Two generations of American parents will remember Dr. Benjamin Spock as the wise pediatrician who was permanently on call. At 3 a.m., when parents hate to wake their physician, they turned instead to Spock. His writer’s voice soothed their worries, whether the problem was as scary as croup or as mundane as diaper rash.
His remarkable new child care manual, now called “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care,” was first published in 1946. His respectful approach reassured anxious parents. “Trust yourself … you know more than you think you do,” he wrote.
An American original who managed to anger both political conservatives and liberal feminists, Spock was vilified during the early 1970s for his “permissive” views. His politics by then were extremely liberal; his child-rearing advice was not. Today, most experts believe Spock’s critics simply hadn’t read his work.
Even Dr. John Rosemond, the conservative child psychologist, has said, “Ben Spock was scapegoated as the architect of permissive parenting in America by Richard Nixon’s pit bull Spiro Agnew. But it was hardly true. Anyone who reads ‘Baby and Child Care’ will immediately realize that Ben Spock was the voice of tradition.”
Here’s Spock on family composition: “Two parents are preferable.” On crying: “I don’t think it’s good to let a baby cry miserably for long periods if there’s a way to comfort him … On the other hand, you don’t have to rush and pick him up every time he whimpers.” On bedtime: “Have an air of cheerful certainty about it. Expect them to turn in at the hour you decide as surely as you expect them to breathe.”
Spock’s advice was revolutionary, but only in contrast to the rigid and downright cruel practices of the Victorian era.
In 1898, pediatrician Emmet Holt ordered parents to spank or force their children into hot or cold baths to prompt daily crying. In 1928, Dr. John Watson dictated, “Never, never kiss your child. Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage.”
Instead, Spock believed in combining gentle nurturing with firm limits, a common-sense strategy borne out by both psychological research and the experience of any good parent.
The kind pediatrician who encouraged parents to trust their instincts and love their children has died. But, thankfully for those darkest nights of a parent’s life, his comforting voice lives on.
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