Dr. Spock's Last Interview
Dr. Spock's Last Interview
By: Lynne Verbeek
Date: Autumn 1994
Source: Verbeek, Lynne. "Dr. Spock's Last Interview." Parents' Press, 1994.
About the Author: Lynne Verbeek writes for the monthly newspaper-styled publication Parents' Press, which is headquartered in Berkeley, California. The publication averages a circulation of about 75,000 readers in the California counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Marin, and southern Solano.
American pediatrician, educator/author, and political activist Benjamin McLane Spock (1903–1998) was a nationally known authority on child care. After establishing a private pediatrics practice in New York City, Spock wrote his first book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. Based on its popularity, Spock gained notoriety in the United States when he advised parents to show affection to their children and to raise them in a loving environment rather than using the authoritarian practices that was favored by most parenting authors.
Spock based his child-care advice on his studies of psychoanalysis—in which he tried to understand children's needs and how they fit into the dynamics of the family—and parental information—which he received from talking and listening to parents across the country. Basically, Spock felt that parents knew how to raise their children better than the so-called experts.
Among Spock's other writings are A Baby's First Year, Feeding Your Baby and Child (coauthored), Decent and Indecent, A Teenager's Guide to Life and Love, Dr. Spock on Vietnam, A Better World for Our Children: Rebuilding American Family Values, and Raising Children in a Difficult Time. Spock co-wrote his autobiog-raphy, Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing Up with the Century, in 1989.
In one of his last interviews, the late Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke with Parents' Press about sex, marriage, children, and the common values than can unite and strengthen a diverse America.
Parents' Press: The term family values has so many different interpretations. What do you think are the most important values?
Dr. Benjamin Spock: There are basic values that are universal: love of family, honesty, respect of other people, and a sense of idealism that inspires people to strive for greatness. I think that the Golden Rule—treating other people with the same respect you expect for yourself—is the basis of every religious or spiritual value system the world has ever known.
Are you advocating a return to religion?
I think that the children and adults in families that adhere to a specific religion (as I don't) or a firm set of moral standards (as I do) are fortunate. Most human beings, by their nature, want to live by some set of spiritual beliefs, whether or not they're part of a formal religion. Most societies around the world have established religions, based on similar moral precepts. It gives people's lives a firm framework, explains the mysteries of nature, and tells people clearly what their God and their fellow human beings expect of them.
What should parents model for or teach their children?
I think the most important value by far is to bring up children excited about helping other people, first in their family, and then other people outside. More than anything else, children want to help—it makes them feel grown up. That includes simple things like being able to set the table. Parents say, "Oh, I can do it quicker myself," but that misses the point. Children should be encourged to help, to be kind and loving to other people. I think these are the spiritual values that are quite obvious, But we're not paying enough attention to them.
So many kids are brought up to think of themselves first. I've heard fathers say to their sons, "You're in the world to get ahead, kid," I want to demystify the idea of spirituality by showing that it comes down to specifics like helping your parents at home, or imagining how you can grow up to be a helpful person to the world, rather than focusing on making a big pile of dough, or achieving some position in a company.
Anthropology studies from all over the world show that children can be taught any set of values that their parents and their group truly believe in. If children worship material success rather than truth or compassion, it is because they have absorbed those values from others.
We should not let children grow up believing that they are in the world primarily to acquire possessions or to get ahead. If we give them no spiritual values to live by, they are wide open to the materialism pounded in by television programs, music videos and other commercial huckersterism.
What do you think of the influence of television on our society?
Studies show that today, many children and young people get their standards primarily from movies and television. These media are so powerful that only forceful parents with firm beliefs can counteract the amoral or immoral values they often present. Yet objections to the glorification of violence and casual sex in television and the movies are met with protes-tations by civil rights activists about the chilling effect of censorship, as if that were the only issue.
To reduce violence in our society, we must eliminate violence in the home and on television. Parents should stop their children from watching inappropriate sex and violence—no excuse by parents is really valid.
I think a lot of parents are also really concerned about the constant emphasis on sex that our children are bombarded with.
Sexuality has been depersonalized and coarsened in our society. Children can see crass music videos in their homes, television sitcoms built around bathroom jokes, soap operas and TV dramas that celebrate casual sex and marital infidelity.
I think that the sex education movement itself has contributed to this problem. Sex education tries to eliminate the ignorance, fear and shame that was regularly taught to children in the past. But without presenting the spiritual and emotional aspects of sexuality, it teaches pure anatomy. If children are only taught the physical aspects of sex, they have no reason not to experiment.
Partly as a result, I think, many teenagers today regard sex not as any part of a spiritual relationship, but as a game of conquest or simply a sensual indulgence. I remember a 13-year-old girl who said to me, "Listen, sex is a perfectly normal instinct meant to be enjoyed."
It is meant to be enjoyed, but just as important, it needs to be cultivated. You need to be thinking of the other person, not just of yourself. I think we need to bring in the spiritual aspects that marriage is not for personal gratification, it is wanting to live the rest of your life with somebody, helping them, and raising fine children.
How do you explain sex to a young child, say in the 3 to 6 age group?
Children begin to ask about why boys and girls are different around the age of 2 1/2. By 3 or 3 1/2, they want to know where babies come from. The child wants a simple answer, like, the baby grows in the mother's abdomen. It may be a couple more years before the child says, by the way, what's a father for, or why do you need to be married?
Answer your child's questions simply but, I also want to say, not so simply that you leave out the spiritual aspect. I think that every time a child asks a question related to sex, parents should explain that sex is part of what makes a man and woman fall in love, want to get married, help each other, take care of each other, and take care of children together.
