Benjamin Spock and the Unruly Generation

Revolutionary Worker #951, April 5, 1998

"People have said, `You've turned your back on pediatrics.' I said, `No. It took me until I was in my 60s to realize that politics was a part of pediatrics."

Dr. Benjamin Spock


On March 15, 1998 Dr. Benjamin Spock died at the age of 94. Known as the "baby doctor, Spock wrote the famous book on childcare, now titled, Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care. It became one of the best sellers of all time--translated into 42 languages, almost 50 million copies have been sold.

Benjamin Spock entered Yale in the early 1920s and after working summers in a home for crippled children, he decided to go to medical school. Later he would reflect, "I guess that's why I became a baby doctor, thinking of those kids. My doctoring was always vaguely humanitarian."

Spock got his medical degree at Columbia University in 1929, did internships in medicine and pediatrics and a residency in psychiatry and psychoanalytic training, and then Spock opened a private pediatric practice in New York in 1933. This in the middle of the Great Depression, millions couldn't afford a private pediatrician and for several years, Spock barely managed to cover his expenses. But he became known as a good and compassionate doctor. And in 1938, he attracted the attention of the Doubleday publishing house, which asked him to write a child-care manual. Spock declined the offer, saying he didn't think he knew enough. But five years later another publisher, Pocket Books, came to him with a proposal for a book to be sold at 25 cents a copy and Spock accepted.

For the next three years, including two years in which he was in the Navy, Spock spent evenings dictating material for his book to his wife, Jane, whom he had married in 1927. The bulk of what he put in the book, he said, "came out of my head"--from years of listening to concerns and worries parents brought to his office.

Breaking with Pediatric Tradition

Spock wanted his book to make parents more comfortable and more effective. He found most of the existing literature on child-rearing to be "condescending, scolding or intimidating." Many parenting books promoted rigid schedules for feeding, weaning, sleeping and toilet training. Some books told parents not to hug, kiss or show affection to children. Spock contradicted both philosophies by advising flexible schedules and plenty of affection.

Spock's book, titled Baby and Child Care and published in 1946, broke with the conventional authoritarian approach to childrearing. He avoided medical jargon and, in practical, straightforward, easy-to-understand language, Spock counseled mothers and fathers to take a more "common sense" approach to raising their children. The first words of the book told parents, "You know more than you think you do." And Spock's advice was guided by his faith in parents' instincts and emotions, and his faith in the child. He told parents--listen to your baby and your baby will tell you what to do; listen to yourself and you will understand what your baby needs.

The response to Spock's book was tremendous. In the first year, it sold 750,000 copies and in its first six years it sold more than four million copies. Many parents turned to Spock's book when they couldn't reach their pediatrician, couldn't afford an office visit or were too embarrassed to ask. They welcomed Spock's down-to-earth advice which deliberately set out to counteract the rigidities of pediatric tradition. Spock said, "There were many parents who were very unhappy with ideas like rigid feeding schedules. It was hard on babies, but it was harder still on mothers."

Spock had never imagined his book would become so popular. But when asked why he thought the book caught on so quickly he said, "One reason is that young parents didn't submit as readily as parents in previous generations to rigidity, which had been the dominant mood up until then--don't feed your baby a minute early or a minute late; see that she takes the whole bottle. There was something different in the spirit of young people--they thought [rigidity] was ridiculous and were looking for somebody to tell them to be human, be natural."

Spock's book emphasized the importance of differences between individual babies--that parents needed to be flexible and not get too anxious over the unknown. When parents found themselves up in the middle of the night, worried and not knowing what to do about their crying baby, they would reach for Spock's book which gave answers and also reassured them that even if they made a mistake, it was not the end of the world, or of the child. Spock's book gave parents confidence, telling them to think for themselves--which he also considered good advice to give their children.

For Spock, "strictness or permissiveness" was not the key issue in raising children. He said, "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." And he believed 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." Spock urged, "Every baby needs to be smiled at, talked to, played with, fondled--gently and lovingly.... Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby."

Spock Against the System

In addition to becoming famous for his advice on babies, Spock became known for his political activism after he joined the protests shaking the country in the 1960s. In 1962, he warned of the possible hazards posed to children and nursing mothers by atmospheric nuclear testing. He was elected co-chairman of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and joined demonstrations demanding nuclear disarmament. He argued, "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?"

Spock was also an early opponent of the Vietnam War. When U.S. military involvement in Vietnam escalated in 1965, Spock wrote protest letters to the White House. Then, when this proved futile, he joined demonstrators in the streets. He became a noted and conspicuous anti-war demonstrator with his 6'4" height and suit-and-tie dress amidst the tens of thousands of rebellious youth. In 1967 Spock joined a delegation that delivered almost a thousand turned-in draft cards to the Justice Department in Washington. And later that year he was arrested for crossing a police line in an act of civil disobedience at an armed forces induction center in New York.

In 1968, in a highly publicized case, Spock was arrested and tried for conspiring to aid and abet resistance to the draft. He told the jury he considered the war "totally illegal, immoral, unwinnable and detrimental to the best interests of the United States." Spock was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. But a year later, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction.

