The Care and Feeding of a Legend : Dr. Spock Looks Back on a Lifetime of Caring for Babies

Times Staff Writer

Here is a living contradiction if ever there was one. Two of them, in fact.

Here, across the coffee table of a Beverly Wilshire suite, is Dr. Benjamin Spock, 81, a ready, booming laugh crouched just under the surface of a distinguished mien.

Here too is Dr. Michael Rothenberg, 58, a quick and penetrating mind camouflaged behind an instinctive affability.

Spock, of course, is second only to God on the best-seller list. Rothenberg is his handpicked successor--his Simon Peter, as it were--and collaborator on the latest edition of "Baby and Child Care."

Here are two men whose considerable success is predicated in large part on their insistence that intimidation of a child (or, for that matter, of a parent) is an abomination; that intimidation stunts psychological growth, squelches creativity, squashes potential.

Here are two men who are secure, accomplished, preeminent in their chosen profession.

Two men who, as children, were thoroughly intimidated.

Both men are psychiatrists as well as pediatricians--Spock was the world's first doctor to parlay the disciplines--and each, no doubt, has a rational explanation for the anomaly. A 90-minute interview, however--a discussion ranging from divorce to diphtheria, from pacifiers to pacifism--hardly provides an adequate forum to probe such a seeming contradiction.

One positive effect of early intimidation of the good doctors, though, is perhaps evidenced by their respective reactions to the awesome responsibility of counseling tens of millions of bewildered parents. ("Baby and Child Care" has been read, so far, by 30 million book buyers and countless borrowers; it is history's biggest seller besides the Bible.) Each man, in his own way, faces the challenge with conscience, conscientiousness and a healthy, endearing humility.

Before the first edition appeared, in 1946, Spock was told by his Pocket Books publisher, "It doesn't have to be a very good book, because at 25 cents a copy we'll be able to sell thousands. "

"That alone scared me a little," said Spock. "It also motivated me, because I'm a do-gooder and the idea appealed to me that I'd reach a lot more parents than if it was a hard-cover.

Against the Tide

"Still, I was scared because I was really telling a lot more than most pediatricians, and telling things that were quite newfangled. Unlike other 'baby books,' mine was not condescending and not threatening. Doctors' whole thing was ' I am the one who knows! You listen to me !' It was very hard to swim against the tide and say, 'Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry.'

"So I was scared that it would be criticized by the profession but even more scared that it could actually kill children through parents' misinterpretation. Even when I thought that the book could be selling 10,000 copies, I was scared of the harm it might do. . . . "

"The difference between Ben's book and just about every other child-care book on the market," Rothenberg interjected, "is that it's not a how-to book. It doesn't say, 'You've got to do this, or that happens.'

"What attracted me to the earlier editions, when I used it on my own children, is that it gave a number of different ways of handling almost anything you could think of, and then, when it was finished, it would say, 'However . . . if none of these feels right to you and your child, by all means do it your way.' The book was, and is, reassuring ."

"Yes," agreed Spock, "it leans over backwards. But even that scared me. I was afraid some casual parents would be too reassured. . . . "

Spock's Homeric hands--the hands, in fact, of an Olympic rower who still pulls a mean oar--waved like giant cornstalks as he recalled "one of my favorite families in New York. This very mature, very educated woman called up one day almost casually and said, 'I decided I really ought to call you.'

"Her youngest child, 3 or 4, had had a fever of 104 for four days, along with a splitting headache. Well, to a doctor, that's meningitis!

"I jumped out of my office, leaped into my car. I was tearing through Central Park and got stuck behind a truck with a load of live chickens.

"Talk about evil omens! One chicken had gotten its head between the crates and had strangled to death. There was its head, bobbling at me. I thought, 'My God, I'm not on time.'

"I was, thank God, but I've always thought since then that maybe we ought to have reassurance insurance."

Still, to this day, the book begins, "You know more than you think you do."

Rothenberg wasn't sure he did when he got the call to discuss the succession. An extensive search had dwindled down to a precious few. Rothenberg had caught the eye of Spock's second wife, Mary Morgan, for his work on the effect of TV violence upon children.

"When I got Ben's note asking if I were interested . . . well, it took literally three days to get over my state of shock and get to the typewriter.

Overwhelming Responsibility

"As far as what would seem to be an overwhelming responsibility: From a professional point of view I felt comfortable, in the same sense that I feel that after 30 years of practice as a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, I know enough to know what I don't know--which is considerable. The important thing is that you stay in touch with your areas of relative ignorance.

"For the other part--the responsibility--I don't know whether there's a way to feel comfortable, at least not for me. That is, not just becoming a celebrity in the superficial sense, but knowing that at least for some people, you may exert more influence on their thinking than you ever wanted to.

