October 13, 2015 23:00 UTC

Dr. Spock, 1903-1998: The World’s Most Famous Baby Doctor

Dr. Spock holds a baby at a Boston baby fair in April 1993. The birthday cake was presented to Dr. Spock to celebrate his 90th birthday
Dr. Spock holds a baby at a Boston baby fair in April 1993. The birthday cake was presented to Dr. Spock to celebrate his 90th birthday


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FAITH LAPIDUS: I’m Faith Lapidus.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember with People in America in VOA Special English.  Today we tell about the world’s most famous doctor for children, Benjamin Spock.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Benjamin Spock’s first book caused a revolution in the way American children were raised. His book, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” was published in nineteen forty-six. The book gave advice to parents of babies and young children. The first lines of the book are famous. Dr. Spock wrote: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do”.

STEVE EMBER: This message shocked many parents. For years, mothers had been told that they should reject their natural feelings about their babies. Before Dr. Spock’s book appeared, the most popular guide to raising children was called “Psychological Care of Infant and Child.” The book’s writer, John B. Watson, urged extreme firmness in dealing with children. The book called for a strong structure of rules in families. It warned parents never to kiss, hug or physically comfort their children.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Dr. Spock’s book was very different. He gave gentle advice to ease the fears of new parents. Dr. Spock said his work was an effort to help parents trust their own natural abilities in caring for their children.

Dr. Benjamin Spock revised his legendary best-selling "Baby and Child Care" book many times
Dr. Benjamin Spock revised his legendary best-selling "Baby and Child Care" book many times

DR. SPOCK: “I was always trying to lean in the direction of reassuring parents.”

Dr. Spock based much of his advice on the research and findings of the famous Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud.

DR. SPOCK: “Freud was interested in where is the origin of neuroses, I was interested in the other side of it, how do children grow emotionally. And I think Freud has given us a very good explanation of the stages of development.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: Dr. Spock’s book discusses the mental and emotional development of children. It urges parents to use that information to decide how to deal with their babies when they are crying, hungry, or tired.

For example, Dr. Spock dismissed the popular idea of exactly timed feedings for babies. Baby care experts had believed that babies must be fed at the same times every day or they would grow up to be demanding children.

Dr. Spock said babies should be fed when they are hungry. He argued that babies know better than anyone about when and how much they need to eat. He did not believe that feeding babies when they cry in hunger would make them more demanding.       He also believed that showing love to babies by hugging and kissing them would make them happier and more secure.


STEVE EMBER: “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” examined the emotional and physical growth of children. Dr. Spock said he did not want to just tell a parent what to do. He said he tried to explain what children generally are like at different times in their development so parents would know what to expect.

Dr. Spock’s book did not receive much notice from the media when it was published in nineteen forty- six. Yet, seven hundred fifty thousand copies of the book were sold during the year after its release. Dr. Spock began receiving many letters of thanks from mothers around the country.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Dr. Spock considered his mother, Mildred Spock, to be the major influence on his personal and professional life. He said his ideas about how parents should act were first formed because of her. He reacted to the way in which his mother cared for him and his brother and sisters.

In the first printing of his legendary book there was no mention of pregnancy or drug abuse. Dr. Spock said the addition of those topics later was a new and startling change
In the first printing of his legendary book there was no mention of pregnancy or drug abuse. Dr. Spock said the addition of those topics later was a new and startling change

Dr. Spock described his mother as extremely controlling. He said she believed all human action was the result of a physical health issue or a moral one. She never considered her children’s actions were based on emotional needs.

DR. SPOCK: “And though some people have said I suppose this book is a protest against the way you were brought up, well that’s only about a third of it.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: Dr. Spock later argued against this way of thinking. Yet, he praised his mother’s trust of her own knowledge of her children. In his book, “Spock on Spock,” he wrote about his mother’s ability to correctly identify her children’s sicknesses when the doctors were wrong.

