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Dr. Spock On Parenting

Sensible, Reassuring Advice for Today's Parent



About The Book

An essential guide for today's parents -- from the world-renowned pediatrician and author of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care.
In this classic text, Dr. Benjamin Spock addresses the changing of traditional family structure and the challenges contemporary parents face. From two-job families to single parenthood, this timely reference offers sound, reliable advice on today's difficult parenting issues, including:
  • understanding the role of the modern father
  • developing healthy eating habits
  • adapting career demands to a baby's needs
  • evaluating child care outside the home
  • handling your child in public places
  • dealing with sleeping problems
  • teaching your child about strangers
  • nurturing your child's potential
  • talking to children about sex, disease, death,
  • religion and God
  • handling divorce and custody questions


Chapter One: Anxieties in Our Lives






Can We Ease Our Tensions?

I believe ours is the most stressful country in the world, though this doesn't need to be. We aren't more conscious of our distress because a majority of us are still financially more comfortable than the people of other countries, and this material wealth anesthetizes us.

Why are we so tense? To begin with, we've lost sources of security and comfort that our ancestors relied on up to a few generations ago. We aren't even aware of what we've lost.

Back when so much in the universe was considered mysterious and known only to God, a far greater number of us had a strong sense of having been created in his or her image and of being guided every hour of the day by God's concern. Today, the sciences have appeared to take over much of the authority that was formerly God's, yet they are too impersonal to serve as guides; worse, they have fragmented and demoted us into feeling that we are merely biological and psychological mechanisms, only a little more complex than other animals, adapting to various sociological backgrounds. So we have lost much of our sense of dignity as individuals. We don't have souls anymore.

People used to live with or close to their relatives, in the extended family. Young couples could get prompt help with child care, marital difficulties, financial crises, illnesses; sitters were always at hand. This added up to a great emotional security but we don't know enough to miss it. In fact we pity the couple who takes in a grandparent: "The poor Jenkinses, they have to have her mother living with them."

Most Americans once lived in small, tight-knit communities where they were well known and could count on caring neighbors. They felt a corresponding obligation to help others and to participate in local affairs. Nowadays young couples hurry to large cities for better jobs, where they can depend only on themselves and feel isolated. They are apt to move often. It's a rootless existence; we take this for granted, but it surely takes its toll.

Mothers as well as fathers take outside jobs in 50 percent of families with preschool children. Whatever the reason -- financial or emotional -- they have every right to jobs and careers. Unfortunately, however, in this country we haven't solved the problem of providing high-quality day care. Good day care must be subsidized by government or industry for families with modest incomes, but our government says it can't afford to help. So children are being neglected in large numbers and will show the effects in their characters for life.

The tensions of our society must contribute to our high divorce rate, which has doubled in the last fifteen years. Then divorce itself creates new symptoms of distress -- in all the children and in both parents -- for at least two years. Then come the distresses of the stepfamily, which may last for many years and can't be imagined until experienced, as I found out myself. Currently there are nearly as many stepfamilies as nonstepfamilies in the United States. For the first time, original nuclear families will be the minority.

Factors contributing to divorce are briefness of acquaintance before marriage and marriage at an early age. I suspect another factor is that very many American youths have been favored with all the possessions and privileges their parents could possibly afford, including, in some families I've known, a car for the sixteenth birthday. This is far beyond what youths expect in other industrial nations. Money has been relatively easy to earn. Most high schools and universities have not been academically difficult compared to those in other countries. In other words, many youths have been able to get most of what they wanted without great effort. So they expect marriage to provide all imaginable pleasures and satisfactions. They haven't realized -- and their parents haven't told them -- that marriage is like a garden, which must be constantly cultivated to survive, let alone improve.

Our species by nature gets great satisfaction, in non-industrial societies, from creating well-made and beautiful objects, whether for our own everyday use -- pots, containers, implements, clothing, ornaments -- or for sale. But the assembly line approach -- in factories and offices -- although more efficient and profitable, has robbed millions of any satisfaction in their job except for the money earned. Industrial workers in Europe as well as in the United States have complained increasingly of the boredom and tension of doing meaningless work.

Our society is ferociously competitive in spirit. Children are compared with each other, in the family and in school, to spur them to greater effort. Some parents sign them up for different after-school lessons every afternoon of the week -- music, dance, athletics -- or send them to specialty camps to learn computing or tennis or soccer. In sports there is diminishing emphasis on fun, from Little League to university, and more on perfection and winning.

