When I try to think of the ultimate pop culture icon for modern day parenting, the image that instantly comes to my mind is a mother reading a worn-out paperback copy of Baby and Childcare by Dr. Benjamin Spock (probably given to her by her mother!).
Dr Benjamin Spock wrote a bestseller book in 1946, which is still bought today. Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children’s needs and family dynamics. His ideas about childcare influenced several generations of parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals, which later led to the more permissive parenting styles as we know them today.
Benjamin Spock: “Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense”
Dr. Spock empowered parents to trust their instincts. Since his first book appeared more than half a century ago, over fifty million copies have been sold, and the book has been translated into forty-two languages. But what is the appeal of Benjamin Spock’s book and should parents still have a copy on their bookshelf? Or have we arrived at a different place than even Benjamin Spock could imagine?
It might seem crazy to us now, but Benjamin Spock grew up in an age where physicians told parents not to kiss their child, and to be careful not to hold your baby in your lap. Spock, in his career as a physician, realized that parents were their own best clinicians and the best parent was the parent who could think through issues on their own. A large part of permissive parenting styles is to permit the parent to feel and act upon those feelings. This is a lasting legacy.
Dr. Benjamin Spock was born in 1903 in New Haven, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale (where he majored in English and History only gravitating to Medicine later on). He quickly became interested as a young doctor in bring together humanitarian ideals to parenting. He was also not afraid to speak his mind. Ideas on pediatrics often co-mingled with politics such as Benjamin Spock’s condemnation of Vietnam War when he said
“There’s no point in raising children if they’re going to be burned alive.”
He was not afraid of speaking out against oppression and was arrested at many demonstrations. In fact, Benjamin Spock was arrested in 1968 for allegedly conspiring to counsel young people to avoid the draft, but those charges were dropped in 1969 after a reversal from the United States Court of Appeal. Spock could have faced two years in jail and a fine of $5,000. Spock was not afraid to buck authority, and he filtered the theories of Sigmund Freud and John Dewey into tidbits that parents could use practically apply.
Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Critics and the Legacy of Baby and Childcare
When it comes to finding out tips from everything to bed wetting to when to start feeding a baby solid food, most parents have probably heard of Dr. Benjamin Spock even though 21st century moms and dads are also pretty adept at searching out tips on the Internet. If Dr. Spock was starting his career today he probably would have become famous by writing a blog rather than a book. Even so, people still think of parenting books as a sine qua non of a parents’ essential toolkit. And indeed, he pioneered the practical guide to parenting and more specifically permissive parenting styles and helped usher in an entirely new perspective on what it means to raise a child from birth to young adulthood.
Critics of Benjamin Spock and Permissive Parenting Styles
Since he died in 1998, Simon & Schuster has continued to keep his ideas in publication and in 2013 the 65th anniversary edition of Spock’s book was published. It’s the 9th edition of the book. Although not everyone has had the nicest things to say about Dr. Benjamin Spock. Norman Vincent Peale thought that Spock had raised a generation or two of permissive children. He said that maybe Dr. Spock had raised too many peace-niks and watered down Dr. Spock’s advice to:
“Feed ’em whenever they want, never let them cry, satisfy their every desire.”
He also had critics from feminist activist like Gloria Steinem who said that Spock was just as guilty for repression of women’s voices as the old vanguard of psychological science and he was remonstrated for the sexist language included in the first edition. But today’s readers will find references not only to “he” and the text no longer assumes certain pernicious gender stereotypes.
The ins and outs of parenthood have certainly been transformed since Dr. Spock admonished parents in 1946 to use their common sense, and it is this kernel of wisdom that makes him still relevant today and the reason his book is still in print. We owe permissive parenting styles and methods to dr Spock. A new team of writers have taken the helm to keep the heart of Spock’s gentle pediatric advice alive. While certainly we have come a long way since Dr. Benjamin Spock’s relaxed words of wisdom, I realize I probably wouldn’t be writing this article if it weren’t for the way he first advocated for mothers more at a time when parents desired to be heard.
Here is more on permissive parenting.