Profiles in Greatness: Dr. Benjamin Spock

UPDATED: April 6, 2012
PUBLISHED: April 6, 2012

Published in 1946, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care encouraged parents to trust their instincts and show more affection toward their children, a deviation from the more rigid approach favored by previous generations. Based on sound psychiatric theory and countless interviews with mothers at his pediatric practice, Dr. Benjamin Spock’s most well-known book spelled relief for many parents, but incited Spock’s critics, who accused him of promoting the development of soft, self-indulgent children.

Although some disagreed with Spock’s professional opinions, his philosophy that people know more than they think they do and should therefore put more faith in themselves propelled him to the forefront of American views on childrearing, influencing the upbringing of an entire generation.

We caught up with Spock in the great doctor’s office waiting room in the sky…

Q: Your theories are often equated with permissiveness. Do you advocate less discipline with children?

A: ‘‘I didn’t want to encourage permissiveness, but rather to relax rigidity.”

Born May 2, 1903, in New Haven, Conn., Spock was raised in a strict household but by a mother who taught him to appreciate children and all they had to offer.

Spock was extraordinarily intelligent. He finished medical school at Yale and then graduated first in his class from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1929.

While interning and working on his pediatrics residency in New York, he realized that if he wanted to be an effective pediatrician, he would need to better understand the psychology of children and childrearing. He took a 10-month psychiatric residency at New York Hospital and trained at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute from 1933 to 1938.

Meanwhile, he opened his own pediatric practice. Business was slow in the beginning, but his personalized approach to medicine—he wore a suit rather than a lab coat—quickly made him popular among mothers and their children. He spent countless hours testing theories and getting feedback from mothers on behavioral modification techniques that encouraged an understanding, loving approach rather than the often cold and even cruel techniques favored by previous generations.

For example, to curb thumb-sucking, it was a common practice to put something bitter on the children’s thumbs or even strap their hands to their cribs so they couldn’t engage in the practice. Spock advocated a replacement approach instead, dissuading the child gradually and gently encouraging other self-soothing behaviors.

Q: Do you have a particular attitude that helped you deal with the criticism you received?

A: “Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.”

Spock also believed that raising healthy, happy children was inexorably linked with politics and world peace, so he was politically active and vocal. He joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and was outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War. His political activity combined with his approach to childrearing caused critics to blame Spock for creating a generation of anti-war protestors, young people who were raised on the values of instant gratification rather than those of personal responsibility. But Spock was steadfast in his opposition to the conflict in Southeast Asia. He had joined the Navy in 1944 and was not opposed to necessary military action.

Q: What was your goal in addressing mothers and fathers in your book?

A: “I wanted to be supportive of parents rather than to scold them.”

Spock went against childcare orthodoxy as well, encouraging parents to pick up their children when they were crying rather than letting them cry themselves to sleep. He also suggested that, contrary to popular belief, infants didn’t need to be on rigid feeding schedules. Unlike those before him, he didn’t believe an unyielding upbringing would teach independence or lead to happy children. And happy children, he believed, developed into productive adults.

He didn’t want parents to spoil their children; he wanted them to develop more affectionate relationships with their kids. Unlike much of society at the time, Spock didn’t view affection as weakness but as a natural means for developing well-rounded people. Despite the musings of his critics, Spock wasn’t anti-discipline but pro-balance.

Spock was frequently accosted by angry parents and politicians in the news, in letters and on the street. Most of the critical parents prefaced their critiques by bragging about the fact that they’d never read any of his books and therefore weren’t raising corruptible children. Had Spock allowed these comments to affect him, he would have changed his philosophies based on the comments of those who had never read his work. Instead he kept a level head and continued his research and reported his new findings.

Q: You continued to revise The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care your entire life. What kept you on track with your life’s work?

A: “Happiness is mostly a byproduct of doing what makes us feel fulfilled.”

Although he was a thought leader in terms of parenting, he wasn’t afraid to revise his opinions after careful study. For Spock, fulfillment meant examining and then reexamining status quos.

For example, in the 1940s he favored male circumcision, but in 1989 he changed his opinion, calling it a “traumatic” and “painful” experience. And in the fourth edition of the book, which was published in 1976, Spock significantly increased the importance of a father’s role in raising children, reflecting social changes that had been taking place for the previous 20 years.

Spock was condemned for changing his views, but he was committed to improving the parent-child relationship, not appeasing his critics. Spock worked for parents and children. In keeping with his idea that people should trust themselves, he felt his responsibility was to provide information, and parents’ responsibility was to review it and determine how and if it had a place in their families.