Dr. Benjamin Spock (Obituary) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Dr. Benjamin Spock (Obituary)

In the 1940s, child-rearing was done, literally, by the book. Janet Berton vividly remembers the one she used - Canadian Mother and Child, a brochure from the federal health department that her doctor gave her when her first child, Penny, was born in 1948.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 30, 1998

Spock, Dr. Benjamin

In the 1940s, child-rearing was done, literally, by the book. Janet Berton vividly remembers the one she used - Canadian Mother and Child, a brochure from the federal health department that her doctor gave her when her first child, Penny, was born in 1948. "It had wonderful pictures of old, old, old-fashioned babies and nurses in black and white," says Berton, who with her husband, author Pierre Berton, raised a family of eight children. "But it was pretty authoritarian. You had to do exactly what it said." Berton says she tried to follow the rules for feeding an infant on a strict timetable, every four hours, and soon wound up "in a panic" because the baby did not seem to be getting enough milk. When a friend gave her Dr. Benjamin Spock's The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Berton thumbed through the newly published, 25-cent paperback and was relieved to find that it was all right to feed her baby when she was hungry. "Dr. Spock turned out to be very encouraging, saying go ahead with your instincts and don't worry, babies are resilient," says Berton. "We would study his book every day, wearing it out." And so did millions of other parents around the world. Last week, Spock, the American pediatrician and peace activist who revolutionized child care, died at his home in San Diego, at the age of 94. He had seen Baby and Child Care become one of the most popular books in history - selling more than 50 million copies in more than 40 languages.

"Trust yourself," Spock told parents in the book's famed opening lines. "You know more than you think you do." That may be conventional wisdom today, but it was a radical, cradle-rocking message in the '40s, an era of rigid feeding schedules and strict rules of behavior - doctors told mothers to tie an infant's hands to the crib to prevent thumb-sucking and warned them not to spoil children with hugs and kisses. "Spock gave people more leeway than they had in the past, not just in ordinary care-giving and feeding, but also in how children were brought up," says Dr. Richard Goldbloom, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "It was very liberating."

The encyclopedic medical guide helped parents distinguish between a minor rash and the measles, projectile vomiting and spitting up. But Spock, one of the first pediatricians trained in psychoanalysis, also ventured into the new territory of child psychology. "He was the first to say babies were human beings, too," says British child care expert Penelope Leach, author of the popular Baby and Child, first published in 1977. "That was very much before his time." But in the '60s, when the first generation "brought up on Spock" turned into draft-dodging, free-loving hippies, conservatives began to blame the celebrated baby doctor. In a widely publicized sermon, the influential author Norman Vincent Peale linked the youth rebellion to what he called Spock's popular "instant gratification, don't let them cry" approach to child raising. But Spock, a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, sympathized with and often joined students in protest marches, wearing his trademark three-piece suits. Spock's activism led to several arrests, but he avoided imprisonment. In 1972, he ran for president as a candidate of the Peoples Party on a socialist platform and won 75,000 votes. For Spock, politics at the time of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was just another form of pediatrics. "What is the use of physicians like myself trying to help parents to bring up children healthy and happy, to have them killed in such numbers for a cause that is ignoble?" he once asked.

The pediatrician denounced as the father of permissiveness described his own upbringing as "strict but loving." Born in New Haven, Conn., in 1903, Spock was the oldest of six children of a wealthy, conservative family. He attended his home-town college, Yale, where he was a member of the rowing team that won a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics. He earned a medical degree at New York City's Columbia University before studying at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Spock produced Baby and Child Care - the first of about a dozen books he wrote or co-wrote - in the evenings, during a stint with the U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Corps from 1944 to 1946. In later years, he readily admitted his own failings as a parent to his two sons, Michael, now 65 and a museum director in Illinois, and John, 54, who owns a California-based construction company. "I never kissed them," Spock revealed in 1976. "Now when I see my sons, I throw my arms around them." When Spock had divorced their mother, Jane Cheney, a year earlier, after 48 years of marriage, both sons took their mother's family name. "They berated me for not having shown them more physical affection in their childhood and for being rigid," he admitted in an interview. "That's part of the thoughtlessness of a person who is preoccupied with work."

Spock practised the flexibility he preached to parents. In each new edition - the seventh will appear in May - he responded to feminists who denounced him as "one of the great oppressors of women" and carefully scrutinized Baby and Child Care to remove the gender stereotyping of the original. It had advised fathers to "compliment their daughter on her dress, her hairdo and on the cookies she's made," and consistently referred to children as "he" or "him." The amended editions also included advice for single parents and stepparents - issues he had encountered personally after he married his much younger second wife, Mary Morgan, a former conference planner, in 1976.

In his later years, Spock also emphasized the need for parents to deal firmly with their children and to set standards of behavior - points he insisted he had made clear from the beginning. But he could never shake the "permissive" label - an unfair one, according to Spock, who argued that critics had misinterpreted his book. "I've never thought parents shouldn't lead or discipline their children," he said. And although Spock remains popular - fans like Berton recommend his "bible on baby care" when their children become parents - nursery shelves are now lined with more contemporary child care books. But they all share the philosophy that will likely prove to be Spock's most lasting legacy: "Respect children because they're human beings and they deserve respect, and they'll grow up to be better people."

Maclean's March 30, 1998

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