In 1972 Spock was the Presidential candidate of the People's Party and got more than 75,000 votes with a platform that called for free medical care, the legalization of abortion and marijuana, a guaranteed minimum income for families and the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from foreign countries.

After the Vietnam War Spock continued to join protest around issues like nuclear weapons and cuts in social welfare programs. By the time he turned 80, in 1985, he had been arrested a dozen times. In 1978 he was arrested for trespassing at a protest at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. In 1980 he was arrested for blocking an entrance to the Pentagon in an anti-nuclear demonstration. In 1981 he was arrested at the White House protesting proposed budget cuts. In 1987 he was arrested and charged with trespassing after demonstrating at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station against the test launching of a Trident 2 missile.

Dr. Spock came under fire for this political activism. Critics branded him the "father of permissiveness" and said he was responsible for a "Spock-marked generation of hippies." In the 1960s, Vice President Agnew, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and New York Methodist Episcopal minister Norman Vincent Peale publicly attacked Spock, arguing that his methods of bringing up children had caused a "breakdown in discipline and a collapse of conventional morality." From his pulpit, Peale preached, "And now Spock is out in the mobs, leading the permissive babies raised on his undisciplined teaching."

When Agnew accused Spock of corrupting American youths, Spock shot back: "At least nobody could accuse me of having brought up Spiro Agnew." And Spock upheld the rebellious spirit of the youth--and any part he may have played in promoting this. He said, "Maybe my book helped a generation not to be intimidated by adulthood. When I was young, I was always made to assume that I was wrong. now young people think they might be right and stand up to authority."

Changing with the Times

On Allowance: It shouldn't be used as payment for chores.

On Spanking: It teaches children that the larger, stronger person has the power to get his way, whether or not he is in the right.... Some spanked children feel quite justified in beating up on smaller ones.

Sex roles: I think it is normal for little boys to want to play with dolls and for little girls to want to play with toy cars, and it's quite all right to let them have them.

On taking advice: 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.... You should not take too literally what is said in this book.

From Dr. Spock's Baby Book


Over the years Spock continued to lecture and write about childcare, the nuclear arms race, or both. Spock and his first wife, Jane, were divorced in 1976. And later that year, Spock married Mary Morgan, whom he collaborated with to write his book, "Spock on Spock--a Memoir of Growing Up with the Century." Spock wrote a dozen other books and numerous magazine columns. And he continually revised his original "baby book"--learning from and keeping up with the times. In 1968 he urged parents to become politically active on behalf of their children. And in the 1970s he confronted the sexism in his book.

The women's movement had criticized Spock for sexist passages in the book, one of which objected to women "acting more and more like men." In 1971, noting this criticism, Spock wrote: "I agree today that a man has no business trying to tell women what their characteristics are, which ones are inborn, which are more admirable, which will be best utilized by what occupations." And then in 1976, his book was revised largely, as Spock said in the preface, "to eliminate the sexist biases of the sort that help to create and perpetuate discrimination against girls and women." The baby was referred to as "she" as well as "he" and the description of the parents' roles was also changed. Spock explained, "I always assumed that the parent taking the greater share of young children (and of the home) would be the mother, whether or not she wanted an outside career. Yet it's this most universal assumption that leads to women feeling a much greater compulsion than men to sacrifice a part of their careers in order that the children will be well cared for.... Now I recognize that the father's responsibility is as great as the mother's."

The 1985 edition included sections on divorce, child abuse and children's fear of nuclear war. The 1992 edition added drugs, "blended families," homosexuality, AIDS and environmental awareness. And the new edition which will come out on May 2, 1998, on what would have been Dr. Spock's 95th birthday, supports adoption by gay and lesbian parents, endorses vegetarian diets for children, no longer recommends dairy products after age two, and calls most computer games "a colossal waste of time."

Spock's book continues to provide invaluable advice, guided by what he sees as striving for "the fundamental relationship between you and the kid--that you do the most to guide your child all the way along by a mutually respecting and loving relationship." And through the years, Spock said he never changed his basic philosophy on child care--"respect children because they're human beings and they deserve respect, and they'll grow up to be better people." As one colleague of Spock said, "He was the first person to talk about raising children as potential adults and giving them status as human beings and not merely subjects of their parents' wills."

Spock lived a long and energetic life. His wife, Mary said his good health and longevity stemmed from his life style, which still included rowing--in college he was a member of the 1924 rowing team which won an Olympic Gold Medal--daily meditation, yoga, shiatsu massage, and a macrobiotic diet.

And to the end, Spock continued to be a vocal critic of the system. In 1994 Spock wrote, "When I look at our society and think of the millions of children exposed every day to its harmful effects, I am near despair." He bemoaned the "fact that our present society is simply not working." But he added, "Of course we cannot return to the `good old days'... Our greatest hope is to bring up children inspired by their opportunities for being helpful and loving."


Spock had once told people he would like a New Orleans-style funeral, with a jazz band accompanying the casket. He said, "I love to dance and I'd love to be saying goodbye to my friends while the band was playing and they were dancing...I want them to remember I was a dancing man in my day."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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