On Dr. Spock and Spanking

It was 1946, one year after the most titanic conflict in mankind’s history. Post-war America had been cruelly robbed of more than 400,000 young and tender men. Many of them would have been fathers of a future generation, had they not been shipped home in coffins, buried in shallow graves or simply blown into pieces by gunfire, shrapnel and explosives in a far away and foreign land.

At home, during another war to end all wars, life had been difficult and laborious for everyone. Shoes, appliances, razor blades, tires, heating oil, butter, cigarettes, beef, gasoline, and coffee, among other things, had been rationed. People had had to face waiting lines at the grocery store, the butcher shop, and the gas station. Women had had to work in factories to produce weapons and supplies for the soldiers on the war front. There had been lots of hard work for everyone, including farmers; but nevertheless, life had gone on. Everyone had had to support the war effort. Everyone had had to work together, especially families. Now, after two decades of world war and depression, it was time to grow, time to build and restore. The years that followed the war blossomed into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity.

And so came the postwar baby boom, as it is sometimes called, giving rise to the “baby boomer” generation. It was on this scenario that Dr. Benjamin Spock published his book on childcare. America’s parents turned to Dr. Spock for advice and guidance. It became the best-selling nonfiction to have ever been published, second to the Bible. Filled with practical advice on how to care for children from the cradle to youth, Dr. Spock’s book became the childrearing Bible of the baby boomer generation.

Dr. Benjamin Spock graduated at the top of his class at Columbia University's medical school and worked for ten years as a pediatrician before writing “Baby and Child Care.” Dr. Spock’s advice came like rain on a dry and parched land. America’s young, postwar families were ready and eager to hear what Dr. Spock had to say. Most American mothers from then on brought up their children with Dr. Spock’s book by their side.

Now why was that? Where was all the good advice of America’s older generation? Surely there were other books containing such advice on the market besides Dr. Spock’s, so what made it different and so desirable? Before and during the war, childrearing practices were guided by role modeling parents whose strict upbringing, high expectations and moralist traditions had patterned families for generations. The belt, the long, wooden kitchen spoon and, often, the hand were commonly used in daily spankings and slappings. Various books on childcare that tended toward strictness and behavioral conditioning had become common. As a mother who lived during the war declares:

My first child was born in 1940 in New York City when the strict "feed the baby on a schedule-- don't pick him up-- start toilet training him as soon as you get him home from the hospital" regime was in effect. Poor unhappy baby.1

During the late 1920’s John B. Watson's well-respected book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, made popular Mr. Watson’s rigorous views on childcare. His pessimistic declarations of the dangers a mother’s affection could pose to a child reflect much of the general attitude prevalent in America towards children.

"Mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never healing wound . . . which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter's vocational future and their chances for marital happiness." Parents were advised to "never hug or kiss [their children]. Never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when you say goodnight.”2

Mr. Watson, it is reported, even advocated aluminum gloves and tying a child to his bed to stop him from sucking his thumb. His book and his views were treated as authoritative in many hospitals, and it seems that such was the case at the hospital where Dr. Spock began work as a pediatrician and where he worked for ten years.

It is no wonder that Dr. Spock reacted with indignation at what he might have seen as the austere, harsh and arbitrary parenting of the past decades. In his search for a new and better way to love and rear children, he turned to Freud and his notions of the human psyche, studying at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, to explain the motivating factors surrounding breast-feeding, toilet training, spanking and a whole host of factors that determine a child’s developmental behavior.

He, over a period of years, came to the conclusion that a parent should not approach family dynamics and childrearing from an authoritarian perspective. In other words, a parent should shy away from telling a child he was wrong for his disobedient conduct, or, for that matter, any socially unacceptable behavior. His psychoanalytic approach to disobedience or misconduct, after he published his book, would lead parents to identify why the child had been disobedient; that is, identify its causes, search them out and seek to compensate for what might have been the cause.

Dr. Spock’s folksy bedside manner, his common sense approach to seemingly complicated concepts, and his soft, friendly “un-authoritarian” – yet fatherly – writing style candy-coated Freud’s often vulgar terminology and concepts, concepts which would have sounded immoral and animalistic to a nation with a Puritanical history like America. It is clear that Dr. Spock’s genius lies precisely in applying Freud’s principles to a practical situation such as childrearing, and eventually bringing what was to become a whole way of thinking into American culture.

