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.
Spock himself sought mid-career training at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in the 1930s, and part of the appeal of his book was that it was considered up-to-date. Thus, his break with old orthodoxies-especially the belief that infants had to be fed on schedule and that children should be made to obey strict rules -- bore the stamp of progress. The first edition of Baby and Child Care never taught "permissiveness" if the word means letting children prevail over parents. Instead, it painted a picture of parents' and children's interests in easy accord: "Your baby is born to be a reasonable, friendly human being. If you treat him nicely, he won't take advantage of you. . . ." It partook of the comfortable illusion that expert knowledge had cleared away the vestiges of age-old superstition and once and for all discredited authoritarian rigidities, making it possible for enlightened man at last to live in harmony with himself and the world.
But not for long. Six successive revisions of Baby and Child Care chart a steady retreat from this blithe confidence that children will naturally develop on an even keel. Starting with the second edition in 1957 and continuing through the 1992 edition now in print, passages urging parents to guide their children's emotional, social, and spiritual growth have been added or expanded and emphasized, as have discussions of the difficulties parents may encounter along the way. By now, the original three-page discussion of "Separated Parents," for instance, has turned into sixteen pages on "Divorce, Single Parenting, and Remarriage." Throughout, Spock is increasingly frank about the sheer dedication and self-sacrifice needed to meet the responsibility of being a parent.
Already in the second edition, the celebrated beginning is dramatically amplified. The single page headed "Trust Yourself," which formerly led straight into tips about items to acquire before the baby is born, is now followed by a new, much longer, second section entitled "Parents are Human." The subheads speak for themselves: "Some children are a lot more difficult than others. . . . At best, there's lots of hard work and deprivation. . . . Parents should expect something from their children. . . . Parents are bound to get cross. . . . Children like to be kept good." Spock explains in a foreword that the revisions reflect his observation that more parents are " getting into trouble with permissiveness than with strictness" and his wish to respond by giving a "more balanced view."
But it was in 1968 that Spook added a noteworthy six-page essay, retained in subsequent editions with little change. It is entitled "What Are Your Aims in Raising a Child?" and its subject is the confusion specific to 20th- century American parents: the little matter that we have "lost our convictions about the purpose of human existence."
In other times and places, Spock writes, communities have known that "man's main function in the world" was to serve God, or to serve his country, or to serve his family. In "child-centered America," we invite our children "to set their own aims and occupations in life according to their own inclinations." Moreover, lacking geographically rooted, extended families, Americans tend to turn for child-rearing methods not to family tradition but to experts and psychology. This approach can actually leave parents feeling more confused than ever, unless it is backed up by the parents' own clear sense of "what is right and proper" -- and more and more parents are without such grounding, for our trouble is precisely that instead of holding firm convictions, "we are disillusioned."
The passage continues and is worth quoting from at length, with the context in mind: This is not a product of the religious reaction of the 1990s or of Ronald Reagan's America. The speaker is not Phyllis Schlafiy or William Bennett or Marilyn Quayle, but that "permissive" white-haired ally of the hippies, Dr. Spock, in the year of the assassins, 1968:
Fortunate are the parents with a strong religious faith. They are supported by a sense of conviction and serenity in all their activities. Usually they can pass on their faith to at least a majority of their children.
Many of the people who have no religious faith are doubly deprived today, because they don't have much belief in man either. We live in a disenchanted disillusioned age -- not about things, but about human beings.
This has been evident in the increasing tendency in literature, plays and movies in the past fifty years to play down the kindly and spiritual aspects of man and to focus on the crude, animal side. Manners in social life have been coarsened, especially among women. Even greeting cards, instead of wishing invalids and relatives well, jeer at them. Art rarely shows attractive people; it omits them altogether or makes them hideous. Many youths cultivate dishevelment as if they are ashamed to be human and a few of them withdraw from society altogether.
The disenchantment has been caused in part by the rapid strides in the sciences of biology, psychology and sociology, which have seemed to stress man's closeness to other animals, the crudeness of his basic instincts, the mechanicalness of his behavior patterns. Perhaps even more basic has been the weakening of the authority of religion in the minds of many people, caused by the increased authority of the sciences. This has greatly diminished man's former feeling that he was a very special and noble creature created in God's image.
