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Making History

Dr. Benjamin Spock

Child-rearing guru, anti-war activist and presidential candidate

Today, when the name of Dr. Benjamin Spock comes up, people most often think of him as something of a guru on the subject of child rearing.

What many may have forgotten is that Spock was also a pervasive figure in the 1960s anti-war movement, an advocate for nuclear disarmament and even a presidential candidate.

While his critics were many, especially regarding his anti-war stance, Spock could never be accused of being anything less than a colorful figure in medicine and American politics.

A pediatrician who received his M.D. from Columbia University in 1929 and taught pediatrics, psychiatry and child development, Spock published his landmark book, Baby and Child Care, in 1946, updating it periodically to take into account changing demographics and social conditions.

The book was a major best-seller and became a kind of manifesto for child rearing for decades. It repudiated the authoritarian ideal of child rearing, replete with concepts such as corporal punishment, that had been the model in previous generations, urging parental flexibility and common sense.

Whereas previous tomes on child rearing told parents to adhere to a strict feeding schedule and admonished them not to pick their children up when they cried, Spock urged parents to trust their instincts and advocated a kinder, gentler philosophy in raising infants and children.

Spock’s political side was manifested in his opposition to the Vietnam War. He actively participated in anti-war protests, aligning himself with the youth movement in the 1960s, marching and demonstrating against the war and incurring the wrath of conservatives, who accused him of “permissiveness” and claimed that he “ruined” a generation of youthful Americans. Many branded him unpatriotic for his outspokenness. He campaigned for such controversial causes as a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing and was an early proponent of Medicare, which put him at odds with the American Medical Association.

After he formally retired from medical practice in 1967, Spock continued his social activism and writing. In addition to Baby and Child Care, Spock published several other volumes and many articles on child care and rearing. In 1970, he published Decent and Indecent: Our Personal and Political Behavior and A Teenager’s Guide to Life and Love.

In 1968 Spock was put on trial, along with several other war protesters, for conspiracy, the prosecution alleging he had counseled young people to resist the draft. He was convicted but was exonerated on appeal due to insufficient evidence.

As an outgrowth of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Spock ran for president on the People’s Party ticket in 1972, an election Richard M. Nixon won by a landslide.

Criticized by feminists, who found his original book on baby and child care sexist because it made assumptions that the stay-at-home mother of the times was the primary caregiver for children, Spock demonstrated his flexibility by coming out with a revision in 1976, deleting what he deemed “sexist” content and acknowledging a need for a greater sharing by fathers in raising children.

Suffering from chronic bronchitis, Spock had a stroke in 1989, the same year in which he, in collaboration with his second wife, Mary, published an autobiography, Spock on Spock. His final book, A Better World For Our Children, which explored the relationship between child rearing and politics, was published in 1994.

Spock died on March 15, 1998 in La Jolla, Calif., at the age of 94.

About the Author

Frank Kourt is a semi-retired communications professional. In addition to KY Doc, his work is featured regularly in The Richmond Register and the Madison County Advertiser, and he is a contributing writer for Living Well 50-Plus.

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