You've Come a Long Way, Babies, Since Dr. Spock Wrote His Book—and So, for That Matter, Has He

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Next to the Bible, Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care is the Western World's all-time best-seller. First published in 1946, when babies had just begun booming, it has since been translated into 38 languages, with some 30 million copies printed in the U.S. alone. Some of the children raised on that first edition are grandparents now, and Spock, at 82, has taken on a collaborator, Dr. Michael Rothenberg, who is the presumptive heir to his wisdom in print. The book itself, of course, remains evergreen. Its recently published fifth edition (E.P. Dutton, $17.50 in hardcover; Pocket Books, $4.95) contains plainspoken advice on topics from nutrition to children's fear of nuclear war. Yet the volume is not overwhelming. "We can't ever let the book get so unwieldy, "says Spock, "that a mother can't hold it in one hand while she's got a screaming baby in the other."

The father of two sons—Michael, 52, director of the Boston Children's Museum, and John, 41, an architect—Spock was divorced from his first wife, Jane, in 1976, and remarried the same year to Mary Morgan, a businesswoman some 40 years his junior. They divide their time between their ultramodern home in Rogers, Ark. and their 35-foot sloop, Carapace, which moors at Camden, Maine in the summer and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands in the winter. On a visit to New York the doctor spoke with writer Joyce Maynard. "Little about him suggests a man who's in the process of winding down his life," says Maynard, "and, at over six feet tall, there remains something almost boyishly gangly about him. With small children, who like to touch his mostly bald head and who appear on instantly familiar terms with him, he doesn't coo or make noises or get down on the floor. But reading aloud from a book about insects, with a 3 year old on either side of him and a baby on his knee, he is respectful, courteous and faintly formal, as he is with adults. When, as we were leaving, my 3-year-old son, Charlie, presented his outstretched palm and said, 'Give me five, Ben,' Spock looked interested but puzzled."

At one point, as Spock was having his picture taken with the baby, he said he wished he could take her home with him. A common enough pleasantry, but this was Dr. Spock, after all. At this point in his life, how does he really feel about kids, Maynard asked him.

Tell the truth. If you found a baby on your doorstep with a note that said, "Please take this child," would you really be up for the job?

Oh, I'd be thrilled. I'd have to consult my wife, of course, but for my part I wouldn't hesitate. I love babies. I really love them. Even when they're homely as mud.

Why is that?

I was the oldest of six children of a tyrannical, oppressive, opinionated, moralistic mother who made life miserable for her children. But she loved babies, and she passed along that feeling to me. I think the reason my mother felt as she did came from her intense morality and a desire to dominate. Of course, with a baby who just squirms and smiles, it's possible to dominate. I look at pictures of me at one year of age, and I was the happiest, most self-confident person you could imagine. The world was my oyster. But once I tried out my independence, the way all children do, everything changed. Pictures of me at 2, 3 and 4 show a rather wispy, slightly worried-looking child. It was obvious my mother gave me the feeling there were dangers all around and dangers within myself. In the years that followed I'd come home from school every afternoon and think "What have I done now?"

And out of that experience came a desire to formulate a different philosophy of child-raising?

As an undergraduate at Yale I worked one summer as a counselor at a crippled children's home, and I saw an orthopedic surgeon perform an operation on a child's foot. I got the idea, hey, it might be a good idea to be a children's doctor. Then, somewhere during my internship, it came to me that a pediatrician should have some training on the psychological and developmental side. Perhaps partly because I thought there must be pleasanter ways to raise children than with the anguish the six Spock children had known.

What happened then?

Everyone in pediatrics told me there was no such training. So I took a residency in psychiatry, which was mostly a waste of time. Later, in my practice, I tried to relate abstract psychoanalytic concepts to what mothers were telling me about their babies. It was a very slow, painful process. Rules for adult behavior don't hold true for children. I was in practice 10 years before I felt I understood enough to write my book.

