Benjamin Spock's enduring gift is the comfort he provided parents who came to a new job with no training.
In his landmark 1946 book, "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care," the tall, graceful Yankee sent parents a simple but profound message: There really were answers to their questions about raising children. Until then, pediatricians used intuition when it came to behavioral or developmental issues or ignored them.
Spock's book allowed parents to feed their babies when the babies cried, not according to an arbitrarily imposed doctor's schedule. He said he was trying to reassure parents to be more natural.
"Don't be overawed by experts," he advised parents. "Trust yourself."
Parents were ready for him after lean, tough years of Depression and war. Spock's ideas caught on worldwide and, by the 1950s, he was patron saint of baby boom parents -- a position some say he still held when he died Sunday in California.
His ideas, largely a reflection of his strict upbringing, were
nothing short of revolutionary in the realm of raising children. By bringing up how parents can deal with the different stages of a child's behavior, he revealed a chasm in how pediatricians were treating children. It was Spock who set the stage for today's vast body of research into childhood development. And, by addressing parents, telling them they were the ultimate expert, he turned raising children into a profession.
A decade later, when the disruption of the 1960s led parents to question their own child-rearing philosophies, Spock was an easy target.Criticized, perhaps unfairly, for being overly permissive, Spock bravely stepped back to examine the first generation of kids raised on his book and revised his next editions. In these, he began advising parents not to apply his "demand feeding" philosophy to all parts of a child's life, but to set firm rules with children.
The change was significant enough to Spock that when a mother asked him to sign an old copy of his book at a meeting about five years ago, the doctor flat-out refused, explaining that he couldn't sign something he no longer believed. According to Murray Kappelman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland, who witnessed the encounter, Spock politely asked the woman to throw out the old edition and buy his newest.
"Spock had guts in his personal, political and professional life," Kappelman said. It is because of Spock, the professor said, that the doctoring of infants and children now includes behavioral and developmental pediatrics. Today's medical student learns that between 50 percent and 60 percent of all office visits will include an issue related to the child's development, he said.
Raised in the Depression by austere parents -- his father gave him nary a kiss -- Spock viewed his legacy simply: "What I tried to tell parents is that it's OK to love your child," he told an interviewer in 1996. "Some people think your choices in raising a child are either to be strict and severe and he'll turn out fine, or to let him get away with murder and everybody suffers. Neither extreme is true ..."
From the beginning he sought to make respect for the child a guiding principle and to dissuade parents from yelling, screaming or striking a child. He argued that doing so brought the parent down to the child's level and the two became peers rather than parent and child.
Whatever his faults, Spock made publishing history. His book, about to enter a seventh edition, has sold 50 million copies, a sales figure topped only by the Bible.
"It was probably the best reference available at the time," said William A. Sinton, a Towson pediatrician who opened his practice in 1961, yesterday. "It was difficult to find a subject you couldn't find in his book -- diaper rash, what to do about high fevers -- and in areas that might be controversial, he was careful to acknowledge that a parent might want to run this by the pediatrician."
And while Sinton says he still tells parents that if they can find an old copy at a garage sale for 50 cents they should pick it up -- the information is that good -- Spock's handbook has been surpassed by books by child experts such as Penelope Leach and Harvard pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton.
"He had enormous influence on me," Brazelton said yesterday from his office at Children's Hospital in Boston, where he studies child development and families. "Spock gave parents permission think about their own parent issues. It freed them up."
Brazelton is among many doctors who say Spock's permissiveness and philosophy of respect for children, however he tempered it in later years, was unfairly blamed for the student uprisings and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s by a society looking for a scapegoat.
In a way, he set himself up for the criticism: His third edition, revised in 1968, reflected his interest in political activism and advised parents to engage in activism on behalf of their children.
Later editions reflected changes in society. The books began interchanging "he and him" with "she and her" when discussing a child's needs, and added new sections on breast-feeding at work, child abuse and fatherhood. The 40th anniversary edition in 1985 included discussions of single parenting, divorce and anxiety in children caused by discussions of nuclear war.
The 1998 edition, scheduled for release in May, is billed by publisher Pocket Books as a "handbook to guide parents to the (( new millennium." It suggests a plant-based diet for children older than 2 and discusses school and learning problems, gay and lesbian parents, and the best ways for children to take care of their teeth.
Also for the first time, it includes issues of concern to parents of teen-agers, including their child's psychological reactions to puberty and subjects such as anorexia and bulimia.
It has some tough competition. If Spock made parents the experts on their child, he also paved the way for a generation of child-care experts. "The name has faded as other books have picked up where he left off," said Lawrence Pakula, a Timonium pediatrician. "In our office there aren't nearly the numbers of [parents reading Spock as] 10 years ago."
Today's parent can consult a myriad of experts including Brazelton, whose book "Touchstones" -- a map of child development -- helps parents anticipate a child's different stages. "He thinks about the implications for the family," Pakula says.
L Yet there is nothing like a basic reference in time of need.
Yesterday, for instance, with her 1-year-old son Dylan ill with a nasty virus, Kate Goldsborough consulted Spock before showing up at her doctor's office.
"I could not find anything in Penelope Leach," she said. Spock "is just so practical. 'Clear fluids for X amount of hours.' It's the kind of thing at 2 in the morning that is what you need."
The 35-year-old Baltimore mom says the book was a gift from a girlfriend who had giggled that it was a little dated. But Goldsborough has found it isn't so. "Spock is just the most basic," she says.
Even today Spock continues to comfort parents.
"Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care," 1946. Later editions called "Baby and Child Care."
"A Baby's First Year," 1954. "Feeding Your Baby and Child," 1955.
"Dr. Spock Talks with Mothers," 1961.
"Problems of Parents," 1962.
"Caring for Your Disabled Child," 1965.
"Dr. Spock on Vietnam," 1968.
"Decent and Indecent," 1970.
"A Teenager's Guide to Life and Love," 1970.
"Raising Children in a Difficult Time," 1974.
"Spock on Parenting," 1988.
"Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing Up With the Century," 1989.
Excerpts from Dr. Benjamin Spock's advice to parents, from the 1968 edition of "Baby and Child Care":
Don't take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don't be overawed by what the experts say. Don't be afraid to trust your own common sense. Bringing up your child won't be a complicated job if you take it easy, trust your own instincts and follow the directions that your doctor gives you. We know for a fact that the natural loving care that kindly parents give their children is a hundred times more valuable than their knowing how to pin a diaper on just right or how to make a formula expertly.
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.
You have a pretty tough baby. He can care for himself pretty well for a person who can't say a word and knows nothing about the world.
Books about child care, like this one, put so much emphasis on all the needs that children have -- for love, for understanding, for patience, for consistency, for firmness, for protection, for
comradeship, for calories and vitamins -- that parents sometimes feel physically and emotionally exhausted just from reading about what is expected of them. They get the impression that they are meant to have no needs themselves. The fact is that child rearing is a long, hard job and that parents are just as human as their children.
A great majority of those who admit that their first reaction to pregnancy was predominantly one of dismay (and there are plenty of good people who feel this way) are reassured to find that their acceptance of the pregnancy and their fondness for the baby reaches a comfortable level before he is born.
Pub Date: 3/17/98