Spock, Benjamin (1903–1998)

Benjamin Spock was the most influential author of child-rearing advice of the twentieth century. His principal work, Baby and Child Care, went through seven editions, was translated into thirty-eight languages, and sold more than fifty million copies around the world. Aside from the Bible, it was the best-selling book of the century.

Spock was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of a successful corporate lawyer. He graduated from Yale, where he rowed on a varsity crew that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics, and from the medical school at Columbia. He studied at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and was the first psychoanalytically trained pediatrician in New York, where he maintained a private practice from 1933 to 1943.

His Park Avenue practice brought him overtures from publishers, who pressed him to write a book setting forth his distinctive combination of PEDIATRICS and CHILD PSYCHOLOGY. In 1946, he did. The first edition of Baby and Child Care began, as all the subsequent editions did, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do." It invited mothers to indulge their own impulses and their children's, assuring them on the basis of the latest scientific studies that it was safe to do so. In the process, it overturned the consensus of the previous generation of experts and authorized mothers to express their "natural" feelings toward their children. Spock's book was an immediate success both inside and outside of the United States.

Earlier advice, embodied in the convergence of JOHN WATSON's best-selling book and the U.S. government's Infant Care pamphlets, warned against parental deviation from rigid disciplinary schedules and undue display of fondness or physical affection. Spock urged spontaneity, warmth, and a fair measure of fun for parents and children alike. He pressed mothers to recognize that each child had to be treated differently.

Conservative critics later complained that Spock promoted what they called permissive child rearing. In one of the earliest expressions of the "culture wars" that marked the last quarter of the twentieth century, they held him responsible for the counterculture and the collapse of conventional morality. On their face, such charges were difficult to sustain. Spock never counseled permissiveness, and after the first edition he explicitly advised against it. But he did become progressive in his politics in the 1960s and after.

Even before the war in Vietnam, Spock warned against the dangers of nuclear testing and served as co-chairman of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, helped lead the march on the Pentagon in 1967, and was convicted and sentenced to jail for conspiracy to aid draft resisters in 1968. (His conviction was reversed on appeal.) He ran for president in 1972 as the candidate of the People's Party and continued his activism thereafter. Long after the age of seventy, he was arrested for protesting against a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire, against budget cuts at the White House, and against nuclear weapons at the Pentagon. Past the age of eighty, he still gave as many as a hundred talks a year on the nuclear arms race, as well as on pediatrics.

Spock's child-rearing advice changed as his political views and American family life evolved. In successive editions, he made a place for fathers as well as mothers in childcare, allowed new gender roles for boys and girls, acknowledged divorce and single PARENTING, and explicitly urged his readers toward a vegetarian lifestyle.

But the essentials of Spock's advice never changed. He always meant to write a guide for living more than a medical reference book. He challenged conventional notions of normality and sought to alleviate anxiety, in parents and children alike. He always offered reassurance, in the down-to-earth manner in which he set forth his advice. He had a genius for popularization. No one ever explained Freud better in everyday language. No one ever wrote more gender-neutral prose.

Even as he set himself in militant opposition to the status quo in politics, he endeavored to help parents accommodate their children to it in the society and economy they would encounter. However inadvertently, he pushed mothers and fathers to prepare children for the corporate bureaucracies in which they would make their careers. He emphasized the cooperativeness and congeniality that organizational life demands. He held that parents "owe it to the child to make him likeable" and that they had to make him be like others to be likeable. He never reconciled his dissident politics and his conformist approach to child rearing.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature.


Bloom, Lynn. 1972. Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Hulbert, Ann. 2003. Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Mitford, Jessica. 1969. The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Spock, Benjamin, and Mary Morgan. 1989. Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing Up with the Century. New York: Pantheon.

Zuckerman, Michael. 1993. "Doctor Spock: The Confidence Man." In Almost Chosen People: Oblique Biographies in the American Grain. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.