Trust Yourself”

Dr. Spock’s conclusions led him to underpin his practical advices with humanistic positivism. As a thematic prelude, for instance, he begins his book with the exhortation, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” With this declaration he builds the parents’ self-esteem and confidence in themselves, so as to say that the ways and wherefores of childrearing were innately contained in a good, though fallible, parental human nature. In reality, rather than having parents control their children’s behavior with discipline, he would have parents be sensitive guidance counselors to their child’s own inherent goodness.

Anyone who reads Dr. Spock’s book will immediately note that this is Dr. Spock’s agenda. He was not only positively encouraging parents to decide for themselves what was best for their child, relying heavily on their intuition and his advice to sense the different phases their child will inevitably pass through, but to build that same self-esteem in their children. Throughout his book he makes it clear that clear, positive reinforcement of what was innately and naturally in a child would do a finer job of raising the child than the type of behavioral conditioning that seem to dominate the teachings and practices of the day.

Dr. Spock noticeably shies away from authoritarian statements, probably due to his aversion to the cold authoritarianism of the day. His tone is very much like that of a counselor, an advisor attempting to be impartial, but making very practical suggestions. Sometimes, when the subject may have been a bit controversial, he nearly contradicts himself in an effort to present both sides. However this may appear to some, it was precisely the “cup of fresh, cold water” that refreshed thirsty American parents who had for many years questioned the coldness of their own parents.

Leaning far, perhaps too far, to the left of the authoritarian practices espoused by Dr. Adams and others of the day who had based their notions on studies in behaviorism, Dr. Spock encouraged parents to treat their offspring with respect and affection rather “than arm themselves with leather belts put to use at the first sign of disobedience.”3 He exhorted them to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals, whereas the previous conventional wisdom had been that childrearing should focus on building discipline, and that, e.g., babies should not be "spoiled" by picking them up when they cried.4

Many feel that Dr. Spock actually told parents not to spank their children. Although he never makes such a statement in his book, some claim that, in effect, he did.

As a 48-year old baby-boomer, I think there is a lot of misplaced adulation over the legacy of Benjamin Spock. He succeeded in "screwing up" an entire generation of kids. He truly was the parent of the 60's protest generation. But, here is where he really blew it, by telling parents NOT TO SPANK their kids. This created a generation of spoiled, self-indulgent brats who had no real discipline in their lives.

I saw the results of Spock's permissive child-rearing philosophy in the lives of my friends. They all have shattered, broken lives, broken marriages, broken relationships.5

Spock’s readers and followers object to such drastic accusations saying that he is often misunderstood or misread by his critics. They even claim that he encouraged disciplinary measures, including some spanking. Perhaps they are referring to the following quote from Dr. Spock’s revised edition of his book:

I’m not particularly advocating spanking, but I think it is less poisonous than lengthy disapproval, because it clears the air, for parents and child.6

For those who admire Dr. Spock and the ambiguous or ambivalent statements which permeate his book (“On the other hand” is a common phrase.), the phrase, “I’m not particularly advocating spanking” might be construed to mean Dr. Spock had a measure of sympathy for spankings, and it is true that he left some room and certainly some advice for those who would, nevertheless, spank; but to anyone with eyes to see, the injected terms “less poisonous” will certainly indicate a rather serpentine disapproval, for they would contend that “less poisonous” is still poisonous!

Whether Dr. Spock said to spank or not to spank can become a heated debate and could distract from the real meaning of the controversy surrounding him. It is sufficient to say that, in view of his own words and testimony, which can be read in books written by those who knew him, and in his own autobiography, Dr. Spock thoroughly taught a whole philosophy or world perspective that undermined the need for any kind of physical discipline of the sort commonly called “spanking.” It is because of this lack that many claim he told parents not to spank.

It would be unfair, though to say that he was totally anti-discipline. He writes about something he called “punishment,” but only as a last resort and reinforcement for what he calls “firmness”; that is, to make sure a child knew his parents “meant what they said.”7

It is interesting to note that some have interpreted Dr. Spock’s writings to mean that children should have their needs instantly gratified. Although Dr. Spock’s admirers would certainly point out that this takes the theme too far, during the late 60's Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, speaking from his church in New York, blamed Dr. Spock for the demonstrations and the laxity of the youth and young adults of that decade. He said, "That the U.S. was paying the price of two generations that followed the Dr. Spock baby plan of instant gratification of needs."

