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The Spock Legacy

When Benjamin Spock ’25, the author of the fabulously successful book Baby and Child Care, died on March 15, his name had become virtually synonymous with child-rearing in this country and around the world. But Dr. Spock was much more than a best-selling pediatrician. In the turbulent 1960s, he joined with former Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49, ’56BD, and Martin Luther King Jr. to protest the Vietnam War and racial discrimination, and he went on to call for the banning of nuclear weapons. His civic conscience cost Spock at many levels. By the age of 80, he had been arrested a dozen times and was roundly condemned by some as a traitor to his patrician past.

As the anger of those times receded, however, Spock’s accomplishments remained undiminished. And while he gradually adapted his original positions on child-rearing, he never veered from his fundamental commitment to raising healthy children in a just world. And his legacy endures; a new edition of Baby and Child Care was released this month by Dutton.

By tradition, the Yale Alumni Magazine rarely does feature articles on the passing of distinguished alumni who have not had a direct involvement with Yale after graduation as faculty members or administrators. Although Benjamin Spock never served in Yale’s classrooms or offices, he achieved such stature in the nation and the world as to force an exception to our policy. The following tributes—drawn from past and present members of the Yale community—are intended to illuminate a few of the many faces of Dr. Spock: the mentor, the soother of children and parents, the civic activist, the changer of minds.

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“He Gave Me Courage”

Reading Ben Spock’s Baby and Child Care in 1946, I was impressed with his earnest desire to help parents understand what was taking place in a child’s life. His attitude—which was expressed in the opening sentence of the book, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do”—appealed to me. He presented in detail the characteristic behavior of infants, toddlers, and children during various phases of development. His goal was to encourage parents to be understanding and supportive in their role. Ben Spock’s presentations on the platform, as well as in his book, prompted me to seek additional training in behavioral pediatrics.

In 1947 I was granted an appointment as a pediatric fellow at the well-known Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I had applied for the position because of my interest in the Rochester Child Health Project, and hoped to learn how to help parents nurture their children through healthy times, as well as through illnesses, injuries, and other stresses in their lives.

Three months after I arrived at the Mayo Clinic, Ben Spock joined the staff of the Rochester Project. He immediately became a vitally important mentor for me, and continued to play that role for the next 50 years as I became a practitioner in New Haven, a teacher at the Yale Medical School, and a consultant at the Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic.

Ben Spock had the unique ability to discuss complicated behavior in relationship to a child’s stage of development, particularly during stressful moments when a healthy child might be expected to regress to previously abandoned behavior.

I never understood the accusations that Ben Spock encouraged “permissiveness.” He did indeed advise flexibility, emphasizing that parents should individualize their approach to feeding babies and children. It made no sense to him to postpone feeding a crying, hungry baby because only three-and-a-half hours had passed since the last feeding, or to insist on a solid food that was unappealing to a baby or toddler!

Whether it was a colicky baby, or a nine-month-old infant demonstrating a firm attachment to the mother and rejecting the grandparents, or a child struggling to achieve bowel control, or demonstrating anxious behavior in reaction to a family’s move, or his entrance to school, or to an illness or injury, Ben Spock was a master at explaining the basis for the behavior. He helped me realize that a particular behavior that concerned parents was often a normal reaction to the stresses of the moment. His discussions determined to a great extent how I dealt with parents and children during my four decades of pediatric practice. He gave me courage.

Ben Spock’s long battle to improve the lives of children served as a guiding force for me as a pediatrician and as a member of my community. He played that role throughout his lifetime. Dr. Spock’s convictions and values continue to motivate my professional and community activities today, 50 years after first meeting him.

“The Hero of Young Motherhood”

As a young mother in the early 1950s, I did not have the pleasure and convenience of having my mother or mother-in-law near at hand for those emergency questions, the reassurance and advice that we so desperately need when confronted with a new baby. I was apprehensive when my first son was born, and realized that I had never fed, bathed, diapered, or even held a newborn in my arms. I was determined, however, to be a good mother, and just as millions of mothers have done over the years, I purchased Baby and Child Care, and kept it close at hand, referring to it constantly.

