‘Parents take parenting far too seriously’

The widow of Dr Benjamin Spock – author of the Bible of parenting guides: Baby and Child Care – says he would be horrified by today’s avalanche of advice for mums and dads.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

‘What we’ve done with experts in parenting is to tell people that they don’t know anything, and they have to rely on somebody that’s done this and done that. We undermine some of the greatest wisdom we’ve had handed to us: what we know intuitively. I’m not saying that the experts are wrong. I just think that this attitude has weakened the self-confidence of parents.’

Mary Morgan, widow of the late Dr Benjamin Spock, thinks the tidal wave of advice for parents – those hundreds of books about ‘perfect parenting’, ‘idiot parenting’ and all the rest – is threatening to wash away the joy of raising children. After I wrote a piece titled ‘Monitoring mums and dads’ for spiked in May, I received an inbox full of emails from parents who shared my concerns about the phenomenon of intensive parenting. The most interesting letter of all came from Morgan, who agreed to talk to me about her concerns.

For the benefit of those who grew up after the 1970s, Dr Benjamin Spock was without doubt the most famous childcare expert of the postwar era. His first manual for parents, Baby and Child Care, has been translated into 39 languages and has sold over 50million copies worldwide. There was a time when it was a dog-eared fixture in every American home, and it is second only to the Bible in terms of non-fiction sales. My own mother recalls reading Baby and Child Care in the dead of the night, babe in arms. ‘It was the only thing that got me through those years’, she tells me.

Dr Spock’s book marked a break from the behaviourists of earlier eras, who advocated strict routines, harsh discipline and berated parents for their ignorance. Spock encouraged parents to treat their children as individuals, to be flexible and affectionate. He offered useful information and insights into children’s behaviour. His most famous piece of advice, and the thing that endeared him to generations of parents, was Baby and Child Care’s opening phrase: ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.’

Dr Spock led a fascinating life. In addition to his numerous books, he wrote columns for national magazines, was active in the struggle against the Vietnam War and in other political causes, and he once even ran for president.

Dr Benjamin Spock and Mary
Morgan aboard one of their boats.
(Photo used with kind permission
of Mary Morgan.)

Over the years his work reflected the changes in American society, shifting its emphasis from time to time and adapting to new concerns such as divorce, single parenting and step-parents. In 1976, he revolutionised the way childcare books were written by updating Baby and Child Care – with Morgan’s help – so that it reflected women’s changing status in American society; he purged it of sexist language and assumptions. The book, currently in its eighth edition and with a new co-author, is a 967-page phonebook-like tome, filled with kindly advice on everything from croup to the special challenges of lesbian and gay parents.

Sixty-one years after the first publication of Baby and Child Care, at a time when lists more than 35,000 books under the category ‘Parenting and Families’ – including titles such as Playful Parenting, Perfect Parenting and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bringing up Baby – Dr Spock’s widow takes time out from her summer holiday in Maine to talk to me, arguing: ‘Parents take parenting far too seriously.’

‘When Baby and Child Care first came out, it was the only book read during the 40s, the 50s and 60s’, Morgan tells me. ‘By the 80s, it had sold 50million copies. Then people started picking up on it and writing about parenting things…what happened was this explosion of information: “This is how you do this, or that.”’

These new-style parenting books were a far cry from Baby and Child Care, which Morgan points out ‘is more of a reassurance for parents that they can trust their own intuition in parenting’, and ‘invites the reader to become in charge of their own skills rather than looking for it outside’. The implications of this new flood of sometimes hectoring parenting information from the 1980s onwards were not lost on Dr Spock, who died in 1998. He was deeply concerned about its effect on parents, Morgan reveals. ‘Ben said this many times, that there’s less confidence among parents now than there ever has been.’

Morgan should know. She was married to Dr Spock for 23 years and worked closely with him. She arranged conferences and speaking engagements, and helped to supervise the publication of new editions of Baby and Child Care. She also co-authored his memoir, Spock on Spock. After his death, she went on to found, a website offering information and advice for parents.

Spock and Morgan lived an idyllic existence aboard their boat docked in the British Virgin Islands. But when life on the water became too difficult for Spock late in life, and the couple returned to dry land, they were amazed at the level of parental anxiety. ‘It really was shocking to see such stress’, Morgan recalls. ‘Ben thought it was a challenge today for parents, with the stresses in society and [in discussions of] parenting. We thought it was so unnecessary.’

Why had things become so difficult for parents? Morgan believes that, ‘We’ve kind of done this thing to ourselves and unknowingly bought into this kind of stress. Society says “here’s the big package, but here’s the price that you have to pay for it”, and I think that our homes and our children and parents suffer as a result of this.’ Dr Spock also felt that the responsibility for this rising level of stress amongst new mums and dads lay with childcare experts.

‘He blamed all the experts that told parents they’re doing it wrong’, says Morgan. ‘They shake their fingers and say, “Listen, if you don’t do exactly what I say, you’re going to kill your kid”. Their attitude was, “I’m going to tell you how to do this. I’m the expert and you’re the nobody and if you don’t listen to me, you won’t get it”. And Ben would say, “No, no, that’s not right. We all have this in us, parenting skills. It’s not that I’m an expert and you don’t know anything”.’

