"The main job of a pediatrician is not to cure normal diseases--the children do that themselves--but rather to reassure the mother. This, in America, is a terribly difficult job." Difficult or not, the speaker, Dr. Benjamin Spock, could claim phenomenal success at the task. Known to countless young parents as the author of Baby and Child Care, he is the most famous baby-doctor in America today.
A tall, relaxed man with a good sense of humor, Dr. Spock discussed his own childhood at lunch with undergraduates in Lowell House. The eldest of six children ("with very strict parents"), he recalled that all his brothers and sisters had become involved in child care in one way or another: two became teachers, one a child psychologist, and one a Master at a prep school. Dr. Spock himself attended Andover and Yale, where he rowed on the Yale Olympic Crew of 1924.
After his graduation from Columbia Medical School, he entered the Navy, and then went on to the Mayo Clinic. It was during this period, from 1943 to 1946, that he began, in the evenings, to write his book. "I had received earlier requests for a book and had said no: I needed more experience in practice. Later when I felt more confident I began to write. I don't think I realized when I began how difficult and exhausting it would be.
"I was interested in both the physical and emotional care of the child, and I also wanted to write a book that did not scold the parent. Too many authors say 'Don't do this, you'll harm the child; watch out, you'll kill the child ...' I wanted to encourage and reassure mothers."
Baby and Child Care first appeared in 1946. Since then, it has sold more than 15 million copies in this country, and has been translated into 26 languages. Although Dr. Spock has authored or co-authored four books since, it is this book which has made his world-wide reputation. Someone asked if his fame had drawbacks.
"Oh definitely. It can be quite disturbing sometimes. There's always the woman with the most illbred brat on the block, who boasts she raised the child exactly according to my instructions. I really tremble to think what I'm apparently responsible for."
He has also found that his reputation can be confining. "People give me too much authority in my field, and none outside. Whenever I write for magazines, the editors try to keep me in the nursery just as long as possible, whereas I want often to get out and talk about other things, like education or medical care legislation. I feel that, if I do have influence with parents, I want to use it in many areas."
In recent years, Dr. Spock has become increasingly engaged in politics, first as a Kennedy supporter and now as co-chairman of SANE. "Some people have gotten pretty upset by my politicking. Whenever I used to campaign for Kennedy, I would get a few letters from mothers saying, 'I thought I could trust you.'"
His feeling about SANE are particularly strong: "What's the use of advising parents about ordinary diseases when the overwhelming danger is annihilation, fallout and the damage caused by the cold war psychology?" He went on to cite clinical studies of this damage in children. It is a characteristic of Dr. Spock that he states his ideas directly and simply, but is always able to back them up. Someone commented on this ability.
"I try to avoid jargon. Simple language makes the doctor more human, and keeps people from being intimidated by the 'magic' of medicine. Besides jargon is really only useful to people who want to be convincing but are afraid they won't be--it's a way to puff yourself up."
Dr. Spock went on to say that clarity was particularly important in advising parents. "Mothers in America are in a peculiarly difficult position, and are easily disturbed and confused. The trouble is that in America, unlike most other societies, newlyweds are expected to be immediately independent of their parents. Grandmothers are not allowed to help much in the rearing of children; in fact, their help may be resented by the mother. As a result, American women are plunged into motherhood, rather than assuming their role gradually."
Discussion around the table turned back to children, and Dr. Spock was asked what he thought of kids. "I have great respect for them--they're much harder to confuse than parents--and great affection. They're wonderful conversationalists; they haven't become all hot air and platitudes, and they are truly noble. If we could only find how to bring them up right, we could have a very good world."