The following words were particularly meaningful to me: “Every time you pick your baby up, even if you do it a little awkwardly at first, every time you change him, bathe him, feed him, smile at him, he’s getting a feeling that he belongs to you and that you belong to him. Nobody else in the world, no matter how skillful, can give that to him.”

I used the book to learn how to prepare formulas, to help me over the difficult times when I thought my nursing was not going well, and during those times when I longed for sleep and was reassured by Dr. Spock’s telling me that, eventually, my baby would sleep through the night.

During one crisis, when my oldest child was about 2, he awoke with a fever, and was crying with that heart-rending sound that signals severe pain. I called my pediatrician. In 1954, house calls were still part of the pediatrician’s daily routine. Dr. Reid came in the afternoon, examined my son, and was writing out a prescription for what he thought was a throat infection, but never mentioned scarlet fever.

I had been reading Dr. Spock’s book before the pediatrician arrived, and matched Jon’s symptoms with those of the scarlet fever signs listed on page 397. I brought the book over to Dr. Reid and asked him to read it. He looked at me, reread the paragraph, and proceeded to tear up his prescription. “Well, I’ll be darned,” he said. “This is the first case of scarlet fever that I have seen in a long time. Your Spock book is right on target!” The doctor promptly wrote out a new prescription for Jon, and as he left, he looked a little sheepish.

Many years later, in 1985, I was a speaker along with Dr. Spock at a conference on media and children—my first encounter with the hero of young motherhood. We were seated at the same dinner table the evening before the conference began. I had decided to tuck his book into my tote bag in case I could work up the courage to ask him to autograph it. His warmth, sense of humor, and charm during dinner convinced me that he was indeed approachable. I recounted the story of the scarlet fever diagnosis. He laughed heartily, and was pleased that I had trusted his judgment. When I pulled my crumbling copy of his book out of my purse, he asked me if this was a 1946, 25-cent edition. My copy was purchased in 1952, and the price had increased to the huge sum of 35 cents.

As a developmental psychologist, I realize how insightful Dr. Spock was. His many years of experience and his love of children were both evident in the friendly tone of his book. His common-sense approach, coupled with a vast theoretical knowledge of the physical and emotional growth of a child, enabled many parents to feel comfortable and confident in raising their children.

Over the years, I have advised many new mothers to use Dr. Spock’s book, and to remember what he says in his introduction: “I want to urge you not to worry or decide you’ve made a mistake with your child on the basis of anything that you read in this book. This book only tries to give you sensible present-day ideas of the care of a child. It’s not infallible.”

“I Knew That This Man Made Sense”

I met Benjamin Spock only once, at a reception in Boston during the early 1970s when I was working at the Massachusetts General Hospital. I was struck by how robust and hearty he was and by his open friendliness. He was an enormously popular figure, and I was a bit awed. I had all of the predictable suspicions of a young academic about anyone like Dr. Spock who presumed to tell the public how to raise their children. But after I actually looked at his book I knew that this man made sense. Indeed, he made sense to millions of families and paved the way from the stylized, often ritualistic prescriptions for child-rearing that were common prior to the 1950s, to the notion that mothers (and fathers) were pretty smart after all and could make decisions about the wellness or sickness of children. Benjamin Spock liberated families from the strict authoritarianism of the “how-to-do-it” books of the day and from the rigid formulas that dictated how infants were fed, slept, toilet trained, and even disciplined.

To find out more about the impact of Dr. Spock’s book on child-rearing after the publication of the first edition, I spoke with my own mother about what impact the book had had on her. She unhesitatingly said that Dr. Spock’s book made her feel more relaxed. In the pre-Spock era children were zealously fed every four hours, put to bed early, and kept on a tight schedule. Post-Spock children were fed and toilet trained in a more relaxed way, when they themselves gave the signals that they were ready. This approach became and has remained the conventional wisdom. Mothers (and fathers) were permitted to do what came naturally—using common sense and trusting their instincts.

The Spock approach has been important to our own teaching of students and house staff at the School of Medicine. We now teach our students to rely on the instincts and experience of mothers when assessing the severity of a disease. We listen to a mother’s assessment of a baby’s feeding patterns and her impression of a baby’s level of arousal and behavioral state, elements in history-taking that are central to the diagnosis and treatment of disease. We trust parents to make those judgments, and we admonish trainees who fail to take cues from mothers and fathers. Spock’s legacy is, in large part, the confidence he gave families to make judgments.

