Benjamin McLane Spock (1903–1998)

In the beginning were the words, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” The book that immediately became the Bible of 20th-century American child rearing continued, “Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense. Bringing up your child won’t be a complicated job if you take it easy, trust your own instincts, and follow the directions that your doctor gives you.” In The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), Dr. Benjamin Spock began the emancipation of three generations of American parents—and their children—from the harsh advice of his predecessors. From the beginning until the end, 482 pages later, when Spock advises adoptive parents, the child “must belong completely,” with no fear of abandonment: “Basically, the thing that gives the adopted child the greatest security is being loved, wholeheartedly and naturally.” Spock encouraged a family culture of warmth, love, and stability. He saw parents and children as allies in a dynamic, yet individual, family system designed to bring out the best in all its members. The low-key, reassuring advice of Baby and Child Care was intended to help in this process. It was a lifelong work in progress, but focused particularly on the baby’s first year of life and the preschool years.

Baby and Child Care has been identified as the seventh single-authored (other than by a divinity) best-selling book of all time, with more than 50 million copies and counting in print in 39 languages. In Jay Parini’s Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (2008), Baby and Child Care is right up there with the Federalist Papers, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Walden, Huckleberry Finn, and The Feminine Mystique. The book’s influence was pervasive. For the rest of the century, virtually every child-rearing manual in the United States, such as T. Berry Brazelton’s numerous works and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s perennial Infant Care, owed a debt to Spock’s prevailing stance: genial guidance buttressed by reassuring common sense. By the 1990s, the “seismic” impact of Spock’s work—“a method, a belief system and an institution”—led Life magazine (fall 1990) to name Spock one of “The 100 Most Important Americans of the Twentieth Century,” along with Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ernest Hemingway. The beat goes on. In December 2006, the Atlantic included Spock among “The Top 100” most influential figures in American history of all time, pronouncing “With a single book—and a singular approach—he changed American parenting.”

Dr. Benjamin Spocks Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946 became the Bible of American child rearing.

Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946 became the Bible of American child rearing. (Library of Congress)

For 300 years, the United States’ three major philosophies of child rearing have proclaimed, “It’s all for your own good.” Although all are derived from the highest of moral and ethical (and sometimes religious) principles, they are wildly divergent. One view was based on the Calvinist belief that infants were born “totally depraved,” “by nature sinners,” “not too little to go to hell.” To ensure children’s salvation, parents must vigilantly protect them from their “depraved impulses” by “breaking their will”—which meant any defiance of the parents’ wishes by a child of any age. Another view, derived from Locke and Rousseau, regarded the child as an innocent, whose “manly virtues” had to be strengthened against the dangerous, weakening effects of civilization—through cold baths and vigorous physical exercise befitting pioneers and frontiersmen. Physical ebullience was a natural tendency, to be encouraged, rather than a sign of wicked depravity to be stamped out. The third perspective, which arose after the Civil War, saw the child as a “tender bud,” “just commencing to unfold its leaves... a beautiful flower opening to the sunshine.” The child’s transgressions resulted from immaturity, rather than willfulness. Thus parents should be gentle teachers, fair and understanding, carefully cultivating the “nobler principles of the heart” and avoiding corporal punishments, which were deemed ineffective. Child-rearing manuals—for the increasing audience of mothers who could read—tended to popularize the views of the guru du jour, clergy (Thomas J. Gallaudet, and Jacob Abbott), physicians (Luther Emmett Holt, Herman Bundesen), psychologists (John Watson, Bruno Bettelheim), and educators (John Dewey, Jean Piaget)—in overlapping, 40-year cycles, the life of the book approximating the career span of its author.

Upon its publication in 1946, Baby and Child Care was the ideal book for mid-century Americans returning home from cataclysmic World War II. If Spock had not come along then, the culture, driven by hunger for love and stability, would have had to invent him. People were wildly eager to marry and have families, and Spock spoke directly to these parents, prospective and actual. His reassuring confidence in parental love and levelheadedness contradicted the grim Depression era admonitions of behavioral psychologist John Watson. Watson, after declaring his contempt for parents in Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928)—“No one today knows how to raise a child” except, presumably, Watson himself—dehumanized all children by calling them “it.” In order to survive in a world of grim anxiety, children should be treated “as though they were young adults.” Thus Watson advised “Never hug and kiss” your children if you want them to be “happy” and “independent,” a state they should attain at around the age of three, when “children should begin to dress and act like youthful men and women.” In opposition, Spock encouraged parents to “Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby.” “When you hug him or make noises at him, when you show him that you think he’s the most wonderful baby in the world, it makes his spirit grow, just the way milk makes his bones grow.”

