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11:00 PM, Dec 29, 1996 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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The first surprise on delving back into Dr. Spock on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Baby and Child Care is that his much-denounced " permissiveness" is scarcely to be found. Peruse the pages of this record bestseller -- still second only to the Bible -- and you discover much practical sense and little talk of laissez faire. Ask around among the young parents you know, and plenty who call themselves conservative will describe Spock's book as handy and congenial. Consult your own personal favorite child- rearing authority, Marguerite Kelly, author of The Mother's Almanac, and she shrugs, "Frankly, I never could see what the fuss was all about."

The fuss, of course, was fixed in the national consciousness in 1968, when that icon of upstandingness the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale branded Spock the teacher of "instant gratification." And not surprisingly, the charge stuck: By then, the world's most famous pediatrician had come down with a bad case of peacenik politics at the unseasonable age of 59, making him a natural target. At the time of Peale's jeremiad, Dr. Spock was not merely a tireless antiwar demonstrator and speaker on college campuses, he had actually been indicted for conspiring to stymie the draft. To Americans repelled by the street politics of the day, Peale's theory had a satisfying plausibility: The baby boomers had been first spoiled, then radicalized, by the rather ridiculous Benjamin Spock.

The real story is more complicated. For if the original 1946 Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care did mark a break with the child-rearing style of former times and tellingly reflected the culture at mid-century, it is also true that Spock himself became an early cultural neocon of sorts. Already by 1968, revised editions of his book addressed head-on the values- deficiency afflicting parents and children; and nearly three decades later, Spock is telling parents that if they fail to raise their children within clear systems of belief -- ideally, religious ones -- the children are liable to feel adrift all their lives. True, his own politics remained simplistic, and in the 1970s his personal life careened over the guardrails and into a readily cartoonable (though apparently blissful) second marriage to a woman 40 years his junior. Nevertheless, in some essential and interesting ways, he remained -- and remains, at the age of 93 -- a late-Victorian man.

The reader who goes to the trouble of tracking down the first edition of Baby and Child Care is rewarded with a glimpse of bygone days. An optimism pervades these pages that now seems stunningly naive. The assumption is that parents generally are steady, decent people of good judgment who will raise healthy, happy children as a matter of course. "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do," runs the fabled opening. Be the reasonable, attentive person you are, and your baby's own natural development will lead him to fit in with your family's way of doing things. "Each child wants, himself, to eat at sensible hours, and later to learn good table manners," counsels the kindly doctor. "The desire to get along with other people happily and considerately develops within him as part of the unfolding of his nature, provided he grows up with loving, selfrespecting parents." God's in His heaven, Mommy and Daddy love each other and love Johnny, and all's right with the world.

So serene is Spock about parents' ability to do their job successfully in the ordinary course of things that his original book is almost exclusively a reference work, a how-to guide to sterilizing bottles, choosing a sound diet, and telling sinusitis from tonsillitis from swollen glands. Discussions of child-rearing philosophy, as opposed to practical tips and briefings on the stages of development, are short and few. While normal problems like jealousy between siblings, contrariness, and childhood lying and stealing are matter- of-factly addressed, the possibility of serious disturbance, when alluded to, is disposed of with the confident assurance that consulting a psychiatrist will help.