Dr. Spock's legacy goes beyond the crib

March 19, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It was not a book that parents merely read. We clutched it like a steering wheel. We held onto it like a security blanket through the sleep-deprived terrors of early parenthood.

When the hospital irrationally released the helpless 6-pound infant into our care without demanding to see a parenting degree, a dated driver's license, a passing test score, we had Dr. Spock's index to cling to.

"Newborns: Feelings in the early weeks."

When we were poised at the fearful edge of the first bath, we gripped the spine of this book as tightly as the wobbly head of our newborn and looked it up.

"Bath: In infancy; temperature of; fear of."

When the crying would not stop, when we had changed, fed, hugged, rocked, ignored, run through our entire repertoire and dissolved in panic, we still had Dr Spock.

"Crying: From air bubble; from fatigue; from indigestion; hard on parents."

Benjamin Spock made house calls day or night. He knew what we were worrying about before we did.

So when he died Sunday at 94, the obituaries all reported that his book was our bible. At 50 million copies, it was second to the good book.

But our Dr. Spock was no pediatric patriarch. No deliverer of commandments. No unimpeachable authority from on high.

The man who was born at the beginning of the century and died at the end of it bridged the distance from doctor to patient as easily as he did the distance from his 6-foot-4-inch height to his smallest patient.

"Trust yourself," he wrote in the opening line of the book -- a line that survived five decades and as many updates, from open adoption to AIDS.

Comforting the conflicted

"You know more than you think you do," he told parents who were raw recruits, no more comfortable with newborns than with landing gear on a 747. "Don't take too seriously what all the neighbors say. Don't be overawed by what the experts say. Don't be afraid to trust your own common sense."

It's hard to realize how uncommon such sense was in 1946. The author had grown up in a strict household in a stern era when parents were told to "harden off" their children like tender new shoots for a harsh, cold world.

Today, when every newborn comes equipped with a pacifier, we forget that experts once advised harsh tactics against thumb-sucking, even strapping the offending thumb away from the needy mouth. A standard guide admonished parents: "Never, never kiss your child. Never hold it on your lap. Never rock its carriage."

Filling the gap

"The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" was delivered as the first baby boomer left the womb. It was grabbed by young mothers and fathers who were far from home geographically and psychologically, in a generation gap less heralded than our own.

Spock told these parents not only to trust themselves but their children. "The children who are best behaved are those who are treated with respect," he said in a phrase that would be continually twisted into some paean to permissiveness.

"Discipline: Based on love; changing theories; firmness."

By the time I looked to him for infant advice, the pediatrician had expanded his practice from the nursery to the world. In 1968, he was tried for anti-war protests. In the 1970s, the old authorities blamed him for raising children out of control -- their control.

Spock became an elder of the youth generation, running for president on the People's Platform, fighting against nuclear weapons and for health care. When others criticized a pediatrician playing politics, he answered, "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?"

"Idealism: Children's need for."

At some point along the way to his very old age, Benjamin Spock became dismayed by the Spock Kids, disapproving of the baby boomers who settled down in what he saw as an apolitical, self-absorbed materialism. Today, the bookshelf that once held Spock alone is filled with Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton.

But it was Benjamin Spock who held our collective hands as we moved from one generation to another. He trusted us and we returned the compliment. Maybe the final word for this good, struggling man rested with the doctor's own difficult mother. Half a century ago, after reading the book, she said, "Why Benny, it's really quite sensible."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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