A ludicrous example of excessive competitiveness is the effort to make "superkids" by teaching children to recognize Beethoven's picture on flash cards at one year, or to read at the age of two, though no one has shown that such precocious skills have any beneficial effects whatsoever. (At least we haven't yet reached the degree of pressure on children that exists in Japan, where a shocking and increasing number of elementary school children commit suicide because they fear their grades will not satisfy their parents.)

In the adult years, too, the most successful executives often neglect their children and spouses in their race to get to the top and stay there.

Part of the problem in America is that our society is so exclusively materialistic. All societies have to be practical, but in most parts of the world the materialism is balanced by compelling spiritual beliefs such as the duty to serve God (as in Iran), or to serve the family even at the sacrifice of personal desires (as in certain European countries), or to serve the nation (as in Israel).

The rate of suicide in teenagers in America has quadrupled in the past twenty years. The main reason, I believe, is that youths don't have strong enough beliefs to sustain them through those stressful, bewildering years.

Our country is the most violent in the world in murders within the family, rape, wife abuse, and child abuse. Domestic violence is both an expression and a cause of the seething tensions in many of our families. Ours has always been a rough society, slipping easily into brutality, as in our treatment of Native Americans, slaves, and each new wave of immigrants. Now brutality on television and in movies is multiplying the violence. For it has been proved scientifically that each time a child or adult watches violence it desensitizes and brutalizes to at least a slight degree. Yet it's estimated that the average American child has watched eighteen thousand murders before the age of eighteen. So we are creating insensitive, violent people by the hundreds of thousands. It's not that a child brought up by kind parents will be turned into a thug. But everyone is being edged in that direction to a greater or lesser degree.

We have other serious sources of anxiety that should be self-evident. Unlike Canada and most European countries, we lack universal health care of high quality, paid out of social security or other taxes. Much of our housing is decrepit, and only the well-to-do can afford to pay for new, good housing today. There is a gross lack of recreational facilities for those in modest circumstances. Only a bare beginning has been made in overcoming the social cancer of discrimination against minorities and women.

I didn't assemble this list of stresses and horrors to depress or paralyze you. I believe that we can solve our problems

provided we first recognize them. My solutions come under two main headings: child rearing and political activity.


I think we should bring up our children with much less pressure to compete and get ahead: no comparing one child with another, at home or in school; no grades. Let athletics be primarily for fun and let them be organized by children and youths themselves.

Instead of raising our children with the chief aim of getting ahead, I think we should inspire them with the ideals of helpfulness, cooperation, kindliness, and love. These don't need to be preached with solemnity. The parents' example is the most effective means. Besides, human beings who've been raised with plenty of love love to be helpful to others, and it makes children feel good and grown up.

By two years children want to set the table. They should be allowed to set out the silver, which can't be harmed, complimented for their helpfulness, and spurred on occasionally by promises that they will be able to set the plates someday. However, when they forget to be helpful, we should squelch the impulse to scold. They can be reminded politely of how much you need their help, as you would remind a good friend who's staying with you. (In day-care centers the staff count on the children to put things away and to help serve and clean up, month after month.) Teenagers can be encouraged or expected to do volunteer work in hospitals or to tutor younger children.

There should be no grades in school. (I taught in a medical school that had very successfully abolished grades.) Grades pit each student against the others. They mislead students and teachers into thinking that learning comes from memorizing the teacher's words. But usable learning, the purpose of which should be to prepare the individual to contribute maximally as worker, citizen, and family member, comes from doing, thinking, feeling, experimenting, taking responsibility and initiative, solving problems, creating. The teacher provides the environment and the materials and calls attention to what is happening. The students do the rest.

I hope American parents can outgrow the conviction, which a majority have, that physical punishment is necessary to bring up well-behaved children. Certainly almost all parents have had an impulse to strike when, for instance, a child deliberately handles and breaks the parent's precious possession. But there are parts of the world where it has never occurred to any adult to strike a child. I have known personally or professionally dozens of families in which the parents never lifted a hand -- or otherwise punished or humiliated their children -- and yet the children were ideally cooperative and polite. Children are eager to be ever more grown up and responsible.

When an effective foreman or supervisor wants to correct a worker, he doesn't haul off and swat him on the behind or slap his face. He calls him into his office and explains how he wants the job done; in most cases the worker tries to do it better. It's just the same with children when they are treated with respect.

