Dr. Benjamin Spock, pediatrician to America's baby boomers, has passed. He will be remembered fondly, I'm sure, by my mother -- for whom Spock's "Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" was a bible during my tender years -- and most of her generation. Unfortunately, Spock will not be remembered accurately by most living Americans.
In the late '60s, because of his activist opposition to the Vietnam War, he became a convenient target of propaganda. The slander peaked in 1969, when Vice President Spiro Agnew accused Spock of promoting permissive child-rearing ideas, causing us baby boomers to grow up without respect for authority.
The fact is, Spock didn't really dispense much disciplinary advice. His book, if published today, probably would be titled "Dr. Spock's Pediatrics for Parents." I read my mother's copy one day, highlighting those sections in which the good doctor gave guidance on behavioral matters. The book is nearly 300 pages in length. I highlighted less than 20 pages worth.
Most of the book is devoted to such things as helping parents tell the difference between roseola and measles, take their children's temperatures, and decide whether to feed with breast or bottle.
When Spock talks about discipline, he is the voice of tradition and common sense, and his advice reflects a balance of love and firmness. In response to tantrums, he tells parents to walk away, as if the child's screams were of no consequence whatsoever. While he backs away from advocating spankings, Spock says a swift swat or two to a child's rear end can clear the air, and is preferred to a long-winded parental harangue. Do not explain yourself to a child, he says, because your explanation will only lead to a non-productive argument. Insist upon no less than obedience. And so on.
This is not permissive advice. It is right on. No, the architects of permissive parenting, full of gooey sentiment and romantic babble, came later, after Spock's star had started to wane.
In my estimation, the best piece of advice Spock ever gave was that the best parents take good care of themselves. They have to do so, he said, to take good care of their children. Spock described them as taking their parenting responsibilities seriously, but not taking children very seriously at all.
Most importantly, they know the difference between keeping a watchful eye and becoming obsessed. Today's parents, especially today's mothers, who seem to believe that the busiest mother -- the one with the worst case of tunnel vision -- is the best mother, would do well to take Spock's common sense to heart.
My wife, Willie, and I used my mother's copy of Spock to make accurate "midnight diagnoses" of several early childhood illnesses. It was most reassuring, when Eric was 5 months old, to learn from Spock that his constant screaming was due not to bad parenting, but to colic. For those things, and more, we will be forever grateful.
A Miami Herald columnist once called me "the anti-Spock." I had to laugh. If anything, I am Son of Spock. We probably would not have agreed on everything, but we certainly would have agreed that 40 years of parent-babble from mental health professionals has done more harm than good.
If Spock's was the only book on child rearing, America would be a better place today, I'm sure. May he rest in the peace he was often denied while he was with us.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at www.rosemond.com/parenting.