REMEMBERING DR. SPOCK
March 16, 1998
Dr. Spock died Sunday, March 15, 1998. NewsHour's Elizabeth Farnsworth speaks with the co-author of "Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care," Dr. Steven Parker, about what Dr. Spock did for the nation in regard to child care and how he changed the way people raise their children.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Benjamin Spock, who died yesterday at age 94, wrote the world's best-selling non-fiction book after the Bible. His "Baby and Child Care" influenced several generations of American parents and children in the post World War II era. Along the way he was praised for his common sense approach to child rearing and condemned by some as the father of permissiveness. In a 1996 documentary on the public broadcasting series "Nova" Dr. Spock explained how his approach differed from the past.
DR. BENJAMIN SPOCK: There have been books, but they were just old, pediatric traditions. They'd say, for instance, thumb sucking is a bad habit. So you paint nasty-tasting stuff on the baby's thumb, or you put aluminum mitts over his hands, or, the cruelest of all, you spread-eagle him in his crib, tie his wrists to the slats of the side of the crib. I knew that this wasn't right. So I tried to, first of all, to find out what different people think is the meaning of the thumb sucking, and then I tried to explain to parents what it meant, and then next tried to decide with parents what's the best way of dealing with it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the 1960's Dr. Spock was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and in 1972, he ran for President. He was born in Connecticut, got his medical degree from Columbia, and practiced and taught pediatric medicine before retiring in 1967. A new seventh edition of his book is due out in May. For more, we turn now to the co-author of the new edition, Dr. Steven Parker, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. Dr. Parker, what influenced Dr. Spock's ideas in the 40's? As we just heard, the prevailing child-rearing ideas were rather rigid.
DR. STEVEN PARKER, Co-Author, "Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care:" Well, I think it was two factors. One, he listened to parents. He respected parents. He listened to them and followed their advice, and much of his advice was guided by what parents told him. And, secondly, he had psychoanalytic training, which is very unusual for a pediatrician at the time. And he really was enamored with the work of Freud and current thinking and child development. And his brilliance was that we did the two together, what parents told him and what he learned from his psychiatric training in a wonderfully accessible book for parents.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were his ideas resisted, or were they pretty quickly adopted?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Well, they were resisted by professionals, who, I think, had a vested interest in the advice he had been giving for the last twenty or thirty years. And this is quite different. But it was embraced by parents immediately in droves at a level that people had never anticipated.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We just heard a little bit about the way he thought. Tell us more about his ideas and what was new and what was really important in them.
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Well, to really understand the success and impact of Dr. Spock you have to remember the context in which he burst upon the scene. Child-rearing advice at the time was an incredibly dismal affair. Parents were told don't touch your child, don't kiss them, don't hug them, feed them on a schedule, let them cry, prepare them for a tough world by not being emotionally involved. And he came to it saying, well, wait a second, trust yourself. No parent inherently feels that way. Do what feels right for you, and you probably won't go wrong. And he based it too on his ideas of the understanding of child development, which included the importance of attachment and the emotional relationship between parent and child, and most of all, children needed to feel loved. And if they felt loved, almost everything else would follow from there. That was revolutionary in 1946, believe it or not.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then the late 60's Dr. Norman Vincent Peale speaking from his church in New York blamed Dr. Spock for the demonstrations and the laxity of the 60's. He said, "That the U.S. was paying the price of two generations that followed the Dr. Spock baby plan of instant gratification of needs."
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was that a correct reading of Dr. Spock's ideas?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: A really bad wrap. God knows how it stuck. I've never met anybody who's actually read Dr. Spock who felt he was permissive. I think if you look at how--what his advice was in comparison to others in 1946, perhaps he seemed liberal. But I think really it was a canard, and it was attempted to discredit him because people didn't like his feelings about the War in Vietnam and his vociferous protest against that war.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Speaking of that, how did his politics tie into his work as a pediatrician?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Well, the amazing thing about then was that they were one and the same. He felt that helping parents and helping families was one way to create a wonderful world for children but also that we, pediatricians had a social responsibility to try and change the world so that the environment and context in which children were being raised was more conducive to the happy children and growth and development of upstanding, socially productive adults. He saw them as the same. For him, there was no difference between social activism and pediatric care.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Dr. Parker, you worked with Dr. Spock. What was he like as a person?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: He was great. You know, meeting Dr. Spock, you think, oh, my God, what's he going to be like? He was very down to earth, accessible. He had a marvelous sense of humor. He loved to laugh. He told wonderful stories, and he--most of all--he was a wonderful listener too. He would listen very carefully, and I think for the 50 years of the life of the book he was really listening to parents and put his pulse on the finger of what parents were thinking because he was such a wonderful listener.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What were the main changes through the years? There were so many editions, and then your new edition has just come out. What were the main changes?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Well, there were a lot of changes. Some things endured since 1946. It's amazing how topical and current much of what he wrote 50 years ago was. But his attitudes changed. In 1946, he felt that parents should stay--mothers should stay in the home to care for their children, and he was roundly chastized for that in the late 60's and early 70's and really came to change his ideas in that regard. I think he was a little more tolerant of spanking towards children when the book first came out but came to believe that corporal punishment and harsh discipline wasn't good for kids and perhaps was playing a role in violence that we see in our society these days. So he certainly changed in that way. And then, of course, in the new edition there are a lot of new issues facing parents, which they never had to deal with before, and so it was my pleasure and privilege to work with him in thinking about how we could help guide parents through some of the vicissitudes of the late 20th century for families.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly, what kind of new issues?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Well, there are certainly dealing with computers, the Internet, all involved with that, computer games, non-traditional families, single parents, raising non-violent children, dealing more with adolescent issues to a later age than we had previously in previous editions, so a whole host of things that we know are in parents' minds and listening to them, that we wanted to weigh in on in the newest edition, which is out in just two months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And even in his 90's he could think about all these ideas and adjust to all the changes?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: I met him when he was 90 years old, and he was physically frail, but mentally he was right there. It was wonderful to see and an inspiration, very sharp, terrific memory, and really still caring passionately about issues. He would speak with much vehemence with what he thought was important, and how he wanted to help families. He was undiminished almost to the end.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He once said, "I'm not allowed by my conscience to stop." Was he really driven by a very, very severe conscience?
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Well, he would talk about the upbringing that he had in New England and a very harsh mother who told him he really needed to be socially productive. And I think that he did have a pretty strong conscience guiding what he did. But I think he also had an abiding love of families and really felt that if he was able to help them in any way, that he was going to do it. And he enjoyed the work and loved the work and kept at it right till the end.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Dr. Parker, thank you very much for being with us.
DR. STEVEN PARKER: Thank you, Elizabeth.