DR. SPOCK: “I think that my interest in children, devotion to children and those of my sisters and brother were all because my mother was totally devoted to her children. So I think that’s part of where I got launched from, I cared a lot about children, but I think I also thought there must be easier ways, more pleasant ways to bring up children than the rather severe oppressive way that my mother used.”


STEVE EMBER: Benjamin Spock was born in nineteen-oh-three. He was the first of six children. The Spock family lived in New Haven, Connecticut. His father was a successful lawyer. Benjamin was a quiet child. He attended Phillips Academy, a private school in Andover, Massachusetts. Later he attended Yale University in New Haven. He joined a sports team at Yale that competed in rowing boats. In nineteen twenty-four, he and his team members competed in rowing at the Olympic Games in Paris, France. They won the gold medal.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Benjamin Spock worked at a camp for disabled children for three summers during his years at Yale. He said the experience probably led to his decision to enter medical school. He began at Yale Medical School, but he completed his medical degree at Columbia University in New York City. He graduated as the best student in his class in nineteen twenty-nine.

Benjamin Spock had married Jane Cheney during his second year in medical school. They later had two sons, Michael and John.

Dr. Spock began working as a pediatrician, treating babies and children in New York City in nineteen thirty-three. During the next ten years he tried to fit the theories about how children develop with what mothers told him about their children. In nineteen forty-three, a publisher asked him to write a book giving advice to parents. He finished the book by writing at night during his two years of service in the United States Navy.

Jane Spock helped her husband produce the first version of “Baby and Child Care.” She typed the book from his notes and spoken words.


STEVE EMBER: During the nineteen fifties, Dr. Spock became famous. He wrote several other books. He wrote articles for a number of magazines. He appeared on television programs. He taught at several universities. And he gave speeches around the country to talk to parents about their concerns.

During this time, he discovered things he wanted to change in the book. He wanted to make sure parents knew that they should have control over their children and expect cooperation from them. So, in nineteen fifty-seven the second version of the book was published. He continued to make changes to “Baby and Child Care” throughout his life.

Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke at a meeting for "Peace in Vietnam" in Fair Lawn, N.J in 1968
Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke at a meeting for "Peace in Vietnam" in Fair Lawn, N.J in 1968

FAITH LAPIDUS: In the nineteen sixties, Benjamin Spock began to be active in politics. He supported John F. Kennedy in his campaign for president. He joined a group opposed to the development of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Spock also took part in demonstrations to protest the Vietnam War. In nineteen sixty-eight, he was found guilty of plotting to aid men who were refusing to join the American armed forces.

STEVE EMBER: Dr. Spock appealed the ruling against him. Finally, it was cancelled. However, the legal battle cost Doctor Spock a lot of money. The events damaged public opinion of the once very trusted children’s doctor. Fewer people bought his books. Some people said Dr. Spock’s teachings were to blame for the way young people in the nineteen sixties and seventies rebelled against the rules of society. A leading American religious thinker of that time called Dr. Spock “the father of permissiveness.”

In nineteen seventy-two, Dr. Spock decided to seek election as president of the United States. He was the candidate of the small “People’s Party.”

He spoke out on issues concerning working families, children and minorities. Dr. Spock received about seventy-five thousand votes in the election that Richard Nixon won.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Dr. Spock’s marriage had been suffering for some time. For years, Jane Spock drank too much alcohol and suffered from depression. She reportedly felt her husband valued his professional and political interests more than he valued her. In nineteen seventy-five, Benjamin and Jane Spock ended their forty-eight-year marriage. One year later, Mary Morgan became his second wife.

STEVE EMBER: More than fifty million copies of Dr. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care” book have been sold since it was published. It has been translated into thirty-nine languages. The eighth edition was published in two thousand four.

Benjamin Spock died in nineteen ninety-eight at the age of ninety-four. Yet his advice continues to affect the lives of millions of children and their parents.


FAITH LAPIDUS: This program was written by Caty Weaver. It was produced by Jill Moss. I’m Faith Lapidus.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another People in America program in VOA Special English.


Sound of Dr. Spock taken from a 1982 interview on “The Alternative Information Network”, produced by Frank Morrow

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