Aren't a lot of new parents intimidated by very small babies?

There's this idea in our society that you don't know anything until you take a course in it. Partly I blame professional people like myself who muscled into child care as if they invented it. It's very easy for doctors to be condescending to parents—and, of course, that leaves parents feeling they don't know anything and are sure to make mistakes. It really interferes with the joy of taking care of children, and it's worrisome to the child too. Children recognize that they themselves are immature. They like parents who are self-assured and in control.

How does a mother know if her child is all right? How do you know if you're doing a good job?

I'd say you should assume you're on the right track unless there's concrete evidence you're not. Even with a child who wakes up screaming at night, before I'd pack her off to a psychiatrist I'd ask the simple question, "How is she during the day?" With any kind of psychological phenomenon in a child, it's always a good idea to begin by considering how the child is getting along in other aspects of her life. If the answers are positive in those, then I'd say, "Well, children's behavior is filled with variation, and we don't understand it all, but obviously it's not connected with anything very important."

What do you think of the superkid phenomenon—parents who teach babies to do multiplication and speak French?

It never occurs to people to question whether this is a desirable goal. Our society is so competitive—everybody looking over his shoulder, trying to get ahead. I won't say all this early prodding ruins children, but it certainly makes the task of raising children awfully complicated. Moreover, learning to read at 3 doesn't make a child a better reader at 9 or 12.

You have grown sons. How do you feel now about the kind of father you were to them when they were small?

You know, there's a difference between raising your own child and advising someone on how to raise his. With your own child, you're swayed heavily by anxieties and by your own upbringing. Two examples: When my sons were small, I thought of course all children should be put to bed at an early hour. That's the way I was brought up. At 5 o'clock my mother would serve us our supper at a nursery table, and we had to be in bed and quiet by a quarter to seven so my parents could have their quiet, dignified meal. So that's how my wife and I did it too.

And then there was this business about fresh air. Every day, no matter the weather, you'd take the baby out in the carriage, just as the English did. Two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, with the nursery windows open at night. I did that with my children until I moved to Rochester, Minnesota and found that no children were being taken out for fresh air in sub-zero weather. Gradually I modified my attitudes.

Emotionally, were you the father then that you would be today?

Not at all. I have many regrets. My own father never kissed me, and I was a very formal, reserved parent myself. Much as I loved babies, I believed you musn't pick them up when they were crying, because it would spoil them. Keep in mind, my sons were born before the publication of Baby and Child Care. My thinking hadn't taken shape yet. And really, it's only much more recently that I've been able to relax and let go of formality.

I've heard you say you feel younger and freer now. What changed you?

Let me tell you a story. During World War I, we were all supposed to conserve wool, and my parents had the idea that I would wear one of my father's cast-off suits. Of course, this was the very opposite of what teenage boys were wearing then. I said, "I can't wear that. Everybody will laugh at me." But my mother said, "Don't you know that it doesn't make the slightest difference what people think of you? All you have to know is that you are right."

Well, you can't expect a 15-year-old to believe that the opinion of his peers isn't the most important thing in the world. But in the '60s, as I began to see the young people I had helped to raise going off to be killed in a totally immoral, senseless war, I had to speak out about it. I found myself indicted by the federal government for inciting draft evasion, but I knew it didn't matter what Lyndon Johnson believed about me, as long as I knew I was right. That period when I had to defy authority had a profound influence. It was a delayed adolescent rebellion in some ways, and I became a much warmer, more outgoing person.

A lot of people got angry with you then. Norman Vincent Peale blamed you for "the most undisciplined age in history." What do you say to that accusation?

I've always been a staunch advocate of respect—parents' respect for their children, but also children's respect for their parents. I believe in discipline and order in the family. The people who called me permissive could not have read my book.

As for my becoming a political figure, though, it's no coincidence that my passions are pediatrics and politics. Pediatrics is about the health and well-being of a generation in society, and in my view that means a pediatrician has to be political.

