Spock, Dr. Benjamin (1903-1998)

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Spock, Dr. Benjamin (1903-1998)

By introducing new child-rearing techniques that contradicted those practiced for hundreds of years, pediatrician Dr. Benjamin McLane Spock changed the way several generations of parents raised their children. Through his practice, his books, and his articles in numerous child-rearing magazines, he taught parents that their own common sense, their own instincts, their unique bond with their children, were to be trusted more than any theories. He told them to listen to their children and to respect their unique individual abilities. Dr. Spock gave parents flexible tools to use for child rearing, which he called "a long, hard job." Without being an idealogue or professing to be a guru, Dr. Spock and his liberal views on child rearing also opened or reinforced new directions in education. From the 1950s education moved away from the force-fed teaching of pre-digested materials toward a nurturing of children's natural desires for knowledge.

As North America's foremost pediatrician and parenting authority for over fifty years, Dr. Spock had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the results of his earlier recommendations to parents. His best-known book, Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (later re-titled Baby and Child Care), was published in June 1946 and became the predominant how-to guide for parents in the post-World War II baby boom. In it, Dr. Spock urged parents to trust their instincts and their own parenting abilities. The book became a virtual bible of child rearing, guiding many parents from the 1950s to the 1990s. By the end of the century, virtually all parents with young children in the United States had grown up within the child-rearing and educational framework advised by Dr. Spock. Though parts of the book have been criticized as fostering over-permissiveness, the book remained one of the most influential books on parenting at the end of the twentieth century. Dr. Spock embraced the flexibility he asked of parents by adapting his basic volume to changes in society, expanding and revising it several times during his lifetime.

The United States was ripe for change when Dr Spock first introduced his radical ideas. The end of World War II in 1945 meant the end of many social values inherited from the nineteenth century, and, with the disappearance of those—along with so many millions of human beings the world over—there was a need for new beginnings and different ways of tackling the world. If the atomic bomb created a constant nuclear death threat, the joys of reunion with the homecoming veterans spurred a celebration of life.

Dr. Spock's optimistic vision of parents was welcomed in this climate. His confidence in parental instincts probably found its source, deep down, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's romantic vision of mankind as fundamentally good. Nevertheless, Spock's optimism found willing readers from veterans who had experienced cruelty, savagery, and crimes against humanity during the war. Parents of children during the 1950s clearly wanted to turn their backs on misery and despair and to believe that the world was good, that life could only get better, that progress was now unlimited, and that the future was wide open. Gone was the rigid discipline and sacrifice used to contribute to the war effort; gone was the rationing of sugar, bananas, meat, cigarettes, butter, chocolate, and gasoline. Americans could rejoice in their lives and their new prosperity. Such optimistic views and indulgence luxuries would last until the "difficult times" of the 1970s and beyond—times that Dr. Spock would address in his further writings.

The generation most influenced by Dr. Spock was the baby-boom generation, which would give the second half of the twentieth century many of it characteristics. The significant increase in the number of babies born in 1946 over those born in 1945 is attributable to the return of veterans of the war to their current or future wives. In 1945 2,873,000 babies were born compared to 3,500,000 in 1946, a 20 percent increase. In 1954 the number increased to 4,000,000 and remained high through 1964, the last year of the baby-boom generation. The sheer number of babies born at the same time gave tremendous importance to Dr. Spock's writings and teachings. Dr. Spock's opinions would shape the first generation of children born into a United States that was a dominant world power.

From the Middle Ages, children raised within Western traditions had been considered trainees, who should be taught early on to obey specific rules. Feeding was restricted to specific hours and toilet training had to be done according to specific principles and at precise ages. The rules applied to all children regardless of their individual differences. This approach, still widely practiced in some European contexts and in highly socialized countries in Asia, for instance, runs counter to the advice given to the parents of baby boomers by Dr. Spock. "I wanted to be supportive of parents rather than to scold them," Dr. Spock said. "My book set out very deliberately to counteract some of the rigidities of pediatric tradition, particularly in infant feeding." He emphasized what may have been obvious to parents with some degree of common sense (especially parents of multiple children), but may not have been obvious to authors of books on parenting: there were enormous differences between individual babies. These differences were important, and had to be taken into account. Parents needed to be flexible and did not need to worry constantly about "spoiling" as a danger. Aside from giving parents permission to make their own decisions, Dr. Spock also needed to dispel many myths about what was good or bad for children. When he began practicing pediatrics, bananas were considered hazardous to a young child's health and castor oil was praised as a cure-all. Obviously, that first book was needed. In the 52 years since its publication, 50 million copies of Baby and Child Care have been sold, and the book has been translated into 39 languages.

