There Used to Be Consensus on How to Raise Kids

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the 20th-century icon of parenting expertise, has been replaced by a chorus of conflicting ideas and advice.

Dr. Spock smiling at many babies

This article is part of Parenting in an Uncertain Age, a series about the experience of raising children in a time of great change.

As I think of today’s parents, who fear they aren’t doing a good enough job, I sometimes imagine the arrival of a new Dr. Benjamin Spock, a calming presence to rein in the tumult of parental angst. After the devastation of war, in the period from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into much of the ’60s, Spock’s sound advice and soothing voice assured mothers that they could raise their children capably and with a certain delight in the experience.

Spock was ubiquitous throughout the West in the post–World War II world. Indeed, it was striking that so many parents in so many places were reading from his 1946 guide, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Spock’s child-rearing manual was second only to the Bible in volume of sales in the United States. His ideas reached even those who did not read him, via the mass media and doctors who relied on his books. In the years since, the consensus he represented has given way to a conflicting chorus of voices proffering parenting advice. This has left parents unmoored, elevating what are already high levels of anxiety about child-rearing.

Spock offered guidance on the everyday concerns of mothers—feeding, bathing, recognizing and responding to illness—that are the basics of thoughtful nurturing. And he emphasized that children should be treated with maternal “common sense,” which meant no excessive cosseting or overly rigorous routines. He encouraged women to feel comfortable and capable in their role as mothers, and believed that each child should grow up in a warm and engaging environment. Spock incorporated some psychoanalytic insights about childhood sexuality and psychic development, but he was never heavy-handed and didactic as a Freudian, and he did not berate parents for their mistakes. Spock was widely trusted and widely followed, though of course, even then, there wasn’t complete unanimity regarding child-rearing in modern America. There were always some mothers who continued to follow the stringent rules set down by the behaviorist John Broadus Watson, who enlisted enthusiastic followers in the 1920s and 1930s. Other mothers looked to their local priest or minister for advice.

Nevertheless, the Spockian hegemony was remarkable. Its dominance half a century ago makes the current cacophony on child-rearing—with mothers patrolling each other on internet blogs and child-rearing experts battling over matters like mother-child attachment, toilet training, and sleep regimens with stakes that seem to define a child’s future—all the more striking. Spock is often remembered for giving mid-century mothers courage and confidence as they wrestled with the fertility explosion known as the Baby Boom, and for advocating for a child-centered household. But perhaps his greatest triumph was in quelling, for a brief time, the contentiousness that has tended to surround modern child-rearing.

Eventually all empires fall, and Spock’s was no different. Starting at the height of his influence in the 1960s, Benjamin Spock lent his voice to the dissidents of the period, especially when it came to his loud opposition to the Vietnam War. Since that was the dominant issue of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Spock’s political positions began to affect how people saw his advice about children. He was blamed for encouraging permissive parenting, which some believed had produced a generation that flouted adult authority and was drawn into a riotous and out-of-control youth culture. When the war ended and most of the obvious signs of youth rebellion disappeared from view, Spock’s advice about giving children the room to grow struggled to survive. With conservative political views at the forefront in the Reagan presidency and many voices speaking out for “family values” and denouncing liberalism, Spock was misleadingly identified with the radical 60s generation.

Beyond the political changes, the “science” that had distinguished Spock’s psychoanalytic insights, very up-to-date in the 1950s, was increasingly called into question. In the 1970s, Freudian views became the target of feminist critics who deemed it misogynistic. Additionally, a variety of scholars began to challenge not just Freud’s ideas, such as the Oedipus complex and penis envy, but Freud’s ethics as a practitioner. He was accused of exaggerating and even lying about his findings, mistreating his patients, and covering up child abuse in families.

Spock had never been dogmatically Freudian, but his perspective had drawn on his own experiences in psychoanalysis, and he accepted its insights as valuable in understanding children. As Freud’s hold on the field of child development loosened, an explosion of research took place in cognitive psychology, and the result was a body of knowledge that was multifaceted and not easily reduced to one thinker or one explanatory model. Child psychologists found that even very young children can think—that complex mental processes, not instincts, lie behind development. The relevant psychology of infants and young children was becoming harder to parlay into uniform advice, except to make parents hypersensitive to the delicate and vulnerable brains of their offspring.

