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.