At the Yale–New Haven Children’s Hospital, our specialists diagnose and treat virtually every problem that affects children: premature newborns weighing no more than a pound; children with a spectrum of congenital disease that can impose enormous burdens on families; cancer; diabetes; and a myriad of other acute and chronic disorders that contribute to the special vulnerabilities of children. A sick child places enormous stress on any family, and while we think of Spock’s book primarily as a thoughtful guide to normal parenting, his works have also comforted uncounted families with sick children.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of Spock’s work, because so much of his notion of baby and child care has been incorporated into the conventional wisdom of our general approach to child-rearing. Dr. Spock eased the passage through childhood and contributed to a better future for all children. Like his famous namesake on the Star Trek series, Dr. Spock could sense the future—and he contributed to a better tomorrow for our children.

“A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body”

As physician and teacher, Dr. Benjamin Spock became a household presence whenever children and their parents sought support and guidance. His creativity in blending the common sense of good physical care with sound developmental and psychological insight represented a rich convergence of the ways children and parents can relate in seeking to achieve closeness and health.

As a pediatrician, Ben Spock was a model primary health care provider. As an educator, writer, and scholar, he was practical, clear, and original. His originality reflected hard-won knowledge from his own personal experiences from clinical and scholarly work.

Spock understood in theory and practice that parents could be trusted to choose the best way to care for their child if the person guiding them knew that there are many healthy ways of raising children. He also knew that parents seek to avoid unhealthy choices, but need support in seeking which of the healthy ways will best fit them.

Spock’s training in pediatrics and his study of psychoanalysis (for five years at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute) and child development were lucidly communicated without jargon. He offered a healthy, permissive “smorgasbord” of all the sound ways parents can select in raising their children according to their own cultural traditions, loyalties, and value preferences. In 1997 he was recognized by the American Psychoanalytic Association with an honorary membership. He was described as “the nation’s best-known baby doctor for the past half century.”

In no small part the Spock view of reasonable permissiveness enabled parents to overcome the prevalence of feeding and eating problems that characterized the 1940s and 1950s. Spock’s originality and leadership in modern pediatrics and child development were concentrated on the child-parent relationship. Through his book, his teaching, and his practice, Ben Spock implicitly joined the child’s physical growth and development to the unfolding of his or her emotional and cognitive capacities.

“The Constancy of His Decency”

The last time I saw Mary and Ben Spock was in Boston in 1993, when the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1968 trial in which Ben and four others of us were accused of “counselling, aiding, and abetting draft resistance.” Waiting on the stage for the proceedings to begin, Ben leaned over to me and said, “You know I sometimes think that the Grim Reaper has me by an ankle and is hauling me off, only to find out it’s Mary dragging me back again.”

Married to any other woman, Ben would have been dead years ago. (So, dear Mary, from all of us, for all the care you gave him, our heartfelt thanks.)

When a person is 94 years old, death arrives more friend than foe. To Ben, death came as does a period after a long and eloquent sentence. Surely we are here today to celebrate Ben’s life altogether as much as to grieve its passing.

It’s hard to believe that a man can be born in an era of gas lights and horse carriages and die in the space age. It’s hard to believe Ben lived all but five years of this century.

He was born in New Haven only two blocks from my mother’s house. In 1912 he attended Worthington Hooker, the grammar school my daughter entered 52 years later.

His mother, in Ben’s words, “knew what was right, so it was better not to irritate her by raising questions.”

His father, “grave but just,” was general counsel for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad and, again in Ben’s words, believed that “Republicans created all the wealth in the United States, and the Democrats, incapable of creating wealth or anything else, used politics to try to cut a slice for themselves.”

High school was divided between Hamden Hall in New Haven and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Then, as had his father before him, he went to Yale where, on the Yale crew and the Seine River, he rowed for glory to a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. (The track events were recorded in the wonderful movie Chariots of Fire.)

