May 022019

Today is the birthday (1903) of Dr. Benjamin McLane Spock, an influential US pediatrician, not to be confused with Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame. Dr. Spock is famous for Baby and Child Care (1946), one of the best-selling books of all time. The book’s premise to mothers is that “you know more than you think you do.” Spock was the first popular pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children’s needs and how they fit into family dynamics. His ideas about childcare influenced several generations of parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals. However, his theories were also widely criticized by colleagues for relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence rather than serious academic research.

Spock advocated ideas about parenting that were, at the time, considered out of the mainstream. Over time, his books helped to bring about major change. Previously, pediatricians had told parents that babies needed to learn to sleep on a regular schedule, and that picking them up and holding them whenever they cried would only teach them to cry more and not to sleep through the night (a notion that borrows from behaviorism). They were told to feed their children on a regular schedule, and that they should not pick them up, kiss them, or hug them, because that would not prepare them to be strong and independent individuals in a harsh world. In contrast Spock encouraged parents to see their children as individuals, and not to apply a one-size-fits-all philosophy to them.

In 1962, Spock joined The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, otherwise known as SANE. Spock was politically outspoken and active in the movement to end the Vietnam War. In 1968, he and four others (including William Sloane Coffin, Marcus Raskin, Mitchell Goodman, and Michael Ferber) were singled out for prosecution by then Attorney General Ramsey Clark on charges of conspiracy to counsel, aid, and abet resistance to the draft. Spock and three of his alleged co-conspirators were convicted, although the five had never been in the same room together. His two-year prison sentence was never served; the case was appealed and in 1969 a federal court set aside his conviction.

In 1968, Spock signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War, and he later became a sponsor of the War Tax Resistance project, which practiced and advocated tax resistance as a form of anti-war protest. He was also arrested for his involvement in anti-war protests resulting from his signing of the anti-war manifesto “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” circulated by members of the radical intellectual collective RESIST. The individuals arrested during this incident came to be known as the Boston Five.

In the 1972 United States presidential election, Spock was the People’s Party candidate with a platform that called for free medical care; the repeal of “victimless crime” laws, including the legalization of abortion, homosexuality, and cannabis; a guaranteed minimum income for families; and for an end to American military interventionism and the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from foreign countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, Spock demonstrated and gave lectures against nuclear weapons and cuts in social welfare programs.

Norman Vincent Peale was a popular preacher who during the late 1960s criticized the anti-Vietnam War movement and the perceived laxity of that era, placing the blame on Dr. Spock’s books: “The U.S. was paying the price of two generations that followed the Dr. Spock baby plan of instant gratification of needs.” In the 1960s and 1970s, blame was placed on Spock for the disorderliness of young people, many of whose parents had been devotees of Baby and Child Care. Vice President Spiro Agnew also blamed Spock for “permissiveness”. These allegations were enthusiastically embraced by conservative adults, who viewed the rebellious youth of that era with disapproval, referring to them as “the Spock generation”.

It’s not fair to make generalizations about the ethos of a generation in this way, nor should Spock take credit, positive or negative, for the shaping of post-war generations. There were a great many more variables in play than a single child rearing book, no matter how popular it was. Furthermore, many of Spock’s detractors never read the book, but based their critique on hearsay.  In fact, Spock’s recommendations were not based on rigorous studies, and changed considerably over the life of the book as Spock’s attitudes changed.  For example, in the seventh edition of Baby and Child Care, published a few weeks after he died, Spock advocated for a bold change in children’s diets, recommending that all children switch to a vegan diet after the age of 2. Spock himself had switched to an all-plant diet in 1991, after a series of illnesses that left him weak and unable to walk unaided. After making the dietary change, he lost 50 pounds, regained his ability to walk and became healthier overall. The revised edition stated that children on an all-plant diet will reduce their risk of developing heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain diet-related cancers. Spock’s approach to childhood nutrition was criticized by a number of experts, including his co-author, Boston pediatrician Dr. Steven J. Parker, as too extreme and likely to result in nutritional deficiencies unless it is very carefully planned and executed, something that would be difficult for working parents.

I am glad to say that my son never ate specially formulated baby food of any kind.  He was breast fed as an infant, and when he shifted to solid food he ate what my wife and I ate – broken down in a small food processor when he was little, then cut up small and/or mashed as he grew older. I had only one rule: he had to taste everything before refusing it. If he took a bite of something and did not like it, I did not force him to eat more. But he could not refuse something based on looks alone. As an adult he has some broad tastes, and some odd dislikes – but I take credit for none of it.  He is fond of duck feet and pig’s stomach, and will eat raw chile peppers of any heat. Conversely, he hates eggs, mushrooms, and lentils. These preferences are not based on anything I did concerning his eating patterns; he developed his tastes all by himself.  Baby food, like breakfast food, is a Western invention of the 19th century.  Children can eat what adults eat, as long as when they are very small it is chopped up to make it manageable and to avoid choking. It does not need extra salt, sugar, or fat. Care should be taken only that the child’s diet is balanced. One of the advantages of serving the same food for children and adults is that leftovers never go waste.


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