The Man Who Loved Children

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When he reached voting age, he marked his first ballot for Republican Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Five decades later, he ran for President himself. But it is what he accomplished in between that made Dr. Benjamin Spock one of the most famous and controversial figures of his century. He single-handedly changed the way parents raise their children. He preached, albeit gently, that what infants need most from their mothers and fathers is love. Babies are not, he argued (against the prevailing wisdom of the times), little savages who must be broken to adult schedules as quickly as possible. Don't rush them, he urged; cherish them. Small wonder, then, that for millions of parents who followed Dr. Spock's advice with their children, who then did the same with theirs, news of his death last week at age 94 felt like a loss in the family.

So ubiquitous has Spock's name become that hardly anyone remembers the title of his most famous book, which has sold 50 million copies in 42 languages. In fact, there were two titles. The hardcover edition, published in 1946, was called The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care; the paperback, priced at 25[cents], was The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care.

But the tone of the prose inside was so soothing and personal that anxious parents who consulted it felt as if Spock himself were at their elbows telling them not to worry. "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do," he advised. He made sly jokes to suggest that strict rules were overrated: "How to fold a cloth diaper depends on the size of the baby and of the diaper."

Books do not always reflect their authors' real-life personalities, but Spock's did. He was as he seemed: modest, funny, empathetic, confident enough in his own knowledge not to be stuffy about it. He was also a most unlikely revolutionary.

He grew up in comfortable circumstances, the eldest of six children, in New Haven, Conn. His lawyer father ceded child-raising duties to Spock's flamboyant, histrionic mother, who smothered her firstborn with love, rules and high expectations. During his first year at nearby Yale, the young man was expected to live at home and return each day for lunch. He eventually wheedled permission to room on campus, where he became, in several respects, a big man. Not only did he shoot up to 6 ft. 4 in., he also rowed on the Yale crew that won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

While at Yale, he met Jane Cheney, a Bryn Mawr student to whom he proposed on their first date. Although Spock's mother had a low opinion of Bryn Mawr, Spock and Cheney were married in 1927. By that time, Spock was enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City, where he graduated first in his class in 1929 and set up a pediatric practice. His experiences during the 1930s were crucial to the development of his child-rearing theories. He realized that most of the problems brought to him were behavioral rather than medical: tantrums, thumb sucking, refusal to eat, sleep or potty-train on schedule. Concurrently, he grew interested in Freud and underwent psychoanalysis--twice.

What Spock really did in Baby and Child Care, which he started writing in 1943, was to sneak Freudian concepts into the American middle-class mind. Surmising that new parents were not yet ready to hear of their infants' oral, anal and genital stages, Spock simply advised moms and dads not to get alarmed if baby sometimes behaved, well, oddly. He had learned from Freud that repression could produce catastrophic adult neuroses. Better, he advised, to wait things out.

During the 1960s, when Spock and the first generation he had helped raise noisily protested the nuclear arms buildup and the war in Vietnam, critics blamed Spock's "permissive" book for causing all the uproar. "People who call the book permissive never use the book," Spock replied. "They never read it." He had a point. For all its emphasis on love, Spock's book equally stressed parents' obligations to set limits for their children, to teach them by example and precept "what's right and proper."

In his later years Spock acknowledged that he had not been an ideal husband, or a perfect father to his two sons, Michael and John. "I never kissed them [when they were young]," he said. His wife Jane, feeling neglected by her husband's fame and frequent travels, struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. The two were divorced in 1976. Jane died in 1989.

Shortly before Spock's death, his second wife Mary made an appeal to friends and admirers to help with her husband's medical bills, which had reached $16,000 a month. His lingering last days contrasted sadly with the vigor and energy of his life. He updated his book constantly, always trying to make it better. The seventh edition contains his "permissive" thoughts on children and video games: "Most computer games are a colossal waste of time." This book will be published on May 2, which would have been the good doctor's 95th birthday.