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Does Dr. Spock equal the Rosenburgs?

By John Bridges

MARCH 23, 1998:  I wish I could blame Dr. Benjamin Spock for my life, but I fear I cannot. I did not grow up in a Dr. Spock household. In fact, I did not know anybody else who grew up in one either. I do not think, in the years when I could have really used Dr. Spock, it was legal to sell his books in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and parts of northern Florida. I am not even sure it would have been legal to purchase them by mail.

In the years of my childhood, Dr. Spock was one of those things you heard about but knew you would never encounter--at least not as long as you lived in rural Alabama. He was like martinis, caviar, and the Catholic church. He was like union labor. He was like a Brigitte Bardot movie. He was like a Communist cell.

One could speak ill of him with impunity in the same way that one could speak ill of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were trading atomic-bomb secrets with the Rooskies. Dr. Spock was letting children draw on the walls with their Crayolas. As far as my parents were concerned, it was all pretty much the same thing.

Nikita Kruschev. Dr. Spock. The Catholic guy on The Christopher Hour. My parents were always getting them confused.

Meanwhile, I could not truly imagine a household in which the grown-ups let their children live by the Dr. Spock rules. I could not imagine children having the right to say, "You know, I gave it some thought out there in the sandbox, and I don't think tonight's my night for English peas." I could not imagine children being allowed to set their own bedtimes. I could not imagine children calling their parents by their first names. I could not imagine children even knowing what their parents' first names were.

I envisioned these children growing up in households where there were divorces. Their fathers played golf and drove sports cars. Their mothers wore slacks and smoked cigarettes. Sometimes, I was pretty certain, these children were forced to make lunch for themselves. I was pretty certain that, when they looked in the refrigerator, they would find nothing but dill pickles, cream cheese, and a half-empty jar of sauerkraut. I was pretty sure that, although these children lived lives filled with experiment, self-exploration, and thrilling adventure, they all had very bad teeth.

To this day, I cannot find anyone who will admit to having been brought up in a Dr. Spock household. To this day, when a child is running wild in a restaurant, I do not know anyone who will not say, "I don't know what this world is coming to. My parents never let me run around like that in a restaurant." I do not know anyone who will not say, "Allowance--geschmowance. If I wanted money for the movies, I had to bag groceries. Three nights a week. One time I took a woman's canned goods to her car in the middle of a tornado." I do not know anyone who will not say, "Young man, I am your mother. When you speak to me, you do not use language like that."

And yet I know Dr. Benjamin Spock sold a great many books--even if he did not sell them in South Central Alabama. What's more, at this point in my life, I know plenty of people who have never set foot in gray-dirt-lonesome Alabama. But not one of them seems, even remotely, like a person who was allowed to draw on the dining-room wallpaper. Not one of them calls his mother Mildred. Every one of them is convinced that, no matter whom he calls--and no matter how early in the week he begins asking--he will still spend Friday night alone with a Scotch and soda and a can of Spaghetti-O's. I do not know anybody who is not in therapy. There is not one grown man in all my acquaintance who will touch his green peas.

Like everybody who ever lived on this world before them, they are driven crazy by the prospect of a 48-hour visit from their parents. They do not balance their checkbooks, and it bothers them--just as it bothers them that they have not sorted their underwear since sometime in November. They resent the fact that, when they had the chance back in 1977, they did not move to New York, live in a loft, and buy a lime-green polyester suit, with matching vest and Peter-Max-print open-neck shirt. They hate themselves because of Bosnia, global warming, and any number of sexually transmitted diseases. They are thoroughly convinced that nobody, no matter how desperate, will ever want to date a 45-year-old man with Spaghetti-O breath.

I do not think this is the world Dr. Spock envisioned. He envisioned a world in which parents got to raise their children like they wanted to, a world in which mothers-in-law did not make any difference, a world that did not care what the neighbors said.

That is not the world he got. He got a world in which it looked as if everyone had been raised by my mother and father, who did not have to read books to know what children should look like. They were convinced that, if children were given their say in anything, they would grow up with no sense of responsibility, no self-discipline, no inner compass, and--worst of all--no guilt.

My parents did not have to read Dr. Spock to know what his world would be like. When he started marching in Vietnam protests in the 1960s, they simply turned to each other and said, "Well, what'd you expect? Him, Martin Luther King, that Bishop Pike fella. Never could tell the three of 'em apart." They knew that, in the South, where nobody believed in kindergarten, much less in Dr. Spock, there would always be children who fretted and feared and felt insecure and worried about what would happen if they were caught doing something evil.

It did not matter to them that Dr. Spock made over $1 million in royalties. He could make all the money he wanted. They were the ones who had the children. In the end, they knew, they would get what they wanted. The world would have clean walls in its dining rooms. In the end, as usual, it was the parents who won.


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