So was Dr. Spock the father of permissiveness in childcare, as some have called him? Was he really a “liberal,” as others have penned him? The answer to such questions depends on how you understand Dr. Spock. His books tell the story.

The Extent of his Influence

Without a doubt, the shear number of books Dr. Spock sold is a statement in itself. He was influential, so much so, that the postwar generation known as the “baby boomers” also became known as the Spock Generation – and Dr. Spock could be fondly called by those who followed him, “Father.”

Father? What does it mean to be a father? Does it mean, in a sense, “leader”? Could we say that, in a very real way, Dr. Spock stepped into a social vacuum and inadvertently took a role as teacher and leader to a whole generation of mothers who had very little idea about how to care for and rear their children? The following testimonial from “Seaweed" of Fairmont, MN, illustrates and supports the point made:

I was an only child, as were many of my contemporaries. The Great Depression began exactly a year after I was born. I'm sure that this contributed to the many one-child families I grew up with. I had NO child care experience when I plunged into Motherhood with such uninformed enthusiasm in 1951. I knew nothing, and was convinced that my efforts would be judged on the open stage of the baby-centered society of those years. I felt as if the responsibility of the Ages was on my shoulders, and I was completely bewildered. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to approach parenting in exactly the opposite way that my own mother had, but I had no idea of what that might mean.8

And more, Susan Bunkers of Huntington Beach, CA writes:

I was a military wife, far from relatives and other support systems in the mid to late sixties. Baby and Child Care was my child rearing bible. Dr. Spock was consulted on everything; weaning, toilet training, fevers, rashes and, yes, discipline. We had no telephone at home, so help was not easily accessible, and advice from my mother was at least two weeks away! Dr. Spock was more familiar than my pediatrician, and more trusted! I say God Bless Dr. Spock, he got me through many crises, I shall miss him.9

Later, after the children of the baby boomers became youth, Dr. Spock took his stand with those he vicariously “reared.”

He marched alongside "his" kids to protest the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation.10

Dr. Spock carried his ideas even further, right into the morality and cultural values of America. Taking his stand with his “kids” landed him right into the politics of the day, where he confronted and opposed the same “authoritarianism” he had found in family life. It has become clear throughout the years that Dr. Spock and others who followed him in teaching the therapeutic parenting model were out to revolutionize not only the relationship between parents and their children, but society itself, over two or three generations, by agency of the family.11 Dr. Spock took to the streets with Dr. Martin Luther King, butting heads with the “establishment,” and even made a bid for the capitol, by running for president with the People’s Party, a coalition of various political parties with liberal and socialist agendas, in 1972.

Judging by the political party Dr. Spock ran with, by social issues he stood for during this period, it is obvious to many that he was a political liberal and a socialist. Some would even call him “communist” with a subversive agenda. It comes out in his baby book, they say, noting his pacifism and plea for a peaceful future for children and their parents.

But to his admirers, his “permissiveness” was the antibiotic cure to a pathological trend in childcare and rearing that was producing neurotic and addicted adults, trends that interpreted discipline and spanking as harsh and abusive. It is not hard to understand Dr. Spock’s so-called permissiveness in light of the lack of respect and dignity assigned to children in the days during and before the Second World War, but the end result of this way of thinking taught parents the notion that their children, when they misbehaved, were unhappy, not morally disobedient.

Such thinking excuses children from guilt, and does away with any sense of moral responsibility. Children, then, no matter how badly they behave, were not to be treated sternly, but were to be counseled. Parents were left to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis. They had no authority to dictate matters, only a democracy among equals, a social contract where parents and children had equal say-so in all matters.

It is clear to most people that Spock’s book undermines parental authority, the foundation of all childrearing and, if properly understood, all societies and nations. Dr. Spock had no understanding of true authority and its role in human affairs, therefore it is no wonder that he was called permissive. Dr. Spock, for all his love of babies, threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Nature of Authority

The Creator, whom most people call “God,” is authority and has delegated to men and women, in marriage, authority over their children, expecting them to not only be role models for their children, to not only give them affection, encouragement and positive reinforcement for their good behavior, as Dr. Spock would say, but to lead and guide them into the ways of justice and respect for their fellow man.12

Discipline, which includes spanking, was always meant to be done in love,13 and of course, never with anything but a simple “rod,” defined as a “reed-like instrument.” This means that all discipline would be clear of the elements of frustration, impatience and vindictiveness, so that the correction, as it may be called, would always conform to the proper notions of “love.” When discipline is administered in love, it strengthens respect for authority.