Throughout childhood, Spock says, the young should be taught that "the most fulfilling thing that human beings can do is to serve humanity in some fashion and to live by their ideals." He pleads the primacy of selflessness and of man's spiritual nature, offering the Freudian explanation of how this develops out of the small child's loving, trusting idealization of his parents and the sublimation of sexuality. Nor does Spock shy from impressing on parents the lasting importance of the example they set: If parents "have aspirations, if they have a respect for themselves, for each other and for [their child], he will continue to be inspired by their pattern."
Spock carries this line of thinking further in his recent book A Better World for Our Children: Rebuilding American Family Values, published in 1994. By this time, acute alarm about the state of the culture has erased all trace of the old serenity. In a statement to which Newt Gingrich, Hillary Clinton, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn could probably all subscribe, Spock calls this a country "on the skids -- we are neglecting our children emotionally and educationally, marriage is increasingly unstable, we are slipping deeper and deeper into acceptance of violence, we are losing our sustaining spiritual beliefs and we are absorbed in materialism and competitiveness. If we allow these trends to continue I see us slipping further into chaos."
Spock's prescription for halting the slide combines the liberal-to-radical politics he has steadfastly championed ever since the early 1960s (and which he now manages to sneak discreetly into even Baby and Child Care) with, again, religion. He writes that he "envies" believers and explicitly favors religious training for the children of all but convinced atheists, on the grounds that it will give children both a "moral and spiritual framework to support and inspire them" and a sense of connection to their culture.
Even this would not have satisfied Norman Vincent Peale, of course, although he and Spock had much in common and make an intriguing pair. Both were authors of hugely popular how-to books, Peale's most famous being The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952 and beginning, "Believe in yourself I Have faith in your abilities!" Their lives spanned the century -- Spock was born in 1903; Peale lived from 1898 to 1993 -- and with equal vehemence they deplored its coarsening culture and "progressive loss of values," in Spock's words. Each saw both psychology and religion as avenues to successful living; the "personal problems clinic" at Peale's Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue was staffed by psychologists as well as pastors, and in 1951 he launched the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry. Yet in the end, they were on opposite sides of a cultural chasm.
This was most obvious in politics. Finding the Democrats too prone to compromise, Spock ran for president in 1972 on the People's party platform of "cooperation, feminism, and world peace" (and garnered 80,000 votes). Peale, meanwhile, joyfully presided at the marriage of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower and preached to our troops in Vietnam. Their backgrounds were different, too. Peale was a midwesterner and man of the people, Spock an East Coast graduate of Yale. And Spock's personal life, unlike Peale's, is marked by conspicuous contradictions: Even as he urges fidelity to ideals, he expresses regret about his own performance as a father and as husband to the wife he divorced after 48 years. The core contrast, though, is that Spock recommends God as psychologically useful, while for Peale God is real and the source of inner healing.
But that Spock should recommend God at all, given his reputation, is the matter of interest. It was the journalist Jessica Mitford who put her finger on the explanation in her lively 1969 book The Trial of Dr. Spock. (He was convicted, by the way, but for acts of protest against the Vietnam War dearly protected by the First Amendment, and the conviction was thrown out on appeal.) Spock, Mitford wrote, was "very much the product of his Protestant- Republican upbringing in the early part of the century, his [antiwar] stand a logical development of the outsize New England conscience conferred upon him by his parents."
A lawyer's son, Spock describes his turn-of-the-century childhood in New Haven and Maine as filled with "stern moral teaching." The parents who reared him entertained no sanguine illusion that little Ben and his siblings would simply unfold into honorable citizens; nor were their minds darkened by the disenchantment Spock would recognize as troubling later generations. His mother deliberately "inspired her children with idealism and a drive to serve. " Their religious education was "a matter of course."
Inevitably, when Dr. Spock got over his fling with optimism, he reverted to type. In his own childhood, the faith of an earlier age had armed him with strong principle. As an adult he shed any specifically religious belief, but he retained a sense of human existence as undergirded by moral strictures -- and of parents' duty to show their children the way. Permissiveness? Not on your life. "When a parent is timid or reluctant to give leadership," says the current Baby and Child Care, "the children -- especially those of the same sex -- feel let down. They are like vines without a pole to grow on."
By Claudia Winkler