Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dr. Spock – A Forgotten Guru of Green Parenting?

MaGreen's labor slowed down considerably just when we reached the nurse's station. We were embarrassed. I swear Mr. Mechanic, the engine was making a strange noise just a few minutes ago. So MaGreen and I started walking around the hospital floor hoping that the movement would get the labor going strong again. The strange thing was that most of the hospital floor was about to be demolished. Hallway after hallway of empty rooms lit by fluorescent lights. Wards that once bustled with doctors groping nurses in starched white uniforms. Empty. Supply closets, stairwells, bathrooms. All empty. There were a few boxes of latex gloves lying around. The corkboards were tacked with performance evaluations of disbanded teams.

We found a dark waiting room with some tattered couches. There was a shelf of books. Most of the titles were mystery novels. My eye settled on the one parenting book among them. It was a twenty-year-old paperback edition of Dr. Spock's famous childcare manual. I didn't know anything about Dr. Spock. The cover of the book was shorn off and the pages browned. I thought it might be entertaining to find all the sexisms and outmoded assumptions in it. I stuck the book in my pocket thinking (wrongly) that I might need something to read in the hospital. Twelve hours later BabyG was born. I forgot about the book and left it in the car trunk where it got even more tattered.

Six months later I went to the airport to pick MaGreen and BabyG up after their adventures in Utah. I had an hour to wait. There was Dr. Spock in the trunk. He became my companion in the crowded baggage claim area. To my great surprise, there was a chapter towards the end that offered tips to agnostic parents. How was it that such a mainstream parenting guide could even mention agnosticism? I read the first few pages of that chapter eagerly. It described very clearly the challenges and questions an agnostic parent, like myself, faces. The deep questions. How do you hold back from foisting your believes on your child? How do you teach skepticism without squashing belief in the possibility of mystery and unknowable forces?

Before I could get to the answers, I saw an acquaintance of ours who had her baby one month after MaGreen did and I hadn't seen her since then so I stopped reading and said hello. We first met this woman when she hosted Green Party meetings. That was back in 2000 when Ralph Nader was a candidate for US President and when Gore won but Bush occupied the White House. More recently, she ran a non-profit that trained Latina women as doulas. Her partner is a famous activist folk singer and was, at the time, on tour in Europe.

"What are you reading?" she asked.

"I'm reading Dr. Spock," I said.

"Is he the one who believes in harsh discipline and leaving children alone when they cry at night?" she asked.

"No, no," I said. "I think you're thinking of Ferber."

Later, when MaGreen was cleaning out her car, she threw away the Dr. Spock book thinking that nobody was reading the tattered, old copy. Between our activist friend confusing Spock for Ferber and MaGreen throwing away the book, I started to become defensive on Spock's behalf. How could he be so easily forgotten, his work buried in the rubble of demolished maternity wards?

So I went to the used bookstore, but all the copies of his book were recent. Dr. Spock's voice was lost, in my opinion, as he started revising with the help of younger doctors. The section on agnostic parenting was cut. Lost forever. I did find, however, a biography of Dr. Spock, which I bought and read. Here's what I learned:

1) He received a gold metal for rowing on a US Olympic crew team.
2) He studied Freud and psychoanalysis extensively. He was perhaps the first US doctor to get specialized training in both pediatrics and psychiatry.
3) His parenting advice in Baby and Childcare was infused with a psychoanalytic perspective without using Freudian jargon or ever referencing Freud.
4) The book ultimately sold over 50 million copies and was translated into 39 languages.
5) His approach was markedly less disciplinary and violent than those of previous experts.
6) He was the first person of celebrity status to oppose the Vietnam war and tirelessly worked to end the war. He helped persuade Martin Luther King to publicly oppose the war and in 1967 they marched together in Chicago.
7) He ran for President of the US as the official candidate of the People's Party on an antiwar platform.

MaGreen and I have tried to envision Green Parenting as bringing together the personal, home-based actions of raising a child with collective, political action. And we have struggled, especially with the second part. Perhaps we don't need to look any further than Dr. Spock as an example. He felt an obligation to act on behalf of young people at every level, from toilet training to marching in the streets. As the old hospitals tumble and new parents look for the latest advice, I think we should be mindful that every old-time parenting expert wasn't a reactionary-tie-your-kids-up-and-beat-them authoritarian. Green Parenting already has a history. We just need to find that history, name it, mimic its successes, and learn from its mistakes. Right?


MaGreen said...

I definately feel guilty for throwing the book away. Its so easly to let this sort of philosophy get lost in the trends, and never to realize your part of something that has a long trajectory.

chuck said...

Growing up, my friend Stephen used to call me a "such a Spock Baby," and I never knew what it meant. I am still unclear, but I know that part of it means that my parents had books (I don't remember if any of them were actually by Spock) on what to do with children.

Around twelve, I remember opening one up that had an ideologically retrograde (and really short) chapter on homosexuality that linked it with gender-dysphoria. Was this Spock?

GreenDaddy said...

I can't be certain what you're friend meant by calling you a "Spock Baby," but one of the main criticisms of his advice was that it led to a culture of permissiveness. Norman Vincent Peale basically blamed the 1960s on Spock. Maybe your friend identified you loving, open-minded, creative way of life with Spock?

Spock's views about homosexuality changed dramatically over his career. Spock is quoted in the Thomas Maier biography that when he was trained at Cornell's psychiatric clinic in 1932, one of his first patients was a ten-year-old boy who "already showed signs of homosexuality." So he believed that homosexuality was a disease and was trained to treat it that way.

In the seventh edition of the book, published in 1998, Spock and his co-author Steven Parker added substantial sections on homosexuality. They write in "What is homosexuality" that "If your child asks about gays and lesbians, of if you're talking generally to a child of six or older about sex, I think you can explain quite simply that some men and women fall in love with and live with people of the same sex." They argue against homophobia. The book also has a section for gay and lesbian parents that includes legal information.

Spock was a privileged white male who attended Yale just like his dad did. In his youth, he was racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, and classist. His adherence to Freud embedded these prejudices in his advice under the guise of scientific analysis. Given this background, his later radicalism is, I think, all the more impressive.

I want to write more about this, especially how he responded to feminist critiques of his book.

chuck said...

how interesting. it is impressive. thanks, raj.

i look forward to seeing the script for the bio-pic that you will write and will, inevitably, pitch to miramax or dreamworks sometime in the near future.