There are several things mistaken, I think, with physical punishment. It teaches that might makes right. It helps turn some children into bullies. And, to the degree that it makes a child behave, he behaves because he's afraid of being hurt. Much better for him to behave because he loves his parents and wants to please them and grow up to be like them.

I feel strongly that children should not be permitted to watch violence on television or in movies, whether in cartoons or with live actors. Just say, with conviction, "There is too much killing and hurting in the world!"

With similar words I'd decline to give a child guns or other military equipment, though I wouldn't run after him if he used a stick for a gun, to keep up with his pals.


How are we to get federal subsidies for the adequate day care that so many millions of young parents and their children are now doing without? How will we get better elementary and high schools, with smaller classes and better-trained teachers, especially for the children in deprived areas? (They need inspiring schools most, in order to catch up with the children from advantaged backgrounds.) How will we get universal, high-quality health care for everyone? How will we get decent housing and recreation facilities for all our families? Not by wringing our hands. The solution can come only by greater political activity of our people. At present only half of us bother to vote. And many of those who do vote seem to do so not on the basis of the issues, but on personality preferences. (Sixty to seventy percent want disarmament but they elected and reelected Nixon and Reagan, openly dedicated to the arms race.)

Americans have shown that they will barrage with letters and telegrams their officials in Washington in opposition to a proposed tax or to a cut in social security for retired people. Yet few will be stirred to political activity in favor of disarmament. Is it that taxes and social security seem like citizens' issues but that armament is the government's business, too overwhelming or too technical for ordinary people? Political activity -- even letter writing and demonstrating -- seems inappropriate to millions of Americans. I've heard them dismiss all politics as dirty business though they speak proudly of our democracy. I've heard fathers say to their sons, "Never mind politics. Your job is to get ahead." People have criticized me for seeming to step out of my professional role to become undignifiedly political. I'd say it was belated realization that day care, good schools, health insurance, and nuclear disarmament are even more important aspects of pediatrics than measles vaccine or vitamin D.

Conservatives say that we can't afford to meet our social needs. But European nations, not nearly as well-off as ours, are doing more for their people and especially for their children. The main problem of course is that our government is spending trillions of dollars for additional fiendish arms in the vain hope that it will add to our national security. We must take control of the country away from the arms makers.

We must vote and vote discriminately. When incumbents seem hopeless, we can work in the nominating campaigns of candidates who share our views. After our officials are installed, we must keep track of their votes and keep after them. Letter writing and telegraphing are not namby-pamby; they are effective in impressing the president and the Congress with how people are feeling. Officials calculate that for every letter received there are thousands of nonwriters with the same urgent opinion. Don't worry about the wording. You only need to be clear about which side you're on.

You don't have to go to Washington to lobby your senators and representatives. Find out from their in-state offices when they will next visit and make an appointment for your committee. Give it an impressive name and include at least twenty earnest members. Don't go alone; they can dismiss you as just a nut.

You can attend big demonstrations in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Or you can organize a small local demonstration, with signs, in front of your federal building, post office, or official's office. If you've tried all the proper approaches and feel desperate because you are getting nowhere, you may want to think of nonviolent civil disobedience. It attracts much more media attention. It's wise to enlist at least one courageous clergyman, to reassure yourselves that your cause is just and to impress the police. It is necessary to recruit a public-spirited lawyer or two, to find out what the law says about the action planned, to notify the authorities, to organize bail and fines, and to represent the demonstrators in court.

So there is a wide range of political activities to choose from in working for a cause or crusade. Choose what feels comfortable to you. The most important thing, though, is to keep working at it, month after month, year after year. It's the quantity and duration that count.

To Work Outside or Not

Whether a mother of a baby or preschool child should go back to an outside job (caring for a baby can be a full-time inside job) is a complicated matter, as everyone who has tried can tell you. There are many factors to be considered. How important to the mother is the job, financially, emotionally, or psychologically? Could mother and father dovetail their working hours so that between them they can cover most of the child's waking hours? Is there a grandmother, aunt, or other relative whom both parents like who could care for their child?

Has the mother worked before, in her chosen field, long enough and successfully enough that she has confidence that she could always find work at her former job or at another, if she decided to quit her job for now? What's the local situation as to quality and availability of day care? Would the mother prefer to stay home for one or several years, perhaps until the youngest child is in first grade or three years old at the least and able to attend a good day-care center or nursery school? (There should be government subsidies for such parents who can't afford to stay home.)