Not one to rest on his oars, Ben went on immediately to medical school, first in New Haven and then in New York City. There, now firmly rooted in his ancestral New England tradition, he realized that the point of roots was to put forth branches. Ben became the first American doctor to train in both pediatrics and psychiatry.

And thus was formed the man who was to become the preeminent pediatrician of the world. Not only was he smart, he was wise, wisdom being rooted in compassion. Ben knew that a world without a soft heart was lacking a reason for existence.

Soon his practice grew, and more important, so did his two sons Michael and John, nurtured by mother Jane as well as father Ben.

After ten years of practice, Ben felt he had learned enough from mothers and babies to write Baby and Child Care, with its famous first sentences: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

He had also learned enough about medicine to know that the power to prevent is far more effective than the ability to heal.

To the surprise of both author and publisher, Baby and Child Care was an instant success, and would eventually sell almost 50 million copies in 42 languages. Small wonder that he was soon asked to teach as well as to practice pediatrics, and small wonder that he was soon numbered among the rich and the famous.

Generally in this world, the higher people rise, the more they experience exposure rather than reassurance. With much to protect, they become defensive and cautious, something Michelangelo understood beautifully: All his powerfully muscled figures bear the telltale sign of anxiety—dilated pupils of the eye.

To this general rule Ben was a big exception. He had an immense popularity. He could have chosen to protect, but he recognized that the good life demands that we be always ready to risk something big for something good. Fearless, he began to wade into ever deeper political waters.

Just as it was unusual but not odd to combine pediatrics with psychiatry, so there was nothing quixotic about a pediatrician engaging in political activism because he believed “war is not healthy for babies or other living things” neither is racism. So he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to overcome the differences we invent about one another. He asked himself, “What’s the point of bringing healthy babies into the world only to have them deformed by the fall-out of nuclear testing? What’s the point of nurturing the consciences of youth and then to desert them in their hour of conscience when they vigorously oppose a misbegotten war?”

To Ben disarmament was part of child care, not only in avoiding annihilation but in freeing up money to better the lot of children—and their parents. In 1962 he joined SANE, whose members felt that “deterrence” had become an open-ended nuclear arms race that was playing Russian roulette with the world.

Starting two years later he did everything legally possible to oppose the war in Vietnam. Then, with an ever growing number of Americans, he began to engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience, climbing over police barricades and barbed wire fences. How deeply he loathed the war came through to me on the steps of the Justice Department when he grunted fervent approval of Ashley Montague’s contention: “If the Vietnam War is right, what’s left to be called wrong?”

What was the special something that Dr. Spock brought to these demonstrations, to these acts of civil disobedience?

I always felt the more radical an action the more dignified should be your appearance. Ben always wore a three-piece suit over what I suspected was three-piece underwear, and his garters held up more than his socks—something like his entire self-respect.

But there was nothing superficial about Ben’s dignity. It was an outward and visible sign of an inner and invisible integrity. He was a giant—physically, morally. Especially these days when, in the words of a Le Carre character, “You have to think like a hero to behave like a decent human being”—especially these days when common integrity is made to look like courage. I bless Ben for the constancy of his decency. Fame never laid a glove on him, and with his fortune he was generous to a fault. To paraphrase Ben Johnson, “Not only will we not see the likes of him again, we’ll not even see one who puts us in mind of him.”

To remain true to his memory, we can further his highest hopes. He loved Jesus’ words, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And he asked that at his funeral I speak, “Of our hope that the peacemakers will really prevail!”

They will prevail if, with Ben, we decide there’s no more time for foolishness, that to bring peace through violence is like washing clothes with mud. They will prevail if we’re convinced that a wind that is the product of a cold heart is an instrument of error and delusion. And they will prevail if we emulate the energy and dedication reflected in the last two sentences Ben dictated to Mary in Spock on Spock: “Especially if there is a barbed-wire fence to be climbed, I’m going to keep climbing until I keel over.”

Early in the week, after announcing Ben’s death, National Public Radio played Brahms’s Lullaby, a perfect farewell to the world’s preeminent pediatrician. He also was a prince of a man. None of us would be here if we didn’t all believe it. So on your behalf, as well as my own, let me say, “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

God Bless you Ben, as you blessed us.  the end


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