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America’s Baby Doctor Is Back in Business : Parenting: At 91, Dr. Benjamin Spock should be basking in retirement. But he’s too worried about our children’s future.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Benjamin Spock is 91 and worried. Not about the usual things, like health--"I don’t feel great, but until two years ago I didn’t even feel old”; or love--he’s happily married to a woman 40 years his junior, or money--his famous child-care book still sells half a million copies each year.

Spock’s big problem, he says, is the realization that he’ll leave America’s children in a worse situation than he found them--a fact the activist says he wants to fight with each remaining breath.

So between the macrobiotic meals his wife, Mary Morgan, prepares for him; the daily massages she gives him while they recite together from the Book of Psalms; the yoga exercises, meditation, group psychotherapy sessions, swimming and nature walks they enjoy at their summer house on Penobscot Bay in Maine--Spock has written yet another book.

This one, he says, has nothing to do with the daily care and feeding of America’s youth. “A Better World for Our Children” (National Press, 1994) is about the educational, ethical and spiritual poverty in which we are raising them, and the awful legacy he thinks we are creating.

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Just ask and he’ll reel off his list of atrocities: “Instability of marriage and the family; cruel competitiveness in business, sports and education; racial and ethnic divisiveness; materialism running rampant, with no spiritual or ethical values to offset it; increasing violence; a coarsening of our attitudes toward sex; lack of high-quality day care; an educational system that spews out children with no skills, no goals, and no preparation for productive, satisfying lives.

“Tote it up,” he says, “and you have a picture of a society speeding downhill.”

The good news, Spock says, is that we can reverse it all, if we start now to agree on a new set of . . . uh, “excuse the buzzword, but I have to say it . . . values .”

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Spock is ultra-cautious here because he’s been burned before. In the 1960s, 20 years after his first child-care book was published, conservative clergyman Dr. Norman Vincent Peale vilified Spock from his New York pulpit for the baby doctor’s anti-Vietnam War activities, his “permissive” attitude toward raising children, and for an entire generation of unpatriotic and undisciplined young people.

This was just a few weeks after Spock, the chaplain of Yale University and two others were convicted of “conspiracy to abet resistance to the military draft.” (The conviction was overturned on appeal and Spock never went to jail.)

To this day, Spock says, he hasn’t totally shaken the “permissive” label among people who never read his books. “Those who know my work realize that I was never permissive and always advocated total respect between children and adults.”

Even his friendly competitors agree that it was an inaccurate and undeserved slur.

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“Spock’s been my hero all along, he’s a wonderful man,” says child-care expert Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. “He’s been vital to family life and children, has kept the pressure on our society to pay attention to those issues. We are the least family-oriented society in the world, and all who care about children are frightened about the future if this continues. Spock’s new book is one more sign of how much he cares.”

At this late stage of his career, Spock says, he doesn’t want to be misunderstood once again, or erroneously linked to what he considers regressive “family values folks.”

“I’m not some old geezer advocating a return to the good old days,” Spock rasps by phone from his seaside retreat. “I like and embrace the progress I’ve seen during my lifetime.”

He’s just not so sure about the attitudes that go with it. What we have lost while moving forward, he says, is our sense of the dignity of each individual; our desire to treat others as we want to be treated; our goal of raising children with the ideals of helpfulness, kindliness, and service to others.

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These days, he says, we teach children only to want to “get ahead.” We include nothing spiritual to sustain them while getting there, nothing so simple and profound as the fact that we are in this world to love and help each other.

Partly because there are no such interior beacons to guide young people as they try to “get ahead” in school or work, because we offer no sense of the dignity and importance of each individual person, rich or poor, Spock says we are seeing an increase in teen-age suicide.

If these spiritual values were brought back, he believes, America could move forward faster than ever. Our children would feel valued, educated and motivated.

Spock doesn’t pretend to know the answers to the question of how to insert spiritual values--or better day care and education--into our society. He hopes only that his book will “open up dialogue,” and perhaps start some movement in what he considers the right direction. “Pediatrics is politics,” he has said. If parents want better day care, health care and schools, they’ll have to organize and demand it from the government.

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“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

Those were the then-shocking first words of Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” first published in 1945. It has now sold more copies than any other book except the Bible. It has been translated into 39 languages and is updated every eight years.

Until Spock, baby books were condescending, assumed parents knew nothing, and urged them to ignore their natural instincts in favor of rigid schedules and punishing regimes. And they were warned not to hug and kiss their kids at random--only in specified instances.

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Spock was a struggling pediatrician in New York City when a publisher asked him to write his thoughts on the subject. He already had a wife, Jane, one baby and one on the way.

He’d spent years studying: Yale College, Columbia University Medical School, five years at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. He took this latter course of study, he says, to learn why people behave as they do--so he could better help parents to understand themselves and their children. As a result, he became the first pediatrician to write with behavioral insight and with a comforting, explanatory tone. For the next few decades, he remained the world’s baby-care guru and a father figure extraordinaire.

His own fathering qualities were somewhat lacking, he laments in his upcoming book. On the phone from Maine, he says that if he could do it over again, he would devote more time to his sons and less to moving around to further his career. And he’d show more physical affection to his kids too. “When they were grown, they told me I hadn’t shown enough affection, hadn’t given them enough hugs and kisses. That hurt their feelings, made them feel unworthy of my affection.”

Both boys grew up to be “wonderful people,” Spock says. And both decided long ago not to answer reporters’ questions about life with father.

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John, a Los Angeles architect, is pleasant but firm in his refusal to talk. Michael, a Chicago museum director, says he’s had a lifetime of such questions. “I’m 61 years old. At a certain point, you just don’t want to do that any more. I will say he’s given us a tremendous amount. He spends his time on things he believes in deeply. That puts his life exactly where his heart is.”

Spock ran for President in 1972, on the People’s Party ticket. “I had no desire to be President,” he says, but thousands of young idealists were disillusioned with both major parties, as Spock was, and he decided to help give them an alternate voice.

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Although Spock’s new book rails against divorce, he walked out on his wife of 48 years to marry an ardent feminist he’d met while on the lecture circuit. That was almost 20 years ago. She was in her 30s, with a young daughter. He was in his 70s.

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“If I could do things over,” Spock says, “I’d write more about step-parenting. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever encountered. Mary’s daughter, Ginger, literally ignored me for the first five years we were married. It was horrible, although we finally got it all straightened out.”

Other than that, he says, life with his pampering Mrs. is nearly perfect. A slight stroke and a pacemaker have slowed him down of late, forcing the lovebirds to abandon their life at sea. For the past few years, he says, they had lived in tight quarters on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands during winter, and on another sailboat off Maine during summer. Two years ago they came ashore.

“I have to admit I’m getting old,” Spock says. “But nobody says I have to like it.”


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