A few professionals in the child development field believe that only a mother or father can give a baby or small child ideal care, because of the intimacy of that relationship and its permanence. But a majority feel, as I do, that a well-trained teacher in a high-quality day-care center, or a woman providing excellent day care in her home, or a compatible grandparent, aunt, or uncle, or a full-time sitter can do a satisfactory job during the parents' workday. It is essential, however, that his or her personality and attitude are good.

The substitute caregiver should be able to give a parental kind of care, by which I mean loving each child with real warmth, appreciating each child's individual makeup, showing pleasure in the child's tiny achievements (which will encourage the child to keep on developing), and being able to manage the child with a kind touch (without severity and without oppressiveness).

In the three-to-five-year-old day-care situation, there should not be more than seven children in the care of one adult. And there shouldn't be more than three children per adult when the children are under three. The latter situation is called family day care when it is provided in the care-giver's home.

If you are considering day care or family day care, you should visit the places under consideration for several hours on two or more occasions to be sure that the spirit of the care as well as the physical situation fits with your ideas. A good question to keep in mind is whether the teachers are spending most of their time giving general directions to the group or whether they are keeping their eyes open for children who are having difficulties. Is a child getting frustrated with a plaything and in need of tactful help; is he getting into tugs-of-war or fights and in need of help to learn the fun of cooperative play; is he getting hurt and in need of comforting?

Of course there should be enough constructive playthings. For the three-to-five-year-olds there should be blocks, dolls, doll's equipment, housekeeping equipment, easel and finger paints, modeling clay, toy cars, tricycles, wagons, a jungle gym, a sandbox. For children under three the playthings and activities will be simpler, but they must be available.

In past decades women who expected to have outside jobs tended to have their babies relatively soon after marriage and then they went to work when their children were one to six. But in recent years increasing numbers of women have gotten well started on their working careers first and then had their babies in their late twenties or thirties. In this way they have first settled any inner doubts about whether they are capable of holding good jobs. And when the babies have come, the mothers have been in a better position to decide whether to get back soon to the outside job on a full- or part-time basis, or whether to take off a year or more for full-time care, until the child was ready for day care at three, kindergarten at five, or school at six. By then the father might be earning more, thus making it more financially possible for the mother to quit temporarily.

Studies have shown that the old adage "Have your children when you are young, strong, and flexible" is not necessarily sound. On the average, older parents are more flexible, tolerant, understanding, and happy in child care.

Babies and children up to three years are highly sensitive to separation from the person who has been their principal caregiver. Babies as young as six months will go into a depression if abruptly separated from their mother and left with an unfamiliar person. At two or two and a half they will become subdued if the mother abruptly leaves them with an unfamiliar caregiver. The depth of the child's despair only shows when the mother returns. Then the child, let's say it's a girl, will rush to the mother and cling to her. She will cry in alarm when her mother goes into the next room. She will bat away the sitter, whom she accepted while the mother was gone. When her mother tries to leave her in her crib at bedtime, she will cling with a viselike grip. If her mother can pry herself loose and head for the door, a two-year-old who has never climbed out of her crib before will unhesitatingly vault over the side and race after her. It will take months to reassure a child who has been frightened in this way.

The answer is to prepare thoughtfully for the separation over a period of at least two weeks by introducing the sitter or substitute gradually. She can come to the home for increasing periods of time for a week without trying to do anything directly for the child, just making friends at a distance. When she is accepted, she can try helping the child to dress or bringing her some food. When this step goes smoothly, the mother can leave the home for not more than half an hour, the next day for an hour, and so on, gradually. At any sign of panic, the sitter should back off and proceed more slowly.

If the young child is going out to family day care, the same principles should apply: several brief visits with the mother until the child feels at home; then the mother can leave the child for half an hour and gradually increase the length of her absences. This may all seem expensive -- in time and money. But it is well worthwhile to prevent a separation panic that could affect the child for months and perhaps make the mother's outside job impossible.

After they reach the age of three years, children are much less likely to develop a severe separation anxiety. But I'd still recommend a gradual introduction to a day-care center, at least for the first few days, to see how fast the child takes to it. Then proceed, slowly or fast.


