According to Robert D. Needlman, M.D. ’85, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care—which has found a place on the bookshelves of 50 million parents across three generations—is “subversive.”
Benjamin M. Spock, M.D., MED ’29, initiated a revolution, said Needlman, with the first words of his 25-cent book, published in 1946. “Trust yourself,” Spock told parents. “You know more than you think you do.”
“Those famous lines were subversive to the doctor as expert,” says Needlman, who revised and expanded the book for its eighth edition, the first revision since Spock died in 1998 at age 94. In Spock’s day, pediatricians dictated rigid schedules for sleeping and feeding and warned parents to resist the temptation to pick up fussy children for fear of spoiling them. Spock, in contrast, encouraged parents to discover what their children needed as individuals and to foster relationships of mutual affection and respect. This model of parenting is now so unexceptional that contemporary Americans may not appreciate how much of it originated with Spock. “We understand that it’s no longer optimal, or even appropriate, to dictate to people what to do,” said Needlman.
An associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Needlman incorporated his own insights in the new 992-page edition. He discusses gay and lesbian parents, how to stimulate a love of reading, how children respond to disaster and how young adults react when they leave home for college.
Needlman felt no qualms when he disagreed with Spock’s recommendations. “I changed them—it was easy,” he said with a laugh. For instance, he eliminated the suggestion that a woman with postpartum blues cheer herself up by buying a new outfit. Instead, he suggests exercise, renewed contact with friends, talking to one’s partner—and seeking medical help if the change of mood is severe.
The book combines the practical with the abstract, he said. “Some of it is very nuts-and-bolts: How do you change a diaper? A lot is philosophical: How do you raise children to be responsible citizens?” Needlman preserves Spock’s exact words in short passages labeled “Classic Spock,” such as Spock’s views on TV: “There seems to be very little similarity between the world the electronic babysitter is selling to our children and the world we would like to see.”
Raised in Chicago in a household with the 1958 edition of Spock’s book on the shelf, Needlman coincidentally followed Spock’s career path. Both majored in English at Yale College. Both attended medical school at Yale, although Spock transferred to Columbia. After training in pediatrics at Boston University, Needlman took a job at Case Western in the same clinic where Spock had worked.
Needlman has found his own experience of the parent-child relationship endlessly interesting. He has a 16-year-old daughter, Grace, with his wife, Carol F. Farver, M.D. ’85, a surgical pathologist he met on their first day at Yale medical school. As a father and a doctor, he has observed that children can be both predictable and surprising. “A wonderful mystery of parenting is that there are some qualities that show a lot of continuity. You can look at a child at two and then at 15 and say, ‘I recognize that.’ But there are a lot of things that you can’t recognize: the same kid who was unhinged at five can be amazing, interested, interesting and capable of handling things beautifully at 15.” Six months after its publication by Pocket Books in June 2004, the Spock-Needlman edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care had sold nearly 100,000 copies. Not bad for a subversive little book that’s been around since 1946.