"That's anxiety-provoking, a major concern . . . but an inevitable part of the package. It was a much bigger concern, frankly, than whether I can pull together enough knowledge to be able to carry the book forward in the way that Ben has meant it all along."

This, of course, implies a continuation of the book's consistent and singular gospel of non-intimidation; given the backgrounds and accomplishments of the two men, one wonders whether at least a small amount of intimidation might not go a long way.

Spock skillfully begs the question--the beloved/controversial doctor must have a Ph.D. in question-begging--though he readily admits to certain "flaws" in his upbringing.

"I was thoroughly intimidated," he said. "I was scared of my parents. I was scared of all my teachers. I was scared of bullies. I was scared of cops."

Even scared of reading, in a way. "In my home," he said, "we had big sets of the children's classics--Dickens, Twain, Stevenson--so we were on our bellies reading all through childhood.

Had to Find a 'Hidden Corner'

"On the other hand, my mother couldn't stand a child just relaxing, having a good time. You had to find a hidden corner to read your book.

"If my mother would catch me reading on a Saturday, she'd say, 'Bennie, go out and rake the leaves, mow the lawn. . . . '

"And I continued to be intimidated. When I was in college, or in medical school, if an instructor scowled we all shivered--and we'd go outside the classroom and want to know, 'What was Jenkins angry about?'

"Many years later, I tried it on my own classes--when I raised my voice it gave me gooseflesh--and it just didn't work, they kept coming in late and drinking coffee in class, so I gave it up. You can't intimidate this generation." (Unspoken was the proud implication that this was the "Spock generation," the one that refused, with Spock's connivance, to go to war.)

Rothenberg, too, was intimidated--"Oh, absolutely!" Nevertheless, the man who was raised without a Spock on his escutcheon finds the seeds of his success in the discipline to which he was subjected:

"At the same time that I was being brought up very well-behaved, a nice middle-class boy et cetera, et cetera, my mother was also telling me all the time, 'You have to be more aware of your fellow human beings. You are your brother's keeper. If you find that one of your brothers in this world'--which meant everybody; this was the '20s and '30s and she was talking about black people--'needs your help, then you do it.'

"So she was sowing the seeds of revolt even as she was teaching me that I should never go down on the trolley car from Brookline to Boston without putting on a white shirt and a tie and a jacket; it was unheard-of.

Never Cheat, Never Lie

"My father, too. He was the most honest man I've ever known in my life. He would never cheat, never lie. So I was also, from my father's side, being told, 'Speak the truth, at whatever cost.'

"Well that, I think, gives you a very healthy reservoir of energy to draw from if you need to pull off the track (of intimidation)."

In retrospect, Spock's mother's positive traits also affected the child--profoundly, as it turned out.

"I'm sure the reason I got into pediatrics was because my mother loved babies," he said. "She felt that after a child begins to assert himself, at 1 1/2, then she had to bear down, because she didn't want any rebellion. But it's very clear that at 1 year of age, the world was my oyster.

"There's that famous picture of me, sitting there in my great big sailor hat and my white pique coat with the petticoat showing, and I'm beaming , full of self-confidence. In later pictures, 2 to 9, I look rather wistful, overawed. I obviously felt the dangers of my misbehavior.

"So I became a pediatrician, though I'm sure that underneath any other motif , I thought that there must be pleasanter ways to bring up children. . . . "

Another, excruciatingly embarrassing, incident in Spock's adolescence helped turn what might have been the darkest hour of his adulthood into a triumph of sorts:

"It was during World War I--I was about 15--and we were meant to conserve wool. My parents came up with the idea that instead of buying me one shoddy teen-ager's suit after another, I would wear one of my father's cast-off 'iron' suits.

"This was a time when young men were wearing trousers so tight you had to lean over and slide them down.

"I was thin, elongated, chinless, and this suit--well, the pants were all floppy and the jacket fitted like a box.

"I said, 'I can't wear that. Everybody in school will make fun of me'--which they did.

Makes No Difference

"My mother said, 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself, worrying about what people think. It doesn't make any difference. All you have to know is that you're right.' Well, of course I didn't believe her at the age of 15. Peer pressure is absolutely overwhelming.

"But you know, when I found myself indicted by the federal government for my opposition to the war in Vietnam--a war I knew was wrong--it gave me great comfort to think, 'Well, this is what my mother would have wanted. She would have been proud.' And so was I, despite the cost. . . . "

The cat, at this point in the interview, was out of the bag, to Spock's obvious delight. Pacificism, disarmament, political action of all varieties occupy the bulk of his time these days, nor is he--or Rothenberg--the least bit defensive.