For many women the best compromise, when it is possible, is to start with part-time work. This gives the mother much of the closeness to the child that she wants during the most formative years, yet keeps her hand in the work she wants to pursue. Furthermore it gives her the sense of escape from the confinement of home that many women feel they need, especially with the first child, the one who ends the mother's freedom.

In fairness, a father should be willing to cut down to a part-time job so that the mother won't have to sacrifice so much of her outside work time. But some fathers are still not ready to think of themselves as caregivers, and even in families where the father is willing to assume such a role, this may not be practical. The fact is that, unfairly, men earn much more than women for equal work, so when a father goes on part-time it usually means a greater financial sacrifice for the family than when the mother does all the cutting down. And when companies do provide long leaves for infant care, it's almost always maternity leave, not paternity leave.

Good day care and family day care are expensive, more expensive than families on modest incomes can afford. Most European countries have gone a lot further than the United States in subsidizing day care through contributions of government or industry or both. Our country is the richest the world has ever known and there is no good reason why it should be shortchanging our children -- except, of course, for our obscene defense budget.

In past generations and centuries most women felt that the family was the most important aspect of existence. (I myself have felt that it is.) But in their crusade for equality and justice, particularly in the women's liberation movement beginning in the 1970s, many feminists have thought of equality primarily in terms of equal pay and equal access to the prestigious jobs, which they are certainly entitled to. But pay and prestige have been two of men's highest aims, in our excessively competitive, materialistic society. So, in a sense and to a degree, many women are now accepting men's values. Or, to put it in harsher terms, many women are joining the rat race. Incidentally, they are getting more stomach ulcers and heart attacks, once considered particular diseases of tense, ambitious men.

This issue -- what values we should emphasize in America in the future -- is one that is very close to my heart on several scores. All through my career as a medical school teacher, one of my main jobs has been to try to help students to be sensitive to the feelings of their patients, because these feelings have close connections with their diseases. In other words, I was trying to counteract the tendency in the upbringing of so many boys in America to suppress their feelings and to depersonalize their relations with other people, in their family life and in their work. This tendency is particularly handicapping in the work of physicians, who will misdiagnose many conditions if they fail to recognize emotional factors.

In my pediatric practice and in writing Baby and Child Care I've been trying to persuade fathers to get involved in the care of their children -- for the sake of the children and for the sake of the fathers themselves.

And as a peace activist I am dismayed by the encouragement of aggressiveness and violence by television, movies, and war toys.

It would have been so much better if, instead of women's taking on men's excessively competitive values, men had had the sense to see that they have been pursuing harmful ideals and to recognize that family life; participation in neighborhood affairs; and warm, cooperative relationships -- at home, in the community, and at work -- are the vital aspects of existence and that both sexes should demote the outside job to third priority.

What does all this have to do with women's outside work? I'm trying to encourage women, whether they work by choice or necessity, to avoid falling into the male fallacy of thinking of outside work as more important, more challenging than family.

Late Parenting

In the past it was usually believed that a couple should have their children while they are young. Parents are thus more resilient, nearer to their children in spirit (somewhat as if this were an athletic contest that went to the side with more endurance). Parenting takes endurance all right. But a study a generation ago showed that, even more, it takes understanding and tolerance, and that these qualities are in greater supply on the average in parents in their thirties than those in their twenties. And the parent-child relationship and the child's adjustment are on the average judged to be better when the parents are in their thirties.

In trying to explain this outcome to myself, I conclude that younger parents are still so close to childhood themselves but so proud of having outgrown it that they don't want to admit any connection. I'll give two examples of this intolerance. When I was interviewing a fourteen-year-old girl and asked her what her ten-year-old brother was like, she was so irritated by his crudeness, his lack of sophistication, that she was able only to give a loud, disgusted grunt. If she were a few years older she might have been able to cast her eyes to heaven and smile indulgently at his uncouthness. Another example of intolerance: A sixteen-year-old mother, asked how her new baby was doing, scowled and declared, "He's bad!" Questioning brought out that what she was disapproving of so indignantly was just the usual amount of fretfulness in a young baby.

In other words, you may enjoy your babies more and they may enjoy you more if you have them in your thirties.

In reading about and listening to young women who are going to work for the first time, I've learned that in our discriminating society, where they've often heard such remarks as "Women are not good as engineers" or not good as physicists, or not good as executives, many of them have self-doubts about whether they will be able to succeed in their chosen fields, especially if their ambitions are high. From this point of view, it may work out better for such women to start their careers early, advance through several levels, establish a reputation, and convince themselves that they have what it takes. Then they can more comfortably take off a period for full-time or part-time child care, with the idea of going back to the full-time career later. I'm not saying that starting a career first and postponing children till later will prove best for all women. But I've known a number for whom it turned out to be quite satisfying. It fits, too, with the recent tendency to postpone marriage until the later twenties.

