A Hat Tip to Pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock

Here’s one of today’s entries in The Writers’ Almanac, the wonderful daily newsletter sent out by Garrison Keillor on NPR. Parents of boomers like me were big fans of Dr. Spock, treating him with an almost cult-like reverence for his sensible wisdom about child care. He later parted ways with some of his more conservative followers, when he became an iconic protester against America’s war in Viet Nam. I wonder whether regular THCB readers will read this and, like me, note that this is the same message Jane Sarasohn-Kahn relates in The Wisdom of Patients. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

It’s the birthday of Dr. Benjamin Spock, (books by this author) born in New Haven, Connecticut (1903). His Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) was a best seller during the period after World War II, when parents across America were raising the Baby Boom generation. Spock opened his first pediatric practice in 1933. After 10 years of observing children and their health, Spock decided to write a book about taking care of them. Instead of writing it out himself, he dictated the book to his wife, to give it a conversational tone. Previous parenting guidebooks had encouraged parents to be stern with their children, and they were written as a list of commands. Dr. John B. Watson had written in his guidebook, "Never, never kiss your child. Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage." Dr. Spock encouraged parents to be affectionate, and he also encouraged them to follow their own instincts. The first sentence of his book was, "You know more than you think you do."

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3 replies »

  1. “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain
    I have it on good authority that Dr. Benjamin Spock inspired Healthwise founder Don Kemper to harness the most untapped resource in health care – the consumer!

  2. Fair enough. Nobody’s perfect. In this case, I think its far more productive to remember people for their successes than their failings. The point is that Dr. Spock moved an entire generation of parents to a more humanistic and natural style of parenting. The fact that he remained somewhat clueless about the immense value and impact of proper breastfeeding notwithstanding, I hope that each of us can make as significant a contribution.

  3. While I agree that Dr. Spock had a huge impact on childrearing in the United States, I don’t see the influence as all positive, Specifically, his “advice” on breastfeeding contributed substantially to declining rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration, with the consequent negative health care consequences that are now well understood.
    I gave birth the first time in the mid-1970s, so that’s the version of the book I read. To be fair, I understand the later versions were corrected to be more realistic and positive about breastfeeding.
    But back then, his book recommended that breastfed babies be treated just like formula-fed babies: kept to a schedule, not fed too often. There was no explanation or understanding of the supply-and-demand mechanism that governs milk supply. Any mother who tried to follow his advice was doomed to a plugged duct or hungry baby (or both).
    It’s a shame, because not only was that generation of infants deprived of the optimal food for human nutrition, but there are now a majority of grandmothers who aren’t quite comfortable with the whole breastfeeding thing (my daugher who is now a mom herself has thanked me many times for having nursed her and supporting her in breastfeeding, as NONE of her friends have moms who breastfed.)