling and needing.’’

The Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund, Bartley said, was “an extension’’ of the Center for Parenting Studies.

“She brought all her expertise from there to us,’’ Bartley added. “She understood that parents are a child’s first teachers, and if parents are given the skills and information and support they need, we have better outcomes.’’

“A View From All Sides,’’ an annual parenting-education conference sponsored by the Children’s Trust Fund and Families First, is her legacy, Bartley said. “She was a force of nature, a steel hand in a velvet glove.’’

Born Frances Solomon in New Britain, Conn., she received a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In 1946 she married Bertram Meyer Litman in New York City. Last September, they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

As a parent, she was “very relaxed,’’ always giving her children “more and more latitude’’ as they got older, her husband said.

“She always believed that the most important thing to teach children was how to grow up.’’

Their son, Peter of Wellesley, said she supported those who worked outside the home.

“She wanted women to be able to undertake whatever activities would be fulfilling to them, without having cultural barriers,’’ he said.

In 1997, Mrs. Litman told the Globe “a lot of women are better mothers because they are working and fulfilled outside the home.’’ She told women to “be the mother you can be, not the mother you think you should be.’’

When Globe reporter Barbara Meltz began writing a parenting column in the late 1980s, she sought authorities in the field and said that “Fran’s name kept coming up. So I went to her, and she was full of all kinds of wisdom that she was very anxious to impart. She just wanted to help.’’

Over the years, Meltz often quoted Mrs. Litman on topics ranging from bringing a child to work to dealing with stress.

Much of her advice was practical and addressed everyday situations. For a column about surviving the morning rush, she told Meltz: “Don’t be punitive with a dawdler; just show him the realities. Instead of angrily shouting, ‘If you don’t hurry, you won’t be able to eat!’ tell him calmly, ‘You know what? There’s no time left for breakfast. You can eat an apple in the car.’ ’’

Mrs. Litman’s daughter Deborah Keefe of Jamaica Plain is an instructor in early childhood education at Wheelock.

“She was a strong influence in my life,’’ Keefe said. “Her passion to help families and children became my passion.’’

In addition to her husband, son, and daughter, Mrs. Litman leaves another daughter, Bara Litman-Pike of Newton, and four grandchildren. No service has been planned.

“She was a phenomenal help to us and a wonderful partner, both professionally and personally,’’ Bartley said. “Every time we hosted an event, it was so great to look out on the dance floor and see Bert and Fran. They had a wonderful partnership. They just glowed.’’

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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