Parents in their thirties are more secure in their adulthood. They aren't so self-centered. They can see and feel what a baby is and what he needs.

I don't want to emphasize the difference between parents in their twenties and thirties so much that I discourage couples who want their babies in their twenties. I only want to overcome the belief that the twenties are always better.

Can You Raise Superkids?

Can you raise superkids? At least a few psychologists and parents think so.

When anxious parents hear that in a certain program two-year-olds are being taught to read or that one-year-olds are taught to recognize Beethoven's picture on flash cards, they may jump to the conclusion that they themselves should be seeking similar training for their own child, even though there is absolutely no evidence that this has long-term benefits.

I remember one New York City mother years ago who complained that her eleven-year-old daughter was becoming increasingly tense and cried easily. Questioning brought out that the mother had enrolled her in riding lessons on Mondays, ice-skating lessons Tuesdays, social dancing class Wednesdays, music lessons Thursdays, ballet on Fridays -- and on Saturdays, opera appreciation. Besides, her school had high academic standards and the teachers ordered lots of homework. When I suggested that fatigue could be a part of the problem, her mother exclaimed, "But all those classes are so important!"

I've known parents who worried that if their son didn't give up his bottle by the age of one or stop sucking his thumb by the age of three, he'd never get into the college, the law school, and the law firm of his father's choice. This kind of anxiety is particularly common in highly successful families; you might say it's how the upper crust stays upper.

The drive is passed down from generation to generation. If during their own childhoods parents were expected to do superior work and made to feel anxious if they didn't, they are likely to apply the same pressure when they have children of their own. Other parents may explain that it's their duty in these tough times to give their kids every educational and cultural advantage.

We do live in a society that depends increasingly on intelligence and education. And we do know that drastically neglecting an infant's or child's emotional and intellectual needs may sharply limit her ability to learn. But such cases don't prove that stimulation beyond a natural amount is beneficial. In fact, I believe that too much of the wrong kind of stimulation can be harmful.

What is the harm? One basic defect in all such schemes is that the impetus to excel comes not from the children but from parents who are driven by their own preoccupation with high achievement. So the children may balk, to preserve their integrity.

When parents do sometimes succeed in pushing their children to excel in some field, such as ballet or music, the children may end up somewhat lopsided in development, perhaps self-centered or humorless or unsociable. They may also grow up feeling that their parents value them only for their unusual talent.

Conversely, if they don't succeed to an unusual degree, some children may feel keenly that they've let their parents down and end up with a long-lasting sense of failure.

Pressing children too hard may turn them into adults so obsessed with being first that they get no joy out of life except in the narrow field of competition. They neither give nor get pleasure in their relationships with spouses, children, friends, and fellow workers. Or they may simply develop ulcers or early heart disease.

Overscheduling and overcontrolling rob children of part of their inborn drive to learn for themselves and to strive for healthy independence. They also rob children of opportunities to develop their own interests and hobbies, which are valuable if they are to develop into well-rounded, successful adults. In fact, a study of the childhoods of unusually creative individuals has revealed one common denominator: as children these people all became deeply interested in some hobby or project (not necessarily related to their later occupation) and stuck with it.

How are babies and children normally stimulated to develop emotionally, socially, intellectually? Love plays a vital part in this process. Children work hard at learning to behave like people they love; unloved children do not imitate.

When a baby is loved, her inborn patterns keep unfolding; when she is ready for the next step, she reaches out to activities and to things. Fond parents who have been watching and waiting for her first smiles respond delightedly with smiles of their own. If this encouraging delight is repeated for months, and she is regularly fed, hugged, and comforted, she will learn that she is loved and that her parents can be trusted. These feelings -- love and trust -- form the foundation of all the child's future development and future relationships. Even her interest in the outside world, and later her ability to deal with ideas, will spring from this foundation. Children who've been deprived of these feelings in infancy suffer serious limitations.

Parents also naturally encourage their babies' development by noticing the kinds of things they respond to at different stages and by supplying appealing objects -- bright pictures or mobiles to watch, later dolls and cuddly toys to examine and manipulate endlessly.

