Echoes from the baby boom Appreciation: For 50 years, parents turned to the book by Dr. Benjamin Spock for the most common-sense advice about raising children.

March 17, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Benjamin Spock's enduring gift is the comfort he provided parents who came to a new job with no training.

In his landmark 1946 book, "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care," the tall, graceful Yankee sent parents a simple but profound message: There really were answers to their questions about raising children. Until then, pediatricians used intuition when it came to behavioral or developmental issues or ignored them.

Spock's book allowed parents to feed their babies when the babies cried, not according to an arbitrarily imposed doctor's schedule. He said he was trying to reassure parents to be more natural.

"Don't be overawed by experts," he advised parents. "Trust yourself."

Parents were ready for him after lean, tough years of Depression and war. Spock's ideas caught on worldwide and, by the 1950s, he was patron saint of baby boom parents -- a position some say he still held when he died Sunday in California.

His ideas, largely a reflection of his strict upbringing, were

nothing short of revolutionary in the realm of raising children. By bringing up how parents can deal with the different stages of a child's behavior, he revealed a chasm in how pediatricians were treating children. It was Spock who set the stage for today's vast body of research into childhood development. And, by addressing parents, telling them they were the ultimate expert, he turned raising children into a profession.

A decade later, when the disruption of the 1960s led parents to question their own child-rearing philosophies, Spock was an easy target.Criticized, perhaps unfairly, for being overly permissive, Spock bravely stepped back to examine the first generation of kids raised on his book and revised his next editions. In these, he began advising parents not to apply his "demand feeding" philosophy to all parts of a child's life, but to set firm rules with children.

The change was significant enough to Spock that when a mother asked him to sign an old copy of his book at a meeting about five years ago, the doctor flat-out refused, explaining that he couldn't sign something he no longer believed. According to Murray Kappelman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland, who witnessed the encounter, Spock politely asked the woman to throw out the old edition and buy his newest.

"Spock had guts in his personal, political and professional life," Kappelman said. It is because of Spock, the professor said, that the doctoring of infants and children now includes behavioral and developmental pediatrics. Today's medical student learns that between 50 percent and 60 percent of all office visits will include an issue related to the child's development, he said.

Raised in the Depression by austere parents -- his father gave him nary a kiss -- Spock viewed his legacy simply: "What I tried to tell parents is that it's OK to love your child," he told an interviewer in 1996. "Some people think your choices in raising a child are either to be strict and severe and he'll turn out fine, or to let him get away with murder and everybody suffers. Neither extreme is true ..."

From the beginning he sought to make respect for the child a guiding principle and to dissuade parents from yelling, screaming or striking a child. He argued that doing so brought the parent down to the child's level and the two became peers rather than parent and child.

Whatever his faults, Spock made publishing history. His book, about to enter a seventh edition, has sold 50 million copies, a sales figure topped only by the Bible.

"It was probably the best reference available at the time," said William A. Sinton, a Towson pediatrician who opened his practice in 1961, yesterday. "It was difficult to find a subject you couldn't find in his book -- diaper rash, what to do about high fevers -- and in areas that might be controversial, he was careful to acknowledge that a parent might want to run this by the pediatrician."

And while Sinton says he still tells parents that if they can find an old copy at a garage sale for 50 cents they should pick it up -- the information is that good -- Spock's handbook has been surpassed by books by child experts such as Penelope Leach and Harvard pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton.

"He had enormous influence on me," Brazelton said yesterday from his office at Children's Hospital in Boston, where he studies child development and families. "Spock gave parents permission think about their own parent issues. It freed them up."

Brazelton is among many doctors who say Spock's permissiveness and philosophy of respect for children, however he tempered it in later years, was unfairly blamed for the student uprisings and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s by a society looking for a scapegoat.

In a way, he set himself up for the criticism: His third edition, revised in 1968, reflected his interest in political activism and advised parents to engage in activism on behalf of their children.

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