As he himself confesses, Dr. Spock was not a religious man. He may or may not have believed in a supreme being, and this may partially account for his lack of understanding of true authority. On the other hand, his observations of abusive authority may have led him to treat the subject of childrearing as he did. In his reaction against the insensitivity and lack of respect for children he saw in his early days as a pediatrician, he did much to annul natural parental authority in the lives of thousands of children.

Strict authority is really better than no authority at all. Better yet, what has become cold and oppressive must be corrected and set into place, not undermined and done away with. Authority is from God, the Creator.14 Good authority will always encourage and reward what is good, but correct, discipline and punish what is bad and inappropriate.15 Honoring authority furnishes structure to life, especially parental authority, which leads the way to respect for all other authority.

Any violation of this principle results in impunity, that is, disruptive and pathological social behavior resulting from a lack of fear. Inconsequential behavior is rooted in impunity, meaning, there is no account given, and no price is paid for misbehavior.

Dr. Spock did not set things straight. He did not put the house in order and teach parents their natural roles in the family. He taught parents to meet their children’s psychological needs, but he did not teach them to give their children true purpose for their lives. Most certainly, as an unreligious man, he would have felt out of place doing so. Yet without true purpose, all love, affection, approval and behavioral reinforcement will fail to produce truly psychologically healthy human beings. This is why parents have to wield authority in their children’s lives. They must tell them who they are and guide them on the path they should walk on. They must give them moral values and show them where their lives will lead them. This, then, is true love and affection – not cold, harsh and authoritarian, not permissively tepidly mushy, but warm, loving authority.16

America today is, in no doubt, facing unprecedented rises in misconduct, criminally irresponsible acts, and other kinds of pathological social behavior. Children take guns to school, steal, murder each other, and commit violent sexual crimes – things unheard of during the years preceding the World Wars.

There are many investigations being carried out to discover the sources of the declining well-being of American children. Some of these researchers have reached conclusions that point to the decline of parental authority in the family as the root cause of the current chaotic behavior in children, teenagers and adults. They point to Dr. Spock as the one who took away the parental role as authorities in the lives of their children. However unintentionally he may have done it, he will certainly have to account for it. There have been over 90,000,000 copies of his book sold, and there is a whole generation of adults who claim him as teacher. Their lives and their deeds even now demand a verdict, and evidence abounds.

Conclusion

Baby boomers presently make up the lion's share of the political, cultural, industrial and academic leadership class in the United States. Take, for example, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, born within sixty days of each other in mid-1946. These men are the first and second Baby Boomer presidents. Was Dr. Spock present in some way in their lives? The generation Dr. Spock marched with in protest to the Vietnam War and the draft, the generation of The Beatles, The Motown Sound, and Hippies, are these not Dr. Spock’s children? What will be said of them thirty years from now? Where are they headed? And to where will they lead the American people?

As time does it’s job “telling,” and as Dr. Spock’s sons and daughters “strut and fret their hour upon the stage,”17 and take their turn at the helm of good ship America; as the world’s wheat field colors with the telltale signs of the ripening fruit of a generation, one’s mind turns to the profoundly wise saying, “You shall know them by their fruits.”18

 

1 Lillian Adams of Carbondale, IL quoted from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march98/spock.html

2 Quoted from http://www.snopes.com/mebbdical/doctor/drspock.htm (Urban Legends Reference Pages)

3 Quoted from http://www.snopes.com/mebbdical/doctor/drspock.htm (Urban Legends Reference Pages)

4 Quoted from Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Spock

5 Dale Yancy of Nashua, NH, quoted from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march98/spock.html

6 From Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare, 1976 Edition, Section 528 on Managing Young Children: Discipline, page 373

7 Ibid, page 374

8 Quoted from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march98/spock.html

9 Ibid

10 Quoted from http://www.yaleherald.com/archive/xxv/3.27.98/sports/spock.html

11 From Assault on Parenthood, by Dana Mack, 1997, “The Parent as Pariah,” page 34.

12 Genesis 18:19, Ephesians 6:1-2

13 Proverbs 13:24

14 Romans 13:1

15 Romans 13:2-5

16 Proverbs 13:24, 22:6

17 From Macbeth by William Shakespeare

18 Matthew 7:16-20

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