One-year-olds are never still. They get into everything, taste specks of dust, climb stairs before they can walk. Their instinct prompts them to do everything possible by themselves; they'll insist on taking hold of the spoon when being fed. Even more noticeable is their resistance to suggestions that are not made tactfully; they may say, "No!" at first to a favorite activity. They don't want to be dominated.

By the second year, children mature by striving to copy their parents' actions, from brushing teeth to dressing and undressing. Parents instinctively encourage development by showing their pleasure in each tiny accomplishment. Vocabulary and sentences come with a rush toward the end of the second year; parents do their part by listening.

In the years from three to six, children watch with particular intensity the parent of the same sex, and they strive to be like that parent -- in manner, interests, and feelings, as well as in actions. This is a crucial step in maturity, and one that can be seen most clearly in societies in which all the men have the same occupations and all the women, others. Through an emotional identification with their parents, all young children acquire a lifelong drive to do their parents' jobs well. First they play at their parents' occupations. When they are considered old enough, their parents take them on as apprentices and helpers. (In our complex industrial society it is unfortunately much harder for children to visualize what their parents work at outside the home, and there is a bewildering variety of jobs.)

At this age children love being read to. It stimulates their imagination and increases their desire to read to themselves eventually.

All these strivings to grow up can be nurtured or suppressed, depending on the attitude of the adults. The drive for autonomy can be strengthened by giving children the opportunity to practice new skills until they are mastered. At the same time, as children grow older, their urge to learn and mature can be impaired if their parents and teachers are constantly directing and dominating them unnecessarily, filling every waking minute with dictated activities.

There are a number of very human and enjoyable activities that school-aged children themselves get involved in, without any planning -- spending time with friends, playing with dolls, organizing games, reading books, and engaging in working at self-selected hobbies and projects of all kinds. These are not just pleasant pastimes. These activities keep children's feelings alive and warm in a society that is pushing us further and further into cool technology. They teach sociability, cooperation, leadership, followership, creativity, responsibility, independent thinking, and self-discipline. In these ways they help prepare children for satisfying careers and good relationships with people.

Compared to these benefits, the value of special imposed lessons seems to me to be secondary. It's not that special instruction is bad or unimportant. But lessons or prescribed activities should not be allowed to take the place of spontaneous ones.

When both parents work outside the home, after-school scheduling can be a way of providing supervision for the child. Ideally the child should be in an after-school group program, preferably at her regular school, that offers activities she can pursue for her own interests and enjoyment. The value will depend on whether the child made the choice and how much enthusiasm she continues to feel; it also depends on whether the leadership, responsibility, initiative, and creativity are mainly left to the group. Instructors should be selected for their popularity with children. There should be no grading. The possible offerings are endless: athletics (with coaches who will emphasize teamwork and enjoyment instead of perfection or winning at all costs), computer operation, carpentry, electronics, painting, music, story writing, newspaper editing, stamp collecting and trading. Parents should demand such programs in their children's schools, whether or not both parents work.

I started with the example of a child who was sent to six activities outside school each week. She didn't have much time for friendship, reading, hobbies, or fun. It seemed clear that, while her parents may have been hoping to make her more accomplished, the child was instead becoming tense under the pressure.

I can picture other children who are just as busy every day after school but with their own spontaneous interests. In these activities they are being themselves, cultivating their curiosity and developing their character. So it's a question not of how many hours a child should spend or how many interests she should have, but of the spirit in which activities are entered into and carried out.

Why have I bothered listing the well-known activities of children? Simply to remind us that there is a beautiful system by which children who are well loved reach out to their parents and to the world for what they need. Through the centuries, this has been enough to produce plenty of bright people who have succeeded in life as well as in school.

So you don't have to seek out special, newfangled, advanced courses. I do feel that the preschool and the regular school should foster creativity, initiative, responsibility, and problem solving; they should be joyful places, rather than prisons that teach memorization and conformity. To be sure, the courses in high schools and universities have to keep pace with computers and other technological advances. But children who have grown up secure and curious will have no serious difficulty adapting to these. It's those who have grown up with stunted curiosity and insufficient love who won't catch on.

Abductors and Molesters

Two child safety proposals have been much discussed lately and put into practice in some localities: the fingerprinting of children and the inviting of police officers to give talks in schools warning children against abductors and molesters. There is an obvious appeal to these suggestions. I myself would be in favor of any proposals that