To this day--though with diminishing fury--Spock's book is branded by some as "permissive," an insidious influence upon an entire generation of anarchists, or worse. The accusation both angers and amuses Spock, who wryly wonders, "If I am accused of fostering a generation of 'revolutionaries,' who takes the credit--or blame--for today's generation, which is overwhelmingly conservative?"

Moreover, "I was not accused of corrupting a whole generation for the first 22 years after the book came out. The accusation came only after my opposition to the war in Vietnam, which was climaxed in '68 by my indictment for counseling, aiding and abetting resistance to the draft."

Spock and Rothenberg also are amused by the critical letters--"I still get a trickle"--that begin, "Thank God I never read your horrible book. . . . "

"Of course they never read it," said Spock, "otherwise they'd see that it says, 'Respect your child; he is striving to become more mature. But also ask for respect; don't be submissive.' This is permissive ?"

Needless to say, Rothenberg subscribes wholeheartedly to Spock's political as well as professional views, steadfastly if slightly less stridently.

Danger of Social Disease

Both agree that while medicine and science have solved many of the physical diseases of childhood, social diseases remain an ever-present danger.

"Polio, pneumonia, mastoiditis--all or most of these things have been taken care of by a combination of immunization plus wonder drugs," said Spock, "but disarmament, discrimination, inadequate day-care, shoddy education, hunger--all these things and more have to be coped with before we can bring up our children right."

Consequently, the new edition of "Baby and Child Care" contains sections on new, or newly recognized, problems--divorce, single-parenting, child abuse--to which Rothenberg has contributed a major share. One contemporary issue with which Spock is painfully familiar, however, is stepparenting.

"I became a stepparent eight years ago," he said, "and found that I didn't know beans about it. It was the most painful relationship I've ever dealt with, absolutely poisonous. The child was 11 when I married her mother, and she wouldn't speak to me or look at me for three years.

"When a complete stranger comes barging in between the child and the child's parent, this is calculated to stir up fierce resentment and hostility. . . .

"Even with the best of intentions, it takes time to work it all out."

Even with the best of intentions, it is impossible, short of a thesis, to track all the sparks that animate even a brief conversation with Spock and Rothenberg. Nevertheless, a few grace notes from the senior partner of the new firm:

--On the auslander view of American parents as world-champion child-spoilers: "I think there is a tendency in America, especially among people who had to work terribly hard to get the advantages of America, to turn around and say, 'I want my children to have everything I didn't have.'

"In other countries, the father tells his son, 'You're lucky to have grown up in such a fine family. We've given you good food, good clothes, a fine education. Now it's up to you to prove your worth by contributing to the family, carrying on the family traditions.'

"By contrast, an American father says, 'Son, if you don't do better than I have I won't think much of you. . . . ' "

--On respect, or lack thereof: "In other parts of the world the respect goes upward, to parents and grandparents. In America, it's turned upside down; everybody is trying to respect the kids.

"Sure, we've definitely lost something, but we've obviously gained at the same time. . . . In single-minded pursuit of the best job, abandoning in effect the extended family, our society has excelled in new discoveries, new technologies.

"Like computers: I haven't the damnedest idea what a computer is and I hate to have to begin studying them. The new stuff keeps pouring in, and it's the young who make the adjustments to them. How can you teach your children to respect grandpa when he doesn't know computers?"

Does wisdom count for nothing, then? "The kids don't know what wisdom is."

On answering mail: "I write longhand and I'm always three months behind. Maybe six. I always spend the first quarter of the letter apologizing. Michael is much faster. The new edition took only half the usual time.

(Rothenberg: "In psychological terms, he's telling you I'm a compulsive.")

"I never dared tell the public that I answered letters; I was afraid I'd get a million a week, most of them starting, 'My child is still thumb-sucking. . . . ' And of course most of the answers are in the book.

"People think, 'Somewhere out there there must be a solution.' But not the solution I suggested, to wit: 'Leave the child alone.'

"Then there are the suggestions for peace, usually rather touching and rather innocent: 'Send the President and the senators to the front lines.' Sure, but who's going to bell the cat, who's going to make them go?"

--On the book's worldwide popularity: "There's a real question in my mind how wise it is for Japanese or Pakistanis to raise their children to the advice of a middle-class pediatrician for middle-class Americans."

On the afterlife (or absence thereof): "I don't believe I go up to heaven and look down through a peekhole to see how I've done, but I know that I can help create an afterlife by influencing those who will come after me."

On rowing: "I still row--in the Virgin Islands, where I winter, and in Maine, where I summer, and in Arkansas, where I spend the spring and fall, I have a shell. I usually go out early to avoid the wind.

"You know, you've got to wait until the winds and the waves die down. . . . "

A most unlikely prospect, for either Spock or Rothenberg.

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