Dr. Spock back with a slap on the rearing of a troubled society

September 02, 1994|By Bettijane Levine | Bettijane Levine,Los Angeles Times News Service

Dr. Benjamin Spock is 91 and worried.

Not about the usual things, like health -- "I don't feel great, but until two years ago I didn't even feel old"; or love -- he's happily married to a woman 40 years his junior; or money -- his famous child-care book still sells half a million copies each year.

Spock's big problem, he says, is the realization that he'll leave America's children in a worse situation than he found them -- a fact the activist says he wants to fight with each remaining breath.

So between the macrobiotic meals his wife, Mary Morgan, prepares for him; the daily massages she gives him while they recite together from the Book of Psalms; the yoga exercises, meditation, group psychotherapy sessions, swimming and nature walks they enjoy at their summer house on Penobscot Bay in Maine -- Spock has written yet another book.

This one, he says, has nothing to do with the daily care and feeding of America's youth.

"A Better World for Our Children" (National Press, 1994) is about the educational, ethical and spiritual poverty in which we are raising them, and the awful legacy he thinks we are creating.

Just ask and he'll reel off his list of atrocities: "Instability of marriage and the family; cruel competitiveness in business, sports and education; racial and ethnic divisiveness; materialism running rampant, with no spiritual or ethical values to offset it; increasing violence; a coarsening of our attitudes toward sex; lack of high-quality day care; an educational system that spews out children with no skills, no goals, and no preparation for productive, satisfying lives.

"Tote it up," he says, "and you have a picture of a society speeding downhill."

The good news, Spock says, is that we can reverse it all, if we start now to agree on a new set of . . . uh, "excuse the buzzword, but I have to say it . . . values."

Spock is ultra-cautious here because he's been burned before.

In the 1960s, 20 years after his first child-care book was published, conservative clergyman Dr. Norman Vincent Peale vilified Spock from his New York pulpit for the baby doctor's anti-Vietnam War activities, his "permissive" attitude toward raising children, and for an entire generation of unpatriotic and undisciplined young people.

This was just a few weeks after Spock, the chaplain of Yale University and two others were convicted of "conspiracy to abet resistance to the military draft." (The conviction was overturned on appeal and Spock never went to jail.)

To this day, Spock says, he hasn't totally shaken the "permissive" label among people who never read his books.

"Those who know my work realize that I was never permissive and always advocated total respect between children and adults."

Even his friendly competitors agree that it was an inaccurate and undeserved slur.

JTC "Spock's been my hero all along, he's a wonderful man," says child-care expert Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.

"He's been vital to family life and children, has kept the pressure on our society to pay attention to those issues. We are the least family-oriented society in the world, and all who care about children are frightened about the future if this continues. Spock's new book is one more sign of how much he cares."

At this late stage of his career, Spock says, he doesn't want to be misunderstood once again, or erroneously linked to what he considers regressive "family values folks."

"I'm not some old geezer advocating a return to the good old days," Spock says by phone from his seaside retreat. "I like and embrace the progress I've seen during my lifetime."

He's just not so sure about the attitudes that go with it. What we have lost while moving forward, he says, is our sense of the dignity of each individual; our desire to treat others as we want to be treated; our goal of raising children with the ideals of helpfulness, kindliness, and service to others.

These days, he says, we teach children only to want to "get ahead." We include nothing spiritual to sustain them while getting there, nothing so simple and profound as the fact that we are in this world to love and help each other.

Partly because there are no such interior beacons to guide young people as they try to "get ahead" in school or work, because we offer no sense of the dignity and importance of each individual person, rich or poor, Spock says we are seeing an increase in teen-age suicide.

If these spiritual values were brought back, he believes, America could move forward faster than ever. Our children would feel valued, educated and motivated.

Spock doesn't pretend to know the answers to the question of how to insert spiritual values -- or better day care and education -- into our society.

He hopes only that his book will "open up dialogue," and perhaps start some movement in what he considers the right direction. "Pediatrics is politics," he has said. If parents want better day care, health care and schools, they'll have to organize and demand it from the government.

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