The Doc in the Hat

Snapshots of family life.
March 20 1998 3:30 AM

The Doc in the Hat

Dr. Spock's salutary messes.

As preschoolers, my children briefly confused Dr. Spock with Dr. Seuss, whom they assumed to be a cat with a stovepipe hat. America's household pediatrician as the Cat in the Hat: The image is unwittingly apt, linking two upstart heroes in the baby boomer pantheon. A mother's helper with a bag of tricks that promised new fun for the housebound, Dr. Benjamin Spock arrived on the postwar scene first. His Baby and Child Care was published in 1946. It revealed his gift for juggling the unbalanceable demands of life with children, and for sounding serenely jaunty as he did it. It goes without saying that Spock, like the acrobatic Cat, proved immensely popular and has remained so. What is perhaps less obvious is that, much as the Cat made sure his messes were temporary, Spock was not as subversive as lore suggests.

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Spock's purported iconoclasm is twofold. First, he is typically hailed (or, rarely now, condemned) as a revolutionary who emboldened postwar parents to rebel against the stern behaviorist style that had prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s. The truth is somewhat different. Like most wildly popular figures, he was riding a wave, not bucking the tide. His genial Freudian approach fit right in with the reigning sociological wisdom, which championed the democratic, "affectionate" family as the welcome successor to the hierarchical home of the past. Reviewers of the first edition of Baby and Child Care praised its don't rock the boat (but do rock the cradle) tone. Spock, the American Journal of Public Health marveled, "has succeeded to an amazing degree in striking a middle ground in his advice." That advice was seen to "typify the present-day departure from rigidity in schedules and training."

Second, Spock is renowned for an unprecedentedly confidence-inspiring pitch. "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do," he told his readers. Instead of struggling to "do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry," he counseled, try to relax and be flexible. Children, trust them, have "a deep desire to grow up to be like the parents they admire and love." Yet the message of simple reassurance turned out to be more complicated, as Spock himself quickly discovered. The first expert to say, "Don't be overawed by what the experts say," became an expert of awesome influence overnight. (His book sold three-quarters of a million copies in its first year, without advertising.) Flattered, Spock was also flustered to discover just how dependent on his advice his fans had become. Was parental autonomy weakening on his own watch?

Spock frequently claimed that fears about "permissiveness" first surfaced in 1968, voiced by critics of his antiwar activism. In fact, as early as in the second edition of his classic, in 1957, he was worried that parents might be flailing. They weren't friendly yet firm, as he had recommended. They were confused and hesitant, overawed by their children. The son of an imposing Victorian matriarch himself, he was surprised at how wobbly modern mothers seemed.

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O ne mother stunned him by writing, "Don't you realize that when you always emphasize that a child basically wants to behave well, and will behave well if he is handled wisely, you make the parent feel responsible for everything that goes wrong?"

Spock took the question personally. He also astutely recognized it as a midcentury symptom of a "fascinating and somewhat mysterious phenomenon, this one of the parents of America being this nervous about doing right by their children." In our anti-traditional culture, older generations had tended to be ambivalent about their authority over younger ones. But now the swift pace of technological change left parents less equipped than ever to prepare their children for the future, even as children needed the preparation more desperately. Science--in particular, psychology, Spock's own specialty--held out a promise of newly fine-tuned control over their development.

Parents understandably felt under pressure, and Spock was the rare expert who acknowledged their bewilderment. From then on, ministering to 20th century parental uneasiness became his real métier. Even in its first edition, his manual was more encyclopedic than others, packed with up-to-date medical and practical advice delivered in down-to-earth prose. He saw to it that, over the years, it remained so. Just as important, he became even more solicitously therapeutic. In a field intent on claiming objective, "scientific" status, he didn't hesitate to admit that doctrinaire ideas shifted, conflicted, and could be disorienting.

Spock's own simplistic Freudian perspective, with its emphasis on childhood Oedipal dramas and the wonders of sublimation, sounds more quaint every year. It's his handling of the ambiguities of parenthood that is timeless. Called a "confidence man" by one impatient critic, Spock indeed made a specialty of delivering mixed messages to his insecure audience.

He set out in his book to calm parents, in the process stirring up their anxiety. He urged them to rely on their instincts, and went on to supply them with minute instructions. He emphasized children's resilience, and was quick to suggest that problems require a specialist's assistance. He started out psychologizing, and ended up moralizing. Through it all, he prescribed spontaneity, an oxymoronic endeavor if ever there was one.

But Spock's equivocations were not evasions. On the contrary, they call attention to a truth less honest advisers have preferred to obscure and parents only half want to hear: that child rearing is a messy art of compromise and contradictions, full of uncertainty. It is not a streamlined science. Spock did not cure American mothers and fathers of their impossible dream of being "professional" parents equipped with the developmentally correct answers. But he played an important part in bringing realism to child rearing by being an unapologetic improviser himself.

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