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Happy Birthday, Dr. Spock, Pioneering Pediatrician

May 02, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Dr. Benjamin Spock revolutionized modern child care when he encouraged parents to openly express affection and eschew physical discipline for their children. His book became a parenting staple, but he was also a polarizing figure.

Benjamin Spock’s Early Days

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Benjamin McLane Spock was born May 2, 1903, in New Haven, Connecticut. He attended Phillips Andover Academy and Yale University. An exceptional rower, he won a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics as a member of the Yale University squad.

After receiving an undergraduate degree, he pursued a medical degree at Columbia University, graduating at the top of his class. Next, he studied psychoanalysis for six years, believing that combining a knowledge of psychology and pediatrics would be the most effective way of helping his child patients.

Dr. Spock’s Notable Accomplishments

“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,” Spock wrote in the first paragraph of his 1946 blockbuster book, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.”  Spock’s central idea was that the parent is the “true expert” of his or her child. In the book, he advised new and seasoned parents on childcare issues large and small, from teething to social development.

Collectively, the various editions of the book are the world's bestselling nonfiction work after the Bible; the book has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into 39 languages. 

Dr. Steven Parker, Dr. Spock's co-author of “Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care,” explained in an interview with PBS that before Dr. Spock, parents were told not to kiss, hug or embrace their children. But Dr. Spock's unique training allowed him to advocate a different approach to parenting.

Dr. Parker says Dr. Spock believed that healthy child development depended on a strong bond between parent and child; essentially, “children needed to feel loved. And if they felt loved, almost everything else would follow from there. That was revolutionary in 1946, believe it or not.”

Spock advised parents to ease up on physical discipline
(he favored a no-spanking policy) and given children more opportunity to make their own decisions. During the 1960s, conservative minister Norman Vincent Peale claimed that the student protests were caused by Spock's doctrine of parental “permissiveness.”

The Rest of the Story

Spock himself was a vocal political activist during the 1960s. His protest against the Vietnam War earned him a suspended two-year prison sentence for conspiring to abet draft resistance. He also worked on the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Spock continued to be politically active well into his 90s, and even ran for president on an independent ticket in 1972.

Dr. Spock spoke openly about his own experiences with vegetarianism, claiming the change in diet cured his chronic bronchitis. He went on to recommend the diet for children over the age of two. Some were flabbergasted by a second suggestion that children over the age of two abstain from dairy products, or at the very least, cow’s milk. The advice appeared in the seventh edition of “Baby and Child Care” published shortly before his death on March 15, 1998, at the age of 94.
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