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The Legacy of Dr. Spock

Mavis Arnold


I could not find my battered, dog-eared copy of Dr Benjamin Spock’s Baby & Child Care when I came to write this article, so I tried to find one in my local bookshop. “No demand for it,” they said. “It was last reprinted in 1992 but none of the wholesalers stock it.” (Fortunately my husband, who is in touch with a network of second-hand bookshops, ran a 1969 copy of Dr Spock to earth at the modest price of 50 pence.)

So much for the wise words of my mentor, whose book, by the 1970s, had sold well over twenty million copies, almost as many as the Bible. Now, it appears, he is yesterday’s man., totally superseded by the likes of Penelope Leach and Miriam Stoppard.

As a young, very inexperienced mother in the early 1960s, my only ally was Dr Spock. Those were different times. It was expected that one would marry young and have children. Nobody paid much attention to the process or were concerned with the mother’s feelings. It was the well-being of the baby in utero which was paramount. Once she was born, you were expected to get on with it as best you could. No wonder I relied so heavily on this man, who seemed to know the answers to everything.

What I chiefly remember from those early, child-bearing years, was the absolute necessity of implementing the regime as recommended by the good doctor. No matter what was happening, every baby had to have a daily bath. Not one day could be missed. The other absolute was that babies needed fresh air. I re-read the section on fresh air (four pages long) just to reassure myself that I wasn’t barking mad. But no, there it all was. A certain number of hours, summer and winter, should be spent outdoors, with the baby warmly wrapped in a pram.

Interestingly, given our current attitude to the dangers of skin cancer, he recommended that babies should be exposed to sunshine, gradually increasing the time each day. In bedrooms in winter, he advised that the baby should be placed near an open window with all radiators turned off. Of course, given the suspected link between cot deaths and babies being too hot, perhaps he had a point. I followed his instructions to the letter and have to record, to my shame, that my children lay in prams in the garden, with snowflakes gently drifting down on their coverlets.

He believed that potty training should start around a year old. He was pretty strong on spoiling and keen on circumcision. All advice was given to mothers, fathers merely hovering around on the periphery.

But, for all that, he was immensely reassuring. He told us mothers that we knew much more than we thought we did. His nutritional advice would stand up well to today’s standards, except for the concentration on cereal which made babies fat although it caused mothers to feel proud when the weekly visit to the chemist, to weigh-in registered ever-increasing ounces.

He believed in traditional moral Standards. Parents knew best and were there to be obeyed. For example:

A student of nineteen is becoming increasingly rude and even verbally abusive towards his mother, who is a highly conscientious person. She has come to the guilty conclusion – incorrectly – that she must have failed him somehow, so she responds submissively to his reproaches. You can see that psychological concepts don’t help unless they are backed up by a sense of what’s right and proper; they can seriously interfere with the operation of the parents’ good sense; they can create further problems… I think that more of our children would grow up happier and more stable if they were acquiring a conviction, all through childhood, that the most important and the most fulfilling thing that human beings can do is to serve humanity in some fashion and to live by their ideals. Since having children does mean giving up so much, good parents naturally do, and should, expect something from their children in return; not spoken thanks for being born or being cared for – that’s too much – but consideration, affection and willingness to accept the parents’ standards and ideals. The parents want these qualities in their children… because they want them to grow up to live co-operatively and happily with others.

Parents can’t feel right towards their children in the long run unless they can make them behave reasonably and children can’t be happy unless they are behaving reasonably.

All of these sentiments would be regarded with mild amusement today. And yet I cannot help remembering the words of a primary school teacher who told me she was now seeing four-year-olds in her class who were totally out of control. In my practice as a psychotherapist, I see clients bewildered and distracted by the state of anarchy existing in their homes, with children doing exactly as they please, and parents unable to invoke any effective sanctions. Were my children repressed and are theirs merely giving voice to a self-expression which was denied to mine?

Perhaps the difference was that in my day children were expected to fit into an existing set of standards and beliefs, to eat up their food (meat, potatoes and vegetables), to go to bed at the same time each night, to do (roughly) what they were told. The temptation is to say that the certainties don’t seem to be there any more. In reality they are, but they do not derive from an authoritarian father figure, Dr Benjamin Spock, all-knowing and all-powerful, who placed us in positions where we made the decisions.

The new focus of certainty is on the children. Their wishes and intentions have gained ground and younger parents are more responsive to demands which, to an older genera tion, seem eccentric, even lax. But in fact, they are not lax, only different.

Parents today, by force of circumstance, struggle to combine parenting with full-time work. Many children in the Western world spend more time in nurseries and creches than they do at home, and by the year 2010 there will be more step-families than birth families in Britain, This has revolutionized ideas about authority, persuasion, coercion and simple agreement within families. Of course there are bad sides to it – loss of control, unruly children, absence of moral sense – but it is a price which has to be paid in the more liberal, more egalitarian world of the millennium family.

Our experience teaches us, progressively through life, to lessen our judgements of the behaviour of others and increase the degree of acceptance. Only by this approach can new attitudes on child care, as on everything else, flourish and grow. Looking back at Dr Spock’s book re-emphasises this simple lesson, and it is better to learn this than to indulge in nostalgia about what we thought were certainties.


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