Alongside these changes was an immense upheaval that took place in the lives of women. Women had been the primary audience for Spock’s advice, but during the 1970s and ’80s, women’s identity as mothers lost its centrality. The women’s movement made the public sphere its primary target for change, promoting a message of women as equals in the marketplace and in law. By contrast, women’s role as parents was, if not devalued, then certainly not a priority for the movement. On top of this, the period witnessed a sexual revolution and a sharp rise in divorce that altered marriage expectations and radically reversed the fertility trends of the previous 30 years. By the middle of the 1970s, the birth rate was the lowest in American history, and the media shifted its focus from questions of child-rearing to children’s potential victimhood in stranger abductions or sexual predation, as well as more-mundane challenges like their own parents’ custody battles. This significantly raised parental anxieties and made family life appear troubled and unwholesome, a state of affairs widely broadcast by conservative commentators.

Also complicating the picture was the growth of an increasingly diverse population, drawn from all over the world—not just Europe, as had been the case for most of American history. While European family life had come to more closely resemble that of Americans in the post–World War II years, this was not true of the recent arrivals. Immigrants, who were most often Asians and Latinos, as well as a new population of Afro-Caribbeans, brought quite distinct child-rearing values and practices. The child-centeredness that Spock upheld and that was defining child-rearing values in the West was frequently strange to parents from these groups, who tended to embrace stricter, more hierarchical regimes. As other populations become more numerous and their cultures became constituents of the American fabric, it became harder to believe in the validity of a single child-rearing perspective as exclusively effective. Long before Amy Chua proclaimed the superiority of Chinese forms of child-rearing by stressing discipline and adult direction, many white American children and their parents were meeting successful Asian children at school and at parent-teacher conferences, and Asian parents, among others, were making demands for greater rigor and discipline in school.

Finally, the complications presented by feminism and multiculturalism began to eclipse the memory that parents once had of how miraculously modern science and medicine had altered the demographics of child survival. In the heyday of Spock’s influence, mothers found courage in inventions like the polio vaccine and the panoply of antibiotics that prevented or treated life-threatening ailments. By the 1980s, vaccines and modern medicine (including physician-supervised childbirth) often became suspect products of Western and male dominance. As the questioning of beliefs by women and the hodgepodge of different cultural norms became part of the landscape, the very idea of some clear, single vision about how to keep children healthy and safe—especially one with the imprimatur of the white male establishment—came to seem like a fantasy of another time and place.

The dissolution of belief in a single source of expertise is now a feature of child-rearing not only (or even mainly) in immigrant neighborhoods, but among white, middle-class parents who are well-read and have absorbed the many tentative and half-baked arguments about health, brain development, nutrition, and child well-being available to them in medical journals, popular magazines, and the internet. Today, parents are often at the center of fierce contests over what is best and even what is true. Rapidly changing science intersects with the modern media to make it very hard to pin down what is fact from what is either fiction or a temporary flurry of attention about a passing “discovery.” Americans are constantly “learning” about new breakthroughs (some of which are subsequently disproven), while nonexperts use the internet to promote dubious theories about everything from vaccines to genetically altered foods. The internet magnifies the intense battles of America’s currently irascible culture, while it proffers unvetted sources of conflicting information.

As a result, parents are now more anxious than ever about their children, while disputes about how to raise children the “right” way to meet a darkening future are a commonplace of child-rearing advice. This “future” seems especially clouded by the growing awareness of economic inequality and its devastating mental and physical effects, the hazards of climate change, and, recently, renewed attention to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is one of the great ironies of the contemporary scene that the soothing “common sense” of the Spock era gave women a sort of latitude—a latitude that has now disappeared together with the hegemonic view that he represented. The irony is compounded by the fact that Spock reigned over a period of great anxiety associated with the Cold War and the tensions of a then-very-new atomic world.

All of this almost certainly means there is no new Dr. Spock on the near horizon. But it does not mean that some of the more basic qualities that he brought to child-rearing advice could not make a comeback. I am thinking, especially, of his belief that most mothers (and he would surely also include fathers today) are trying their best, and that this is good enough most of the time. That parents know more than they think they do, and that this knowledge is a sound basis for raising children. If children should not be bullied, neither should their parents. Most of all, we want to remember that in a world that, like our own, was filled with anxiety, Spock urged parents to view their children as sources of joy.