Dr. Spock’s death this week at 94 came too soon. His work wasn’t done.
Few people did more for worried parents in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s than Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Dr. Spock’s famous book, mostly known as “Baby and Child Care,” sits on 50 million bookshelves more than any nonfiction work except the Bible.
He wasn’t a god, but at 3 a.m. with the baby crying, he seemed like one.
His straightforward advice about parenting rings as true as a church bell on Sunday.
You know more than you think, so use your common sense, Spock advised new parents. Example: Keep a relief bottle available for late-night feedings if Mother Nature isn’t cooperating.
When the second child arrives and is difficult, realize they are different, he said simply. It’s OK if you don’t feel as attached as you did with the first baby. Love grows.
To parents who became obsessively focused on their children, Spock gently suggested Mom and Dad look at each other, smile at each other, spend some time together. This will, he pointed out, be good for the child as he or she learns about being a caring adult.
Spock’s book was so big, for so long, that for decades it seemed that everyone had read it and that entire generations were raised as Spock babies.
The paperback edition of “Baby and Child Care” coincided with the high point in the birth and early years of the baby boom generation.
The book was still around when the baby boomers grew up and began parenting in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even today, “Baby and Child Care” sells more than 500,000 copies a year.
But in these late 1990s, the world where Dr. Spock had thrived now has changed.
The shelves holding “Baby and Child Care” are crowded with other titles.
On a recent visit to the child and family section of Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, I found these titles next to Spock’s: “Divorce Book for Parents,” “Adopting the Hurt Child” and “Carbohydrate Addicted Kids.”
Disorders, family dysfunction and all kinds of childhood diseases dominate the family section.
At the end of his life, Dr. Spock knew the world had changed. At age 91, he despaired that he would be leaving the world soon and he would be leaving children worse off than he found them.
His last book was titled “A Better World for Our Children.” It is quite different from “Baby and Child Care.”
“This book isn’t a manual on the daily care of individual children,” he wrote. “It is about the deterioration in our society and what caring men and women can do to leave a better world for all our children.”
After 50 years of practical advice to mothers, Spock grew alarmed in old age that the greatest threat to children now wasn’t chickenpox, but the risks millions of kids face when raised in single-parent families, poverty or an environment where few internal values are instilled at an early age.
In well-to-do households, he fretted that the unyielding emphasis on getting ahead at all costs and the push by two-career families to put their kids in day care would lead to a heartless, unfeeling generation ahead.
Was the good doctor right?
I sought out Marla Struebin, a children’s physician at the Valley Young People’s Clinic, for a second opinion.
Dr. Struebin, a mother of a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old, said she used Dr. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care” when her children were born.
“I think it’s still a useful book,” she said. “There is a lot of real common-sense stuff that, until you have been through it, you don’t really know what to do. I still recommend it to my new mothers.”
And Struebin doesn’t have much quarrel with the themes in Spock’s last book, either.
“There are some issues that are always there for new moms, like feeding, sleeping, development and behavior problems,” she said. “But there certainly are issues today that parents have to deal with that weren’t there as much when Spock wrote the baby book.”
Single parenting probably is the biggest challenge, Struebin noted from her own experience.
“Parenting optimally is done with two people,” she said. “It’s nice for the kids to have two caregivers. And, from a very practical standpoint, when you have two parents, one can spell the other. When a kid gets on your nerves, or the parent is tired or worn out, the other parent can take over. I talk to a lot of single parents and very often they feel like they just don’t have time to do all they want to do as a parent.”
Struebin thinks day care is something else that has changed since the early decades of Dr. Spock.
“When parents are working full time and the baby is in day care, then basically the baby is being raised by somebody else,” she said. “That’s very different from the 1950s.”
Struebin, like Dr. Spock, believes most kids learn their basic values and outlook very early, probably before age 6.
“That’s when all the wiring is going on so the stuff that comes into the brain at that time stays there,” she said.
When kids go to day care as toddlers, somebody besides parents is doing that basic wiring.
These shifts in our care of and attitudes toward children worried Dr. Spock.
But his last book is out of print today.
And Dr. Spock is dead.
His work, and admonitions, live on.
, DataTimes MEMO: Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review. His column appears each Sunday on Perspective.
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