The Man Behind the Books
“You know more than you think you do.”
These eight words were revolutionary in 1946 when they were published as the first line in a relatively unknown physician’s childcare manual. Born on May 2, 1903, Dr. Benjamin Spock was known as the “Father of the baby boomers” after the success of his series of books, beginning with The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Spock’s childcare manual has sold millions of copies, second only to the Bible in number.
Benjamin Spock grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, following in the steps of his father and attending Yale University. Here, Spock joined the rowing team and later earned a gold medal in the Paris Olympics of 1924. Spock continued is education at Yale Medical School for two years, transferring to Colombia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons where he ranked first in his class. After becoming one of the first pediatricians to complete residencies in both pediatrics and psychiatry, Spock became a professor of Child Development at Western Reserve University Medical School, where he remained for twelve years. He and his wife retired to New York, and later to a thirty-five foot boat in the British Virgin Islands.
Before Spock revolutionized the childcare world, John B. Watson was in charge with his manual, “Psychological Care of Infant and Child”. His work insisted that a parent should not, under any circumstances, kiss their child, never hold it on their lap, and never rock its carriage. Parents needed a book that stated that love was just as important as discipline. This provided the perfect opening for Spock to debut his ideas.
Dr. Spock did not invent his techniques, yet he was the best at explaining them to the public. He presented a much more relaxed parenting style, suggesting that instincts are sufficient for parenting. Parents trusted him as much as, or more than, a close friend. They followed his advice on discipline, breast feeding, and familial roles amongst various other topics.
As time passed, however, controversy began to surround Spock’s ideas. The 1950’s sparked criticism of Spock’s permissiveness, stating his teachings called for too much leniency and that “Spock children” could get away with anything. Additionally, Spock was accused of sexist ideas and language in his first book, which he aimed to fix in his third revision.
Perhaps the largest controversy surrounding Spock’s manuals was his involvement in the Peace Movement. When President Kennedy announced the continuation of nuclear testing, Spock began his campaign for peace, believing that there would not be disarmament until it was demanded. Additionally, he believed that open resistance to draft was the best way to end the war. American parents, mothers in particular, did not find his commitment to peace appealing, however. Many mothers wrote angry letters, and one even sent his book back to him, stating that her son would grow up pledging the American flag. Spock’s book sales declined during this time period, due to the theory that if they read his book, parents would raise traitors as children. Spock signed petitions and joined organizations, such as the Committee of Responsibility for War Burned and War Injured Vietnamese Children. He also led many marches, his largest consisting of over 100,000 participants in 1967.
Dr. Spock passed away on March 15, 1998 at age ninety four. Thomas Maier, an investigative reporter at Newsday was given the task of writing Spock’s biography, something he allowed no one else to do. Aside from all the controversy surrounding the book, Ben Spock contained an inherent optimism. He is a voice that is familiar to all, and one can appreciate his courage, leadership, and his great teachings. By following the trends and revisions of Dr. Spock’s childcare manuals, the history of the late twentieth century can easily be traced. Spock was not only an idol in the child care world during this time, but an integral figure to the development and growth of America in every way.