Dr Spock was always aware of the potential for too much advice to undermine parental confidence. And yet, according to Ann Hulbert, in her book Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children, Spock’s research showed that while mothers liked his reassuring message, few actually followed expert advice in the past. In The Child Rearing Study initiated by Spock in 1955 at Western Reserve University, 10 years of investigation showed that ‘hovering experts were more marginal, and mothers considerably more resourceful than Spock had ever imagined’. Furthermore, back then mothers in the study took challenges, such as recovering from difficult births, in their stride without excessive anxiety.

What a contrast with parents today, who worry about things previous generations took for granted. They agonise over whether to let a child ‘cry it out’ and whether to vaccinate, or they fret over the long-term effects of the Teletubbies on brain development. How could decades of advice intended to support parents have actually worn away their self-assurance?

Society has undergone a number of important transformations since Spock’s study, and these changes have contributed to parental anxiety. A breakdown of trust and solidarity between adults, for instance, means that parents cannot rely on other adults not to second-guess their parenting decisions. Another important change is that people tend to invest more importance in their lifestyles than other aspects of their lives, such as their careers or their political affiliations, thus encouraging intense focus on one’s personal life.

But perhaps the most important factor, and one in which childcare experts, even Spock himself, played some part, is the rise of therapy culture. Freud gave the world a great tool for understanding the way that family dynamics work to influence the formation of the individual personality. But when this therapeutic sensibility is applied to parenting in general, the result is neatly summed up by Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘This Be The Verse’. The idea that your parents ‘fuck you up’ and ‘They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you’ – even if they don’t mean to – is so widely accepted now that it’s become a bit of a joke. It’s not uncommon for a parent to talk about unwittingly ‘scarring their child for life’. A woman I know reassures herself with the cheerful thought that her daughter will probably end up in therapy at some point, so there’s no use in worrying about it.

Dr Spock foresaw the dangers of the spread of this therapeutic ethos. He warned in Problems of Parents: ‘I am making the point that the popular American philosophy of child rearing can be very hard on parents and confusing to children unless the parents themselves happen to have had an unusually stable and purposeful upbringing to rely on. It is too largely based on the negative fear of maladjusting the child. Its positive aims are too vague and do not positively gear the parent or the child to the positive aims of the family, country, religion.’ He was well aware of the contradiction in his own role as an expert advising parents to trust themselves, and it’s a measure of his empathy with parents that he acknowledged this problem and tried to get the balance right.

Morgan tells me: ‘As parents, we are presented with all this stuff we have to learn, all this stuff we have to do or want – and actually, we probably have those things in our lives already but we are failing to recognise them for what they are. What if we just stopped, just absolutely stopped and drew back and took a look, a real deep look, at our own philosophies and our own lives, and the way we’re parenting? Then maybe if we looked at the child, there would be our great teacher.’

It seems in the nature of the beast that parents aren’t always sure what to do. Morgan has this to say about parents and advice:

‘You have this incredible wisdom that has been passed down to you. The deal is to listen to it, have access to it and accept it. You know what you’re doing. You have some rights and some “say-so” in these parenting skills. What is it you want for your child? No matter how they’re parenting, most people want the best for their child. We just assume that they do because they actually do. So the deal is, we should inspire parents to have a conversation with themselves so that when they run into problems and issues they can make those choices. Maybe the choice would be that they’d open Baby and Child Care in the middle of the night and look up “fever” or something, but they would know when to call the doctor and when not to. They might look it up and say “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought that was right”. It may be just a recognition of something that they knew all along, and they wanted it reconfirmed that it was right.’

My favourite story that Morgan tells is of how Dr Spock came to write the phrase that defined his career. ‘Ben wrote the first edition of Baby and Child Care between 1943 and 1946, put it in a package to mail, then opened it up again and wrote that line: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” It was as if God gave him a gift after he wrote the whole manuscript. A great line that has stayed with the book ever since.’

Whether a gift from God, or simply the insight of a profoundly humane man, it’s a message parents still need to hear today.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Mary Morgan

Mary Morgan was born Mary Morgan Wright in Searcy, Arkansas, on 27 November 1943. She was raised in Bald Knob, Arkansas, and attended Hendrix College, where she majored in mathematics. Later she taught in Little Rock’s Central High School.

She worked in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arkansas Medical School as programme coordinator for continuing education. This is when she met Dr Spock, when he came to speak in Little Rock on the need for free, good-quality medical care for all Americans. A nurse said that she would ‘cook me a spaghetti dinner’ if Morgan joined her at the talk.

Morgan invited Dr Spock to give a workshop on the ‘Uses and Abuses of Power’ in 1970 in San Francisco, where she had moved. She met Dr Spock at San Francisco airport with a dozen roses, and they were not separated for the next 25 years. She wrote his memoirs Spock on Spock in 1985 for Patheon.

They were arrested many times together for their various demonstrations against the Vietnam War and nuclear power plants. They lived on boats most of their lives together: one boat in Maine in the summer, and another boat in the British Virgin Islands in the winter. Dr Spock wrote more during this 25-year period than any other time of his life. They enjoyed a life of travel when they were off the boats.

After Dr Spock’s death in 1998, Morgan founded the Dr Spock Company, and built the website. She found a co-author, Dr Robert Needlman at University Hospitals in Cleveland, and revised Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care, published by Pocket Books. She took up surfing in Santa Cruz and swims in California, and is passionate about her poetry.

Dr Spock’s legacy lives on with his latest edition of Baby and Child Care, and the website. Also Morgan presented the Dr Spock Award of Compassion in Washington, DC in April this year.

Buy Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA))

(1) Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice about Children, Ann Hulbert, Vintage Books, 2004: p264

(2) Cited in Hulbert, p255

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Topics Books


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