At 89, Dr. Spock is still hot under the collar and looking for sacred cows

November 22, 1992|By Nancy Imperiale | Nancy Imperiale,Orlando Sentinel

What kind of maniac picks on milk?

That's what critics muttered after Dr. Benjamin Spock appeared at a press conference in September questioning the notion that milk does a body good.

It should have come as no surprise. Dr. Spock has made a career out of tipping sacred cows. This is the same man who regularly marches against the military, aided draft dodgers in the '60s and told generations of strict parents to stop spanking their kids.

The author of the best-selling "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care" has never followed the crowd as much as his conscience.

Don't look for age to temper that tendency. "I'm just as hot under the collar," the 89-year-old activist said in a telephone interview from his home in Maine.

His peace advocacy led the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice to invite Dr. Spock to be guest speaker at the coalition's recent 10th anniversary dinner. His proposed topic: "Current stresses on the family."

A speech on family dysfunction to a peace group?

Dr. Spock says the issues are inextricably connected.

"Families are wandering the streets without a place to live, and social services for families, women and children are skimped upon . . . There's not nearly enough high-quality day care, and what is there is too expensive for a majority of working parents. Children going to second- and third-rate day care are going to miss the comfort and security that young children are entitled to," he says.

"I've never advised mothers who wanted a career not to pursue it, but I think it's very cruel for mothers who would rather stay at home to have to turn their kid over to someone else. If a mother wants to stay home with her baby, the government should subsidize her, as in most other Western countries."

Dr. Spock criticizes the $295 billion defense budget, saying, "We can't take care of families' needs, of children's needs, unless we get some of that money."

That's the underlying theme of the latest book Dr. Spock is writing, tentatively titled "A Better World for Our Children."

L Not that the objects of his attention show any appreciation.

"Half the time that I'm introduced to children there's some kind of a disappointment and disbelief in their faces," Spock said. He said kids are put out to find he's not Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared Vulcan from Star Trek.

They treat Dr. Spock like a fictional character.

"Several years ago, a spunky 4-year-old came up to me at a dock where we were tied up and said 'If you're Spock, where's your spaceship?'"

By all accounts, Dr. Spock never set out to be famous. His earliest ambition simply may have been to leave home. The eldest of six children reared by a domineering, puritanical mother and a grave, cold father, Spock was a timid child. Biographers say he grew more confident in college, especially after his Yale crew team won a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics.

He went on to blaze trails as an adult pediatrician in New York. Dr. Spock was among the first to use psychology in his practice, believing it important to know not just how children behave, but why.

When his approach attracted a book publisher who wanted him to put his philosophies on paper, Dr. Spock got skittish. Persuaded the editor: "It doesn't have to be very good, we're only going to charge a quarter!"

Since its publication in 1946, "Baby and Child Care" has sold 40 million copies and has been translated into 39 languages -- the second best-selling book in history behind the Bible, according to the publisher.

Somewhere between writing about teething and toilet training, Dr. Spock came to the conclusion that politics is linked to pediatrics --that nuclear annihilation, bad schools, crime and inadequate health care all threaten our children.

In 1962 he appeared in a full-page ad in the New York Times for SANE, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. "Dr. Spock is worried," read the ad, picturing Dr. Spock in one of his trademark three-piece suits, staring sadly at a trusting toddler. Underneath was a plea for disarmament.

The pediatrician was now a protester. Over the next few years he would be arrested more than a dozen times for anti-war activities and indicted on charges of aiding draft resisters. He was convicted, but the indictment was later dismissed by an appellate court.

Dr. Spock makes an unlikely looking flower child, with his IvLeague accent and pocket hankies.

Yet it has been his most comfortable function.

"Obviously, I'll be remembered for 'Baby and Child Care'," he said. "But I would also like to be remembered as somebody who worked for disarmament and peace."

Old age has not dimmed his enthusiasm, but it has made it harder to scale a Cyclone fence, "especially when the opposition is shaking it."

After getting a pacemaker and suffering a small stroke in the last few years, Dr. Spock has had to cut his demonstrations down to about two a year. He lives on land nowadays -- he used to live on sailboats in the Virgin Islands and Maine.

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