Sunday, January 29, 2023

Looking back at Dr. Spock

| November 21, 2010 8:00 PM

Poor Spock is so misunderstood. No, not the guy with the big ears on "Star Trek;" I mean Dr. Benjamin McLane Spock, baby doctor and author of one of the most influential but maligned books of the 20th century. "Baby and Child" was published in 1946, four years after I was born; probably I was too old to be pampered into purgatory or wherever the "spare the rod, spoil the child" advocates of my day were saying "Spock babies" would go.

"The book" came to mind when Jim, a Florida correspondent probably still reeling under the influence of Hurricane Earl, told me the younger generation of parents is more permissive than we were. I was reminded of my mother who was aghast to see Dr. Spock on our bookshelf. She thought Spock had ruined an entire generation. OK, will those who believe Fred and Jennifer Hunt are ruined, please stand up. Opposed? Too close to call.

There was a difference between my mother and me. I had actually read Spock's book; most detractors have not, perhaps fearing ruination, rather like book censors in North Idaho today. I found him to be a voice of reason and trusted companion at 3 a.m. with a screaming baby on my shoulder and guilt and anger struggling for supremacy. Sometimes we could figure out why the little darling had driven everyone including the family dog to cover. Other times we could not - original sin, maybe? Spock generally had the answer. It sure as heck was not hunger, fever, dirty diaper or angst because Spock taught us parents how to diagnose and address those.

Benjamin Spock was perhaps the most misquoted American prior to Barack Obama. It goes with the territory. He opposed the war in Vietnam, was a proponent of leftist causes and got himself arrested on occasion. I know some local docs, an ophthalmologist and a pediatrician, who nearly followed in his footsteps; maybe they were Spock babies. Spock's critics sought to discredit his medicine by citing his politics and vice versa; the president probably feels some kinship when his detractors make spurious claims about his birth, religion, schooling and career in an effort to undermine his policies. In philosophy that is called an ad hominem argument, an attempt to discredit ideas by attacking the person espousing them. Baby doctors and presidents are not immune.

Spock advocated ideas out of the mainstream. Previously, experts said babies needed to sleep on schedule; picking them up when they cried would teach them to cry more. Parents were told to feed children on schedule, and avoid kissing or hugging them because affection undermines the ability to be a strong and independent individual in a harsh world. Spock encouraged parents to see their children as individuals and to avoid applying a one-size-fits-all philosophy. He gave a generation of parents his permission to cuddle kids; for such pronouncements he was labeled permissive. Those who read Spock knew he could be tough; witness his views on preventing a child getting out of the crib at night.

Somewhat out of character for me, I offer up some closing advice. Don't judge a Spock or a president by his ears or dog-ears. Take time to find out what really lies between the front cover of a book and the back, even when you have been told that might be bad for you. Go to William's Paint and buy a slightly narrower brush for your pronouncements and, kids, eat your vegetables! All kidding aside, I recommend Dr. Spock because babies have not changed much since I was helping to raise mine.

Tim Hunt, the son of a linotype operator, is a retired college professor and nonprofit administrator who lives in Hayden with his wife and three cats. He can be reached at

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