The depth and details depend on your child's age, but I think that love, consideration and kindness should always be emphasized.
My upbringing was full of mystery and shame and embarrassment about sexuality, and that was good to get rid of. But getting rid of the shame should be compensated by talk about the spiritual aspects of loving each other and helping each other, and what the purpose of marrying and having children really is.
One issue that's caused some discussion among our readers recently is the ideal spacing between siblings—some say three years is ideal, some say closer is better because they play together. What are your thoughts on that?
There's really no predicting ahead of time how things are going to turn out. Two years apart is one of the commonest spaces. Some are happy relationships, others are fiercely rivalrous. Parents shouldn't expect that there won't be any rivalry just because one child is three or four years older.
You try to ameliorate the rivalry by preparing the child ahead of time, letting him feel the abdomen, letting him see mom deal with other children in the neighborhood. With a 2-year-old, you have to be a little bit ingenious.
You have to not be too excited about the baby. I think that some parents, in trying to prepare the child, get so excited and ask the child to get so excited that the child says there's going to be hell to pay here.
With the holiday season coming up, do you have any suggestions about how parents can downplay the materialistic and commercial aspects?
I think greeting cards are an abomination. When birthdays and special holidays come around, children should be encouraged to make their own cards and gifts. I still remember how excited I was in about third grade to make a blotter pad for my parents for Christmas, lacing the pieces of paper together with a ribbon, and drawing a special picture of a house with smoke spiraling out of the chimney. That was many years ago, and I remember that wonderful feeling of excitement and anticipation, waiting for my mother and father to open the gift.
I want to stretch this idea by saying it's more enjoyable to give than to receive, but people won't believe me. so I'll say, I think it's as enjoyable.
The ideas of Dr. Benjamin Spock with respect to parenting did not agree with the rigid methods experts traditionally proposed for raising children in the 1940s and earlier. Parents were told—as had many previous generations of parents—to strictly discipline children. For example, experts told parents not to hold their children when they cried because it would teach them to cry when wanting attention and not to display affection because children would grow up weak and dependent. When Spock introduced his now-common sense/then-radical ideas to the people of the United States, reactions of approval and controversy resulted.
Spock contended that giving children affection and love in a relaxed environment would make them happier and more likely to become secure, mature individuals. He also advised parents to be more flexible in how they raised their children and to enjoy their time together. Spock said that the advice of experts, which was generally a one-approach-fits-all attitude, was incorrect. He felt parents knew better how to raise their children than did authors of previous child-rearing books. Child-care professionals condemned and criticized Spock's ideas because they disagreed with his views. Specifically, his ideas countered what they had said for years, making their traditional methods of teaching more difficult to promote.
Many of the children of these 1940s parents revolted against the U.S. establishment during the 1960s. The perceived breakdown of society's ethics and morals and the disrespect shown of its laws and traditions were often blamed partially on Spock and his child-rearing techniques. Some people also became critical of Spock's ideas due to his opposition and protest with the Vietnam War.
Also, in the 1960s, feminists criticized Spock's books because mothers were made responsible for most of child-rearing. In the 1970s, Spock revised his books to include fatherly involvement and to refer to children using both masculine and feminine pronouns (such as him and her) rather than using only the traditional masculine ones to refer to both sexes.
Although experts criticized Spock's book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, parents liked what Spock said and bought his book in droves. It sold nearly one million copies annually and remained a popular book in the United States for decades after its first publication. By 1998 (the year of Spock's death), the book had sold more than fifty million copies and had been translated into thirty-nine languages. Its sales numbers make it the second best selling nonfiction book in the United States.
Spock's success is considered to have come from two basic ideals that he held. First, he listened to, and respected, parents and asked them questions on how they were raising their children. Spock wanted to learn the psychological and emotional aspects of parenting and the dynamics of parent-child relationships. Second, Spock applied his six years of advanced psychoanalytic training to child development. After learning from parents, Spock used that advice and his psychoanalytic training to write understandable child-rearing guidebooks. Consequently, Spock's words to parents gave them confidence to raise their children according to their own feelings. Spock helped parents to love their children, to develop relationships with their children, and to enjoy the time spent together with their children. Although this advice seems common sense in the 2000s, it was revolutionary in the 1940s.
Spock's ideas, which were given in a friendly and commonsense approach, directly influenced several generations of parents to raise children in more flexible and caring ways. In his day, most people considered Spock the most trusted pediatrician in the country. He continues to influence current generations of parents, as many child-care professionals and developmental psychologists now support many of his ideas of child-rearing.
Bloom, Lynn Z. Doctor Spock: A Biography of a Conservative Radical. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.
Maier, Thomas. Dr. Spock: An American Life. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998.
Spock, Benjamin. A Better World for Our Children: Rebuilding American Family Values. Washington, DC: National Press Books, 1994.
Spock, Benjamin. Dr. Spock's The First Two Years: The Emotional and Physical Needs of Children from Birth to Age Two. Edited by Martin T. Stein. New York: Pocket Books, 2001.
Spock, Benjamin. Raising Children in a Difficult Time: A Philosophy of Parental Leadership and High Ideals. New York: Norton, 1974.
Spock, Benjamin. A Teenager's Guide to Life and Love. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.
Spock, Benjamin, and Michael B. Rothenberg. Baby and Child Care. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.
Spock, Benjamin, and Miriam E. Lowenberg. Feeding Your Baby and Child. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1955.
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, Public Broadcasting Service. "Remembering Dr. Spock." March 16, 1998 〈http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/health/jan-june98/spock_3-16.html〉 (accessed July 12, 2006).
Parents' Press. "Home page of Parents' Press." 〈http://www.parentspress.com/〉 (accessed July 12, 2006).