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Dr. Spock’s message still makes sense: `Trust yourself’

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America's baby doctor died the other day.

Dr. Benjamin Spock passed away March 15 - just a couple of months short of his 95th birthday and the publication of the seventh edition of his child-rearing "bible," "Baby and Child Care," first published in 1946.I, for one, will miss one of the best-known advice-givers of the 20th century.

Back in the mid-1980s, Dr. Spock, a spry man already in his 80s, visited Utah as a guest of the Intermountain Pediatric Society. I was assigned to follow him around. Now, 12 years later, I can still say Dr. Spock was one of the most charming and engaging people I've ever interviewed.

You don't have to tell me. I know Dr. Spock fell out of favor a generation ago. It was during what he called his second career as a political activist. Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew accused the famous pediatrician of corrupting an entire generation, my generation, with his "permissive" ways. The criticism was showered on Dr. Spock when he joined legions of his former "patients" on the front line in Vietnam War protests.

"He turned out to be a common criminal," Dr. Spock said of Agnew. "I think he had nerve telling me I was corrupting children."

That comment is why I liked him and why I remember him still. He said what he thought. And what he thought often had a true, common-sense ring to it.

Common sense was the basis for his best-selling book, which at 50 million books sold more copies than any other book except the Bible. He said he used what he learned from mothers to write it. Working from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., after a busy day with his pediatric practice, he took three years to write the first edition.

Over the years, despite revisions in his book to accommodate medical and sociological changes, Dr. Spock's message to parents was always the same: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you know."

So, why the permissive label? He urged moms to listen to their babies. For one thing, he changed how babies were fed. In my grandmother's day, infants were fed on a rigid schedule. Dr. Spock advocated feeding babies on demand - when they're hungry. It doesn't seem so revolutionary now. It was in the 1940s.

"Treat your children as you would a good friend" was his motto. But he didn't mean you should turn your household over to the little tykes. He said parents should be "firm, clear leaders but that doesn't involve meanness." He said parents should respect their children and ask for respect in return.

In 1985, when I interviewed him, I was a fairly new and inexperienced mother myself, with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. Then the fad in child rearing and education was to make your offspring into a "super baby." To give a child an academic head start, parents used flash cards to teach their toddler to read.

"Should I be doing that with my preschoolers?" I asked.


No hedging. No waffling. "We're not allowing children to be children," he said with typical Spock frankness.

This trend is an outgrowth of parental egotism, he added.


The pediatrician related how he'd watched a demonstration of 2-year-olds trying to read. The children looked uncomfortable and seemed under a great amount of stress. "I wouldn't want my children subjected to that unless it can be proved that starting to read at 3 will make them better at 9." It hasn't yet, he said.

My daughters learned to read well - without the benefit of flash cards at 3.

Dr. Spock said he had "gooseflesh up and down his spine" when he received letters from the parents who wanted him to study their supposedly brillant preschooler.

"I don't think a parent should try to make a child brilliant, into an athlete unless he wants to be, or stress the beauty of a little girl above all other characteristics. Children should be allowed to grow up as well-balanced as possible."

Dr. Spock believed kids should be what they want to be - from cradle to grave. That's what he did.