March 20, 2007 Tuesday
BYLINE: STEPHEN MILLER - Staff Reporter of the Sun
Stella Chess, who died Wednesday at 93, devoted her long
career in child psychiatry to challenging the notion that
children's personality problems are caused by bad parenting.
Together with her husband and research partner, Alexander
Thomas, she used a groundbreaking decades-long study of
children to show that mental health is the result of a
complicated interplay between an infant's inborn temperament
and parenting style. The result was an important challenge
to the earlier orthodoxy, which held that an infant at birth
was a blank slate and that mental problems could be chalked
up to defective parenting; for instance, autism was blamed
on "icebox" mothering.
"It was unprecedented, especially studying children who did
not have a disease," the director of the New York University
Child Study Center, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, who worked with
Chess over the past decade, said. "Temperament is now taken
as a normal convention."
Chess and Thomas met at the New York University College of
Medicine, were married in 1938, and soon became
Among the books they published were "Your Child Is a Person:
A Psychological Approach to Parenthood Without Guilt"
(1965), "The Origin of Personality " (1970), and "Know Your
Child: An Authoritative Guide for Today's Parents" (1987).
Chess and Thomas were unusual in psychiatry for publishing
popular books despite being involved in clinical research,
Dr. Koplewicz said.
In "Your Child Is a Person," they insisted, "Prevailing
psychoanalytically based theories of child care are wrong."
They went on to check off the list of Freudian pitfalls:
toilet training, thumb sucking, and weaning. Rather than
representing some kind of trauma, they wrote, each was a
normal part of childhood development. Of toilet training,
they wrote, "It seems incredible that a task accomplished
routinely in most of the civilized and uncivilized world for
a very long time could create so much worry in 20th century
Chess was born in Manhattan to parents who were Russian
immigrants. Her father became a lawyer and her mother a
schoolteacher who was said to have helped create the concept
of maternity leave when she brought a suit against the New
York City Board of Education in 1911 for terminating her
when she was pregnant.
Chess studied at the Ethical Culture School and Smith
College before entering the NYU medical school in 1935. In
addition to a private practice in Manhattan, she held
various appointments, including psychiatrist at the
Northside Center for Child Development. In 1954, she became
the first professor of child psychology at New York Medical
College. She later founded the first pediatric psychiatry
unit at Bellevue Hospital and was a professor at NYU.
"Preventive care concentrated on changing the mother's or
father's behavior, and cultural influences were often
ignored," Chess wrote in the Harvard Mental Health Letter in
1997. "But it became clear that some children with serious
problems had adequate or excellent parents."
Begun in 1956, the New York Longitudinal Study of Child
Development followed the lives of 238 young people, just
over half of them middle-class whites and the rest poorer
Based on the study, Chess and Thomas delineated three basic
temperaments that were present from birth: "easy,"
"difficult," and "slow to warm up." They identified nine
temperamental qualities, such as level of physical activity
and distractibility. The trick, they said, was the "goodness
of fit" between parenting styles and the child's
Seeking to look beyond bad parenting as a cause of autism,
Chess in 1971 published "Psychiatric Disorders of Children
with Congenital Rubella." According to Dr. Koplewicz,
rubella is no longer suspected of causing autism, but the
idea that autism might be an organic brain disorder was
"decades ahead of its time."
Chess and Thomas continued to publish well into what would
be retirement for most. Their last book was "Goodness of
Thomas died in 2003, and Chess continued to work at NYU,
rejecting emeritus status in order to stay involved in
day-to-day research. The staff found out she had died
because she didn't show up for work last week, Dr. Koplewicz
Luke's Hospital in Manhattan; survived by two sons, Richard
and Kenneth, six grandchildren, and four