This extremely influential man did not live his life in the ivory tower of some academic community. Born on May 2, 1903, in the New England community of New Haven, Connecticut, he had gone to Yale University, and been a member of the crew team that won a gold medal for the United States in the 1924 Olympics. He then went on to receive his medical degree from Columbia University and went to the New York Psychoanalytic Institute for further studies. He was not an advisor who did not practice what he preached either: from his marriage in 1927 with Jane Cheney (that would end in divorce after 48 years) two sons were born, Michael and John.

While maintaining a private practice in New York City, he taught pediatrics at Cornell University from 1933 to 1943. He participated in World War II as a psychiatrist in the U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Corps, and was discharged as a Lieutenant Commander in 1946. He then went on to teach psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, which he left in 1951 to join the University of Pittsburgh as professor of child development. In 1955, he joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve University.

The enormous influence Spock had through his books exempli-fied the changes in society. The traditional way of handling child-rearing practices had been through confidential, direct information from doctor or nurse to the parent, or from parents to children of parenting age. Such practices continued, of course, but they did not correspond to the needs of a new age, with growing mass media where everything had to be made available to the largest possible number, through paperbacks or newspaper articles, radio broadcasts or cassette tapes. To reach these audiences, he wrote or collaborated on 15 books over the years. With his wife, Mary Morgan, he wrote an autobiography, Spock on Spock, published in 1989. He also wrote columns for more than 30 years in mass-market publications such as Ladies Home Journal or Redbook. He was a contributing editor to Parenting magazine (including the Web version for the last year of his life) from 1992 until his death. The editors of Parenting magazine mourned his death by saying, "We will miss his common sense approach to parenting and his dedication to raising healthy, happy children. The work he did at Parent Time will continue to be available as Dr. Spock's Perspective and soon we will publish a number of columns he did for us that have never been seen before. It is our hope that future generations of parents and children will benefit from his beliefs." From his perspective, the Internet was certainly new, but did not modify the basic realities of parenting: "Despite the newness of this setting," Spock said, "parents and children really haven't changed, and I anticipate addressing many of the same concerns and issues I have for the past six decades."

As the baby boomers have aged, Dr. Spock has been criticized for preaching permissiveness and was held responsible for a "Spock-marked" generation of hippies. Such criticism should certainly be put in perspective. There is no doubt that Spock did endorse beliefs held by the younger generation. He certainly was neither a fundamentalist of any kind, nor an arch-conservative. He joined protests against nuclear technology and the Vietnam war. While Vice President Spiro Agnew accused him of corrupting the youth of America, Dr. Spock only took credit, though, for having a "mild influence." His message had not been to substitute the preaching of a "doctor" for sound parental judgment. This included a measure of discipline and parental authority. Respecting and understanding children was not letting them do anything they wanted. Contrary to the claims of his critics, Dr. Spock was always a firm believer in sound, responsible parental authority. He said: "Respect children because they deserve respect, and they'll grow up to be better people. But I've always said, ask for respect from you children, ask for cooperation, ask for politeness. Give your children firm leadership." He went beyond this statement, though, by saying: "strictness or permissiveness is not the real issue. Good-hearted parents who aren't afraid to be firm when it is necessary can get good results with either moderate strictness or moderate permissiveness. On the other hand, a strictness that comes from harsh feelings or a permissiveness that is timid or vacillating can each lead to poor results."

The basic message Dr. Spock sent to parents remains: "Don't take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don't be overawed by what the experts say. Trust yourself, you know more than you think you know." It is a message of respect in all possible ways: respect for parents by a health professional, respect for children by parents, respect for parents by children. It is a deeply humanist message, stating that the real values are always individual values, that the only valid judgment is the judgment made by responsible individuals. It is the very opposite of cults and of every theory or system that would diminish, reduce, or even annihilate the fundamental duty that we have to our individual decision-making process, in child rearing or in any other matters. Dr. Spock left a deep impression of wisdom. He died at the age of 94 at his home in San Diego, with his family by his side.

—Henri Parette

Further Reading:

Bloom, Lynn Z. Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Kaye, Judith. The Life of Benjamin Spock. New York, Twenty-first Century Books, 1993.

Maier, Thomas. Dr. Spock: An American Life. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Spock, Benjamin. Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.1946. Revised and updated, with Michael B. Rothenberg, Baby and Child Care. New York, Dutton, 1985.

Spock, Benjamin and Mary Morgan. Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing up with the Century. New York, Pantheon Books, 1989.