75 years ago, a lanky, hardworking pediatrician decided there was a better way to bring up children, and published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s baby book would go on to change the way people raised their kids. It has sold an astonishing 50 million copies. That makes him the bestselling author ever, with the exceptions of God and Shakespeare.
His message to post-war parents? You know more than you think you do. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that coddling your infant through hugging and kissing them would make them soft, leaving them unprepared for the real world. Infants should stay on a strict sleeping and eating schedule. Under no circumstances should they be picked up when they cried.
Spock threw all of that out the window.
Instead, he told parents to trust their instincts, be affectionate, and treat each child as an individual. Discipline and schedules weren’t so important. Showing love was.
Many of Spock’s ideas are still embraced today, although not all of them have held up. (He once recommended putting children to sleep on their tummies, a modern-day no-no.)
For many, the book was a godsend:
A whole generation of mothers blessed him for the book’s index, which contains such commonsensical listings as Nose, objects in; Potato, gagging on, and Blue feeling after childbirth. “If Dr. Spock ran for President,” said one young mother, not caring where he stands on anything except babies, “he’d get one vote in every family.”
Two decades after his baby book was first published, The Saturday Evening Post featured him on the cover. The story wasn’t solely about his work as a baby expert, but rather the problem that some parents had reconciling Spock’s child advice with his outspoken anti-Vietnam-war activism.
In “Not the Dr. Spock!” journalist Robert K. Massie interviewed the author about his recent protests. Spock was deeply concerned about the effect of the war on babies and children – specifically, the dangers of radiation from a potential nuclear conflict. “Because of the war in Vietnam,” Dr. Spock argued, “the physical threat to our children from nuclear annihilation is a thousand times greater than all the dangers from the usual children’s diseases and accidents combined. I think it’s my job to tell parents about these new dangers,” he said. “If we are not careful, we are going to escalate ourselves right off the face of the earth.”
As with any well-known person expressing political opinions, his comments created controversy. Some people tore up his books, or demanded he be thrown out of the American Medical Association. Others wanted him to run for the Senate. (He didn’t.)
Spock himself could become frustrated with his protest efforts. He noted, “”while I can get up to four thousand dollars for even a warmed over article on baby care, nobody will buy an article on peace.”
Despite some pushback, he never stopped advocating for his beliefs. He joined the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, chaired the National Conference for a New Politics, and marched in an antiwar demonstration with Martin Luther King. He even ran for president in 1972, calling for free healthcare and a guaranteed minimum income, as well as the legalization of abortion, homosexuality, and marijuana.
In the end, Spock put a lot of faith in all of those babies he helped to raise: “Even if we get peace in Vietnam, there still will be no security in the world. Our salvation will be our youth.”
Featured image: Dr. Spock with grandsons Peter and Daniel, from the cover of the May 7, 1966, Saturday Evening Post (photo by Philippe Halsman, ©SEPS)
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