In Spock’s view, babies are little children, not miniature adults; the baby might scarcely be out of diapers at three. This was a radical departure from Holt’s recommendation during the same era in The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses (1896–1929) that the infant be bowel trained by his second month because “it makes regularity... much easier and also saves the nurse much trouble and labour.” The new generations Spock was advising were ready to relax such rules and to be free of regimentation. Thus in contrast to the rigid prewar schedules of “feeding, sleeping, bowel movements, and other habits”—for it was the mother of the two-month-old who was potty-trained, not the baby—Spock recommended, with cheerful confidence, “Don’t believe this. [The] baby doesn’t have to be sternly trained... [but] will fit into your family’s way of doing things sooner or later without much effort on your part.” Indeed, Spock’s advice was sufficiently flexible so parents could adapt it to the individual baby and family preferences and temperament. One size didn’t fit all: “How to fold a diaper,” for instance, “depends on the size of the baby and of the diaper.”

Spock’s medical training began at Yale, where he had earned his undergraduate degree in 1924. His election to the prestigious secret society, Skull and Bones, was surpassed by participation in the Paris Olympics as a member of the gold medal Yale crew, collectively extolled by Damon Runyon as “America’s greatest ‘hero.’”After marrying Jane Cheney in 1927, a silk-mill heiress whose estate largely evaporated during the Depression, he transferred to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and graduated at the head of the class of 1929, to the surprise of a classmate who teased, “Spock, of all people! Why, I thought you were stupid!” He spent a valuable internship year at New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital on the medical front lines in Hell’s Kitchen, treating—and learning from—hundreds of young patients suffering from a myriad of afflictions that included abuse, malnutrition, rat bites, and polio. There his friendly, attentive, low-key bedside manner was already apparent. Spock, who never hesitated to unfold his 6’4” frame on the floor if it meant getting closer to a small patient, was developing an unusual triple perspective that became central to Baby and Child Care. His ability to see things simultaneously from the points of view of the mother, the baby, and the physician and to communicate this symbiotic understanding in clear, accessible language was highly innovative for the time. Indeed, when he was writing the book during World War II, he paced the floor, hearing aloud the words he dictated to Jane, the amanuensis who captured the music.

In order to study Freudian psychology and its application to pediatrics, Spock took a psychiatric residency at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. His first psychoanalysis, with Dr. Bertram Lewin, concentrated on the importance of the father and brought to light Spock’s “natural hostility and rivalry with my father,” a warm, serene man beloved by his six children as well as his colleagues at the New Haven Railroad, from porters to president, where he served as general counsel. Spock’s second psychoanalysis, at 38, with Dr. Sandor Rado, concentrated on the mother—Spock’s in particular—as might be expected from Rado’s research on “The Anxious Mother,” which argued that overprotective, anxious mothers can do irreparable harm to their children. Spock acknowledged the significance of his own domineering, sexually repressive, moralistic mother, but says he was “first steered toward pediatrics by taking care of younger brothers and sisters. The first child is very likely to be drawn into a parental attitude.... This is the way to avoid some of the pangs of jealousy, by pretending that you’re... a third parent.” Spock also regarded himself as “the model for the first child” in the baby book.

