The Common Good
July-August 1998

The Spock Revolution

by Danny Duncan Collum | July-August 1998

When he died, Dr. Benjamin Spock had been a household name for more than 50 years. His book Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, coincided with the first swell of the baby ...

When he died, Dr. Benjamin Spock had been a household name for more than 50 years. His book Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, coincided with the first swell of the baby boom. It kept selling long after the boom was gone. As of last year, the book had sold more than 40 million copies and was available in 39 languages.

That makes Benjamin Spock a major pop culture figure. Even in his dotage, he could always command a page in Parade magazine and get his pet causes onto the evening news. In his afterlife he will probably become a figure of urban folklore. In the next century, people will associate the name "Spock" with child-rearing without quite knowing why.

And the book will stay in print. It will stay around because it works.

At our house we’re already on our second copy. The pocket-sized paperback edition fell apart by the time our first child was 3. The pages on fever and nausea were the first to go. Now we have a sturdier trade paper version. It is underlined, dog-eared, and stuffed between the pages with notes and handouts from our own doctor, old recipes for baby food, and articles torn from magazines about parenting.

Dr. Spock was the one who told us that sudden, inexplicable fever in our 8-month-old baby, followed by an equally inexplicable rash, was just a fairly common infant ailment called roseola and nothing to worry about. Our pediatrician was quite impressed when my wife presented the baby to her and said, "It’s roseola, isn’t it?" Dr. Spock also told us, yes, you really do need to take that baby to the doctor with that 104 degree temperature, even if it is the weekend, because sometimes it doesn’t just go away.

I like Dr. Spock because he doesn’t tell you to buy a lot of stuff, he doesn’t endorse any products, and he stands by his parenting mantra "Trust Yourself."

The day after Dr. Spock died, I was sitting at breakfast with my son Christopher, the one who had the roseola. He’s almost 6 now and he likes to read the newspaper. He reads the baseball scores for himself. We read to him when there’s a good story about dinosaurs or children, or anything illustrated by a map. He knew who Dr. Spock was. "He wrote that book you always get out when we’re sick," he said. So I read to him from the obituary.

The wire service story told us that Benjamin Spock made a revolution in American child-rearing practices. Before Spock’s book, the popular assumption was that the treatment of children should be subject to the convenience of parents and other adults. Children should be seen and not heard, the saying went. Spock’s revolution was to treat children as real human beings. Parents should talk to their children, he said, and, even more important, really listen to them. Above all, children should be respected as individual people.

As I was reading that to my son, I started to choke with emotion. I felt like I was reading to a Jew about Moses. I looked over at my son. He was taking it all very matter-of-factly. Of course, I thought, he knows that he’s a real human being, and he expects to be listened to and respected. What’s the big deal? So I just swallowed hard and kept reading through the part about Spock’s role in trying to stop the war in Vietnam. The one where "we were on the bad side," Christopher interjected.

SPOCK’S POLITICS, of course, was the other reason for his fame. In fact the oft-repeated claim that Spock’s alleged "permissiveness" created the spoiled and rebellious ’60s generation came only after he had taken a prominent political role against the war. In the post-Vietnam era, Spock used his media-age celebrity to speak out on controversial issues and bring TV cameras to hundreds of demonstrations.

That’s the other thing I love about Baby and Child Care. Spock’s politics are scattered throughout the book in snippets and asides, but in the Foreword and Afterword he really lets it fly. Listen to this from the Foreword: "American society in the 1990s is extraordinarily stressful. Normal family tensions are heightened in many ways: Our society is excessively competitive and materialistic....[T]here is less spiritual and moral direction....[T]he traditional supports of the extended family and community are breaking up.

"I believe," he continued, "there are two changes needed to relieve these tensions....The first is to raise our children with...strong values beyond their own needs—cooperation, kindness, honesty, tolerance of diversity. Living by these values will bring far greater pride and fulfillment than the superficial success of a high-paying position or a new luxury car.

"The second change is for us to reclaim our government from the influence of giant corporate interests that care little for human individuals, the environment or world peace, and whose only aim is maximal profit."

I must admit when I first read those words, in a book that I knew was in the hands of tens of millions of ordinary apolitical Americans, I wanted to stand up and cheer. I didn’t because I had a sleeping infant on my lap at the time, but you get my drift.

Spock understood something that will be crucial to the revival of a progressive movement in America and to rebuilding the moral infrastructure of American life. Communitarian values begin in the family and, I would add, the church, and extend out to the broader community. That is why the free market hates families. They are only useful as a unit of consumption, and they consume more when they are fragmented and overstressed.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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