Baby and Child Care (1946) by Dr. Benjamin Spock

Baby and Child Care (1946) by Dr. Benjamin Spock

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Benjamin Spock was destined to be a high profile, charismatic character from an early age. In 1924, while studying medicine at Yale University, he attracted media attention when he won an Olympic gold medal in rowing. Once qualified, he rapidly established himself as America’s most famous paediatrician, largely because of his outspoken, iconoclastic views. These related to politics as well child care. He was a formidable speaker, and quickly won a place as leader of the popular US campaigns against nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam, which he declared was ‘totally illegal, immoral, un-winnable and detrimental to the best interests of the United States’ When asked why a doctor should be taking part in these violent protest movements he replied: ‘What is the use of physicians like myself trying to help parents to bring up children who are healthy and happy, to have them killed in such numbers for a cause that is ignoble?’  Feisty talk like that was bound to get him noticed.

In 1938, with his reputation as a paediatrician well established, he was approached by publishers Doubleday, who asked him to write a child-care manual. He turned the offer down, claiming that he wasn’t well enough acquainted with the subject. Five years later he received a similar approach from Pocket Books suggesting that they’d sell any book he wrote book at a temptingly low price so it would sell hundreds of thousands of copies and make his views better known ‘whether or not it was any good.’  This time he accepted, and for the next three years, most of which was spent as a medic with the US navy, he dictated the copy to his wife whenever he had time to spare. She assembled, edited and made coherent sense of the jumbled fragments. The text wasn’t based on research or case histories: ‘It all came out of my head,’ he later admitted. When the manuscript was finally completed the war was over, which proved to be fortuitous, for the publication coincided with the surge in the birth rate at the end of WW2. Another factor which contributed to its success was that its tone was perfectly suited to the new, more laissez faire, maternal outlook. To date the book has sold over fifty million copies throughout the English speaking world, and been translated into thirty-eight different languages. His was the triumph, an achievement which ignored the not inconsiderable contribution of his wife. This rankled throughout her life, and after forty-eight years of uneasy wedlock she finally sued for divorce, leaving her husband to bask in the glory of having masterminded the rearing of thousands of baby boomers, who henceforth became universally known as ‘the Spock generation’.

His ideas of child rearing were radical and admirable suited to the zeitgeist of the times. He poured scorn on the inflexible Victorian ways of raising children, which had always insisted that they should be rigidly potty trained, fed at set times, seen but not heard, and not fussed over when they cried.  Spock offered a totally different approach. He urged mothers to love their babies, talk to them, fondle them, and pick them up and comfort them whenever they cried. ‘Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby,’ he counselled. Don’t adopt a rigid training schedule, in which the times of their feeding, sleeping and bowel movements are strictly prescribed. Be flexible and affectionate. Children should be treated as individuals, and not subjected to a one-size fits all regime. This was a liberating approach, for what he was saying is essence was that mothers wouldn’t go far wrong if they ignored the old fashioned guidance and followed their innate maternal instincts. He promoted this idea in monthly columns in several family magazines, which added to both his fame and the mounting tally of book sales.

The book went through numerous editions, but whatever alterations were made the opening line was always the same: ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.’  When critics complained that he should have incorporated more of the recent medical advances in child and baby care in later editions of his book, his terse brush-off was always: ‘I got it right the first time.’ This wasn’t wholly true, because he’d advocated that babies should sleep on their tummies. Many of those who did so, choked on their own vomit when they were sick on their pillows, a tragedy which is believed to have been responsible for tens of thousands of needless cot deaths.

But Benjamin Spock was an intrepid fighter and seemed unfazed by criticism. When he was approaching seventy he ran for US President as the candidate of the People’s Party. He got just 75,000 votes. Undeterred by this failure, he continued to take to the streets to join the youngsters in their anti-Vietnam war protest marches. This roused the ire of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous Methodist preacher and author of The Power of Positive Thinking, who accused him of being directly responsible for the breakdown of law and order. Speaking to a packed congregation from the pulpit of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York he claimed that ‘the US was paying the price of two generations that followed the Dr Spock plan of instant gratification of needs…And now Spock is out in the mobs, leading the permissive babies raised on his undisciplined teaching.’  Despite that attack, the book still sells and has spawned a vast cottage industry of far less successful child rearing books.

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