The Spock touch

More than just a bestselling chid-care guru, the late doctor "Spock-marked" a generation with his politics.

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Like most parents I know, I’ve never cozied up to any particular
child-rearing theories. How could I have? Raising kids isn’t a clinical,
exacting science — it’s an art project, a sloppy collage. You piece it
together from instinct; from the three or four battered “how-to” books
you’ve got lying around under the sofa; from the cluck-clucking counsel
of parents and strangers; and from the murky memories of your own
fucked-up (or not-so-fucked-up) childhood. In his forthcoming memoir,
“Family Man,” Calvin Trillin gets to the heart of the matter: “Your
children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest
is commentary.”

When it comes to bringing up babies — like taste in architecture or
religion, pop music or neckties — every generation likes to feel more
enlightened than the one that preceded it. In 1998, I sometimes feel so
enlightened that I’d like to strangle somebody. (Maybe William Bennett.)
Like everyone else these days, parents are drowning in information, from
a rainbow-hued assortment of child-care texts to magazines like Hip Mama
and Web sites like this one. Wisdom, in William James’ formulation, is
learning what to overlook. If that is true, my wife and I have lost as
much brain matter as we have sleep.

Given the current flood of input about our offspring, it’s just about
impossible to imagine what it was like to raise kids in 1946, the year
the first edition of Benjamin Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and
Child Care” appeared. Thomas Maier, in his comprehensive new biography of Spock, does a fine, chilling job of reminding us. Among the most
venerated pre-Spock child-care books was John B. Watson’s “Psychological
Care of Infant and Child,” which was treated as gospel at many hospitals
– including the one where Spock began work as a pediatrician.

To label Watson’s pronouncements cringe-inducing is to understate pretty
severely. “Never hug or kiss [your children], never let them sit in your
lap,” Watson instructed, lest they drown in “Mother Love.” He continued:
“If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night.
Shake hands with them in the morning.” Watson further argued that
children should be prevented from thumb-sucking — even if that meant
lashing their tiny wrists to the bedposts. This was pediatrics with an
injection of Cotton Mather.

Given Watson’s strictures, it’s easy to see why Dr. Spock and his book
were so warmly received. Spock pushed aside the dubious “science” in
earlier child-rearing texts and gave parents simple, intuitive (and
highly Freudian) advice in folksy, everyday language. His most famous bit
of advice — “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” —
rained down on America’s postwar suburbs like a benediction. More than 50
years after he composed those two sentences, there’s still something
moving about them. Without getting all gushy about it, Spock’s words
nearly made this new father weep with gratitude and relief, particularly
after I’d tried to memorize the fine print in a handful of other texts.

Benjamin McLane Spock died last week at the ripe old age of 94, and it’s
hard to argue with his new biographer when he writes that Spock
“reflected as much of America in the twentieth century as any
individual.” His was a remarkable life, by any measure. The product of
stoic New England parents, Spock went to Yale and won a gold medal in
rowing at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. In the late 1940s and throughout
the ’50s, his books and public appearances made him one of the most
venerated men in America. (His “Baby and Child Care” has sold almost 50
million copies and is the biggest-selling book in the U.S. after the
Bible.) In 1960, he helped push John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign
over the top, and then Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964. (In his book “The Making
of the President — 1964,” Theodore H. White listed the big names who
backed LBJ before noting that “the crusher was Dr. Benjamin Spock —
baby-book Spock.”)

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Spock was further politicized by the Vietnam War, which he opposed as
early as 1962. By the late ’60s, he was a familiar presence at anti-war
marches and rallies, and with his genially noble bearing and his familiar
blue Brooks Brothers suits, Spock brought a measure of moral gravity to
literally hundreds of protests. Rebellious teens could placate their
parents, Maier writes, with the line: “But Mom, I was with Dr. Spock!”

