Story of Their Lives

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

Story of Their Lives


Byline: OREGON YOUTH STUDY By Anne Williams The Register-Guard

On Nov. 30, a long-running chapter quietly fell shut in the lives of 191 young men with local roots.

The date marked the official end of the Oregon Youth Study - a groundbreaking, 25-year, $12 million research project that had a primary goal of exploring the origins of antisocial behaviors in boys, with an eye to designing prevention strategies.

To find their subjects, a team from Eugene's Oregon Social Learning Center cast its net over 10 Eugene and Springfield elementary schools - all of them selected for their neighborhoods' comparatively high juvenile crime rates.

Over two years, every boy in every fourth-grade classroom was invited to take part, recalled senior scientist Deborah Capaldi, who was hired by center founder and principal investigator Gerald Patterson to coordinate the project in 1983 and saw it through to the end. About 75 percent of the families agreed, she said, many of them no doubt enticed by the initial $200 payment.

The study entailed in-home observations the first year and again when the boys turned 11. In odd years, both parents participated in an interview, questionnaires and a 30-minute videotaped session with their son; in even years, one parent completed an interview and questionnaire. After the boys turned 18, parents simply had to complete a small questionnaire by mail each year.

For the boys, most age 9 or 10 at the start, it was a more intense and enduring commitment.

Every year, as young boys, adolescents and finally grown men, they offered up candid details on the most intimate aspects of their lives: feelings about peers, siblings, parents, school; parents' disciplinary tactics; alcohol, tobacco and drug use; sexual behavior; proclivity for lying and stealing; treatment of spouses and partners; their own parenting practices; thoughts about suicide - all was fair game for the extensive, face-to-face interviews and lengthy question naires.

The duration, breadth and retention rate of the study may be unrivaled in the world of social science, Capaldi said. The gold mine of data it has yielded has spawned additional studies, helped guide other researchers and provided a foundation for numerous intervention programs.

"It's a legacy study, an extremely important study for the field," said Ken Dodge, a professor of psychology at Duke University who used its findings to design a parenting program that has proven effective at staving off chronic aggression in high-risk children. "We learned an awful lot from this study about how some children become chronically aggressive juvenile delinquents" - and, he added, why many of them also become high school dropouts, drug and alcohol abusers, teen parents, or abusive partners or parents.

One key to its success, Capaldi said, was reaching subjects young.

"To try to recruit a sample like this as adults would be next to impossible," Capaldi said, explaining that many men would be suspicious and find the questions too probing.

For these men, though, it became routine. They might have been shy early on, but the annual questioning and observations - always conducted in the least threatening and most confidential manner - tended to break down barriers.

"We were very, very friendly - warm and fuzzy," said Capaldi, a native of Leeds, England, who earned her Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Oregon. "And a lot of them didn't have many people in their lives who were nice to them."

"By the end they had a huge amount of trust," added Jane Wilson, a study interviewer who became project coordinator in 1994 after Capaldi advanced to principal investigator.

Boys contacted once a year

Recruited between 1983 and 1985, the then-206 boys came, by and large, from humble circumstances. One in three lived in homes receiving welfare benefits and/or food stamps, many struggled in school and more than half moved within the first two years of the study. …

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