During this time, Spock was acquiring a reputation as an avant-garde pediatrician (of Margaret Mead’s baby, for example, beginning in the delivery room); the section on “Fat Children” in Baby and Child Care anticipates by 60 years today’s concerns over obesity. Nevertheless, despite his psychoanalytic orientation, not a soupcon of jargon appears in Baby and Child Care. In discussing “discipline,” for instance, although Spock accepts the Freudian view of the superego—that the in-dividual’s conscience will develop naturally through imitation of the parents, and this will become a force that shapes the ego and tames the wild libido—this language never appears. Instead, Spock advises, “You can be both firm and friendly.” Don’t become a patsy to your child who is being disagreeable or unreasonable. “This isn’t good” for either parent or child, who “needs to feel that his mother and father, however agreeable, still have their own rights, know how to be firm, won’t let him be unreasonable or rude. He likes them better that way.” This will be good training for getting along “reasonably with other people. The spoiled child is not a happy creature even in his own home.”

Thus although Spock proposed alternatives to harsh punishment, which can “break a child’s heart or... his spirit,” such as “distracting, guiding, explaining,” he anticipated that a mixture of parental kindness and firmness would impel children to “do the right thing, the grown-up thing, most of the time.” Spock, who expected cooperation from a civilized child, not anarchy from a spoiled brat, from the first edition to the posthumous eighth edition (2004), was light years away from the permissiveness that Spiro Agnew (via his speechwriter, William Safire) wrongly attributed to him during the anti–Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s. Agnew’s contemptuous censure of the “Spock-marked” generation whose parents “learned their Dr. Spock and threw discipline out the window” was a deliberate lie. Although Spock’s general operating principle is for parents to “Stay in control as a friendly leader rather than battle with [the child] at his level,” an occasional spanking is all right, far “less poisonous than lengthy disapproval, because it clears the air, for parent and child.”

No matter what the criticism, throughout his life, Spock did what he thought was right—even if it meant going to jail for civil disobedience, harassment by the Internal Revenue Service, and federal prosecution. The publication of Baby and Child Care drew the scorn of some physicians for the popularizer who made medical advice directly available to parents, thereby circumventing the medical establishment, this despite Spock’s repeated advice to consult a doctor, social worker, or therapist: “A child who eats poorly needs a doctor’s help.” When in the 1960s Spock advocated Medicare as a member of the Physicians’ Committee for Health Care for the Aged through Social Security, he drew the wrath of entrepreneurial doctors nationwide, though their attempt to expel him from the AMA failed. As a spokesman for the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear policy, he used his medical knowledge to provide a public critique of nuclear testing and the fallout of Strontium 90 into the milk supply of children and, of course, adults. Dressed in a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit and a shirt with a stiff collar, Spock marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for peace and for civil rights, in high spirits despite the fact that death threats were common and both were vulnerable to assassination. That the sales of Baby and Child Care dropped in half as a consequence of his criticism of Presidents Johnson and Nixon did not seem to bother Spock at all.

Nor did his indictment and trial in 1968—along with the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr, Harvard graduate student Michael Ferber, writer Mitch Goodman, and political scientist Marcus Raskin—for conspiracy to interfere with the draft during the Vietnam War. A year later, the conviction was overturned. That Spock ran for president in 1972 as the People’s Party candidate to reinforce his fervent opposition to the Vietnam War could be construed as principled or innocent or brave, perhaps all three. His candidacy could also be interpreted as a symbolic representation of his lifelong guiding principles—hope for future, based on the actions of its young, the desire to set a good example, and to make a difference in the lives of the people who had been shaped by his major work. As writer Garry Wills concluded, 20 years after being jailed with Spock during antiwar protests, “Spock was the father not of a permissive age, but of an imaginative one. He had a respect for individuality, in babies as in grown citizens. Like most respect, it comes from a sense of his own dignity. He was the most patrician of radicals... solicitous for the well being of the police as well as of the demonstrators. He had come to protest war, not to wage it, and he soothed hot heads even while appealing to bold hearts.” A fitting overview of Spock’s life, his work, and his enduring influence on the land of the free, the brave, the well-brought up.

—Lynn Z. Bloom


Bloom, Lynn Z. Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1972.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “‘It’s All for Your Own Good:’ Parent–Child Relationships in Popular American Child Rearing Literature.” Journal of Popular Culture 10, no. 1 (1976): 191–98.

Hulbert, Ann. Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Maier, Thomas. Dr. Spock: An American Life. New York: Basic Books, 1998, 2003.

Parini, Jay. Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Spock, Benjamin. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. New York: Pocket Books, 1946.