Jessica Mitford called Spock, who was himself in his mid-60s by the time
he became politically active, “a political Rip van Winkle.” This Rip van
Winkle had a bit of the prankster in him. He ran for president himself in
1968, and he tapped Gore Vidal as his potential secretary of state. At
one rally, as Pete Seeger sang John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” Spock
played the Allen Ginsberg role, chanting, “Are you listening, Nixon?”
between the verses. Spock was trying to protect what he saw as his
generation. As he liked to formulate it, pediatrics is politics.

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It was that notion of his generation that put him under an often
uncomfortable spotlight. As the ’60s spun out of control, Spock became a
convenient punching bag for critics on both sides of the political
spectrum. The right loathed what Nixon called the “fog of
permissiveness” and lashed Spock for it. A Newsweek cover story on
hippie culture asked, “Is Spock to Blame?” William Safire, then a
speechwriter for Spiro Agnew, complained about a “Spock-marked
generation.” As Maier writes, “the nation’s right wing had found its
bogeyman, the Alger Hiss of childcare.”

Spock was troubled by these attacks, and he addressed (and firmly denied)
the “permissiveness” charge in later editions of his book. But he was
even more distressed by criticism from high-profile feminists such as
Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Early editions of Spock’s books had
been praised for stressing the father’s role in child rearing, but as
Steinem and Friedan made clear, he didn’t go nearly far enough. Spock’s
books not only used the pronoun “he” when referring to a child, but the
caregiver was always “she.” Worse, he counseled that girls be prepared
for motherhood, not careers, and he pushed Freud’s insights too far. “My
prime concern is that, back at the childhood stage, parents and schools
not encourage girls to be competitive with males if that is going to make
them dissatisfied with raising children, their most creative job in
adulthood,” Spock wrote. “The little girl’s envy of the boy’s penis and
the boy’s envy of the little girl’s ability to grow babies create
rivalries that persist into adulthood.”

Maier, a reporter at Newsday and the author of a biography of S.I.
Newhouse, does an admirable job of digging into these controversies, even
if he never dwells long on the deeper issues involved. This is a
journalist’s lucid and transparently written account, not an intellectual
exercise. While Maier clearly admires Spock, this book also makes it very
plain that its author disapproves of Spock’s own child-rearing abilities.
“Benjamin Spock: An American Life” is loaded with quotes from Spock’s own
children, who found him “detached and distant.” (One of his two sons
called him “a scary person.”) Maier also suggests that Spock’s aloofness
and his obsession with work — and later politics — may have helped
drive his first wife to alcoholism. Like so many American heroes, Spock
rarely seemed able to listen to his own counsel.

The left, for the most part, made its peace with the apologetic Dr.
Spock. Later editions of his books corrected much of the gender bias
inherent in the earlier works, and sections have been added on such
American realities as AIDS and single parenting. (Steinem eventually
included Spock, in Ms. magazine’s 10th anniversary edition, as one of the
heroes of the women’s movement.) The right has been less charitable. In
the ’70s, he was blamed for sparking the “Me Decade”; in the ’80s,
yuppies were his fault. And the permissiveness issue lives on. Given the
current climate in Washington, it’s surprising that no conservative
pundit has singled out Bill Clinton as the ultimate self-absorbed Spock
baby.

While Spock basked in almost unanimous adulation after his death last
week, he continues to have many trenchant critics. Among the most notable
is the academic Sharon Hays, who flings some occasionally expert darts at
the Big Three child-care gurus — Spock, of course, and Terry Brazelton
and Penelope Leach, a pair of writers he has influenced — in her 1996
book “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood” (Yale University Press).
Hays takes Spock to task not only for continuing to place the bulk of the
child-rearing responsibility on women (men are viewed as supplementary
assistance), but for ignoring the realities of women’s lives. Hays finds
Spock’s advice to be overly “intensive,” reducing women to virtual
child-care machines. Further, she argues that writers like Spock and Leach
are so exacting in their counsel about day care that they either guilt-tripped
mothers into staying home or reduce them to paupers in order to pay for a
ridiculously high level of care.

As long as child rearing remains an art, and not a science, the debate
over Benjamin Spock and his ubiquitous books will rage on unabated.
Spock, the inveterate protester, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Pediatrics, he knew, will always be politics.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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