Burton White, 84; wrote of child development
As a psychologist who specialized in child development, Burton White believed that infants and toddlers belonged at home, not in day care centers.
In a 1981 Globe article, Dr. White had this advice for women who were inclined to care for their babies at home instead of joining the workforce:
“Buck the trend. Stay home,” he said.
“A parent is the child’s first and best teacher. Don’t miss some of life’s sweetest pleasures, or most crucial moments, as the baby grows from infant to child.”
Burton L. White died of congestive heart failure Oct. 6 at the Newbridge on the Charles retirement facility in Dedham. He was 84 and lived most of his life in Newton.
Known to friends and family as Bud, Dr. White was outspoken about his conviction that society should provide better support to babies age 3 and younger, as well as their parents.
“I firmly believe that most children will get off to a better start in life when they spend the majority of their waking hours being cared for by their parents and by other family members than they would in any form of substitute care,” he told the Globe.
But his work encompassed more than the question of who should care for babies. He was an expert in the field of early childhood education and new parent education, and a proponent for early intervention to uncover learning disabilities and other issues.
He believed that babies grew bored without stimulation, which led him to help develop a line of educational toys for 3-week-old to 9-month-old babies called Playtentials, including mobiles with toys attached that were within the sight and reach of babies.
“At six weeks kids begin to bang at things, so we give them something to bang at,” he told the Globe in a 1970 article. “When they start to kick we give them something to kick at.”
For more than four decades Dr. White studied the social, physical, emotional, and intellectual development of babies, spending thousands of hours studying infants and toddlers, then devising ways to improve their development and teach those techniques to parents.
He wrote two popular books on parenting, “How to Raise a Happy, Unspoiled Child,” and “The First Three Years of Life,” which was the basis for the WBZ-TV series of the same name, aired in the late 1970s.
As the series host, he interviewed and counseled Boston-area parents who appeared on the show along with their children, and offered advice on helping babies reach their full potential. He shared his expertise on national talk shows including the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Phil Donahue Show.
A professor at the Harvard School of Education, Tufts University, and Brandeis University, Dr. White wrote a number of textbooks and articles.
In 1965, he founded the Harvard Preschool Project and became its first director. Later he served as director of the Brookline Early Education Project, which he formed in collaboration with Robert Sperber, superintendent of Brookline Public Schools.
Donald Pierson, now vice provost of graduate education at University of Massachusetts-Lowell, worked with Dr. White on BEEP, which focused on the importance of parent and early childhood education, and followed 300 children from their time in utero through second grade. Families received support in three levels: weekly, several times a month, and as needed. The program concluded that children whose families received weekly support fare best.
Dr. White, Pierson said, focused on babies between 8 months and 18 months, and stressed that they should be read to often, and interact regularly with “nurturing adults,” in order to build important skills in language and cognition.
“He emphasized that this was the critical period, and that if you didn’t do it then, it would be too late,” he said. “Most child psychologists would not go to that extreme. It was controversial.”
Dr. White was sometimes accused of being unsympathetic toward mothers who worked while others cared for their children, a charge he denied. In a 1976 letter to the Globe, he wrote, “I have never concluded or stated anywhere that ‘a woman’s place is in the home,’ ” and emphasized that fathers and other family members make optimal caretakers.
He went on to list three primary conclusions that resulted from his years of research: “First, that childrearing during the first few years of life is of surprising importance in determining how fully developed each new human will ultimately become. Second, that rearing young children is inevitably stressful at times . . . Third, that our society’s current policies make little sense in regard to the basic needs of new children and their families.”
In a 1973 Globe article, Dr. White said that mothers had few resources on early childhood development aside from what was published in consumer magazines.
“The society doesn’t train anyone for parenthood, which is scandalous,” he said.
Burton White was born in Boston in 1929 and raised in Roxbury.
He graduated from Roxbury High School in 1944, then earned a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering from Tufts in 1949. From 1951 to 1953 he served in the Army during the Korean War.
After he returned, he earned a bachelor’s of arts in philosophy in 1955, followed by a master’s in psychology in 1956, both from Boston University.
In 1960 he received a PhD in psychology from Brandeis University, where he met fellow student Jacqueline Want. They married in 1959 and settled in West Newton to raise four children.
Rose Haskell first met Dr. White when she was hired to baby-sit his children. Later she became a close family friend, and worked as his research assistant at Harvard.
“He was very creative, he was funny, he was energetic, and he was fun-loving,” she said. “He was extremely involved with his kids . . . always looking for an opportunity to stretch their developing little minds.”
When his wife died in 1978, Dr. White became a single parent.
“He went through a period of grief,” said his daughter Emily Reale of Atlanta. “But he was always there for us, always asking if we needed anything.”
In 1986, he married Janet Hodgson, who died in 2011.
A service has been held for Dr. White, who, in addition to his daughter, leaves another daughter, Laura Dorfman of Waban, two sons, David of Naples, Fla., and Daniel of Southboro, a brother, Ronald White of Santa Rosa, Calif., a sister, Susan Weiner of Stuart, Fla., and 7 grandchildren.
The word that described him best, his daughter Emily said, is “gracious.”
“He was always patient, always had a sense of humor, always thought the best of people, and always treated people with kindness and respect,” she said. “He was just the best role model.”