As a political pediatrician, then, what do you see as the most serious problems confronting our society?

Health care, for one. Here we are, the richest nation in the world, and we still can't manage to give decent care to all our children. I have no patience with everybody getting so excited about this man with the mechanical heart. These bold experimenters, the surgeons, they'd chop a bird's head off and stick it on a fish if they thought there might be some excitement or fame derived. All these fantastic things like old people getting their third heart, and bypass surgery at $25,000 a shot, while children aren't getting adequate nutrition and we still don't have a national health insurance. I'd say there's something wrong with our values.

What do you think about day-care?

I used to say that if parents realized how important they are to their children, especially during the first two or three years, maybe they'd revise their economic goals, so one of them could stay home with the child.

A lot of women would regard that as a denial of a woman's right to a career.

Fair enough. I'm all for women's equality. I just think it's too bad, when the women's liberation movement surfaced about 1970, that so many women had to define equality in terms of pay and jobs. What these women were saying, in effect, is, "We want to get into the American rat race on an equal basis." God help 'em.

But the vast majority of women working outside the home do so because they have to.

That's true. I don't ever want to make those mothers—any mothers—feel guilty. Now, in our book, we're telling parents that the success of substitute care depends on the quality of the care. Unfortunately, the number of good day-care facilities in this country is grossly insufficient. But I have to remind myself, too, that a lot of parental care is no damn good either.

You're not particularly optimistic.

This is a violent society and getting more violent all the time. Teenage suicide has almost tripled in the last 30 years. Divorce has doubled in the last 20 years. Those are shocking figures.

Why do you think there is so much divorce?

It seems to me that many people expect something unrealistic out of marriage. There's the attitude, "I'm entitled to happiness, and if my spouse doesn't give it to me, I've been stung."

Where did that attitude come from?

Well, I never lived on the farm, so what do I know? But it seems to me that when people did live there, they all knew what their job was, and everyone worked like a dog, including the children. If anyone slacked off, the whole system collapsed, and I think that had a stabilizing influence. Now money comes more easily, and we've lost that sense of purpose.

How has this affected the children?

Parents in this country, out of the best intentions, perhaps, put all their energies into making sure their children have it easier and better than they did. But it hasn't worked that way. Our young people are lost because they don't have anything to believe in. Even the belief in a rich future is doubtful to them. They're all scared they might be killed in a nuclear war before they have a chance to marry and have children.

What can parents do to avoid this sense of purposelessness in their children?

I'm not a churchgoer myself, and we will not persuade society to get back to the kind of religion that has been somewhat outlived. I don't think we can get back to the idea that the extended family is everything, either. But I think we must give our children the feeling that they are in the world to help solve the world's problems. To me, that's a religion.

How do parents get that message across?

By being models of social responsibility themselves, and gradually guiding their child to do the same. Of course, a very young child has no understanding of society as a whole. His world is the family, so kindness and consideration have to start there.

Do you think kindness and generosity are natural impulses in children?

Children are naturally eager to serve, not in an altruistic sense, but because they want to behave like grownups and feel useful. It's terribly important to support this feeling of making a contribution by giving a child real tasks to perform around the house.

Do you mean "chores"?

Helping another person shouldn't be an unpleasant thing. Don't give your child the idea, "Now you have to stop having fun and do something for somebody else." Too often adults get this strained facial expression when they talk about helping the unfortunate, and all they teach then is an obnoxious form of self-righteousness. The notion that helping others might be joy-giving is totally absent. Parents keep using guilt as the motivation.

You mean that line mothers give their kids when they don't finish their vegetables, that there are children starving in Africa?

Yup. Of course you have to direct their attention to the terrible problems of the community and the nation and the world, but don't overwhelm them. Parents should encourage their children's ability to love, rather than the heavy sense of guilt and responsibility I was brought up with. Really, the most important thing is simply to bring up your child lovingly. The rest follows.

From Our Partners