Fourteen years ago this week, Pocket Books released the seventh edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. The date, May 2, 1998, would have been Benjamin Spock’s 95th birthday, but the famous pediatrician – infamous in some quarters –had died six weeks earlier.
It was a long and productive life Benny Spock enjoyed, and despite what his critics claimed, it was a life that benefited millions of families around the world. The original title of his book, first published in 1946, was The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, and it really was full of common sense.
In later years, as he demonstrated against the Vietnam War and for a variety of left-leaning causes, Spock’s detractors declared that he was marching with a generation of insistent children he had helped spoil. But these skeptics were confusing the man’s politics with his work, which is easy to do -- especially in our time of voluble celebrities.
Benjamin Spock was Ozzie Guillen before Ozzie Guillen was born. The oldest of six children in a New England family of Dutch descent, he was a big man, 6-foot-4, with broad shoulders, who’d rowed crew on Yale’s 1924 Olympic gold medal-winning team. Spock was, literally, a gentle giant and he possessed an easy confidence around children, a soothing bedside manner as a pediatrician, and the heretical thought that parental instincts are often right.
Before he came along, textbooks were actually published with advice such as the following: “Never, never kiss your child. Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage.”
Dr. Spock, by contrast, wrote this: “Every baby needs to be smiled at, talked to, played with, fondled -- gently and lovingly. You may hear people say that you have to get your baby strictly regulated in his feeding, sleeping … and other habits -- but don’t believe this. He doesn't have to be sternly trained. . . . Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby.”
He began each edition of his famous book with the same gentle admonition: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
Norman Vincent Peale, among others, thought the good baby doctor from New Haven knew less than he thought he did. He summarized Spock’s view as: “'Feed ’em whenever they want, never let them cry, satisfy their every desire.”
This was a selective reading of “the baby book,” as it was simply known, but by the 1960s, the doctor’s political activity was coloring how many viewed his work. He protested against nuclear weapons, marched against the war in Vietnam, burned draft cards (for which he was arrested and convicted in a famous free speech trial), became a socialist, and ran for national office as a fringe candidate.
But his 1972 presidential platform, considered radical at the time, foreshadowed themes embraced by modern candidates ranging from Barack Obama to Ron Paul. Spock espoused free medical care, including legalized abortion (this was pre-Roe v. Wade). He supported decriminalizing marijuana and a guaranteed minimum income for American families, and called for bringing home all U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam and elsewhere. (He almost certainly would have disapproved of the war in Afghanistan.)
Vice President Spiro Agnew, noting Spock’s work in counseling young people how to avoid the draft, accused him of corrupting America’s youth. The Rev. Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, added from his pulpit, “And now Spock is out in the mobs, leading the permissive babies raised on his undisciplined teaching.”
By way of rejoinder, Spock quipped, "Well, nobody could accuse me of having brought up Spiro Agnew.”