Few people have had a greater impact on the rearing of children worldwide than Dr. Benjamin Spock, who died Monday. Whether that is good or bad is up to personal interpretation, but no one can credibly deny his influence on the rearing of several generations.
Spock's book, "Baby and Child Care," has sold 50 million copies in 30 different languages. It was first published in 1946, which means millions of people 50 years old and younger were raised by parents at least somewhat influenced by his theories.Critics blame him for contributing to the declining moral standards that have coincided with that half-century - a decline that is properly attributed to greater permissiveness and a general lack of discipline and moral training. However, these same critics have difficulty building a solid case to back this argument. Most likely, this charge has its genesis with Spock's decision to join so-called hippies in protesting the Vietnam War and nuclear technology in the 1960s and '70s. But that was a political decision that should be treated separately from his child-rearing theories.
Here is what Spock said in his book on the subject of permissiveness: "I may as well let the cat out of the bag right away as far as my opinion goes and say that strictness or permissiveness is not the real issue. Good-hearted parents who aren't afraid to be firm when it is necessary can get good results with either moderate strictness or moderate permissiveness. On the other hand, a strictness that comes from harsh feelings or a permissiveness that is timid or vacillating can each lead to poor results. The real issue is what spirit the parent puts into managing the child and what attitude is engendered in the child as a result."
Frankly, that doesn't sound too radical. Nor does his philosophy that parents should trust their own instincts more and should feed infants when they are hungry, not according to some rigid schedule.
The world does indeed have a problem with permissiveness and a lack of discipline. Spock's theories likely will be challenged and debated for generations to come, as will his impact on generations of human beings worldwide. Few things are more personal than a parent's child-rearing beliefs. But, as with most things in the world, the decline in moral standards has causes that extend far beyond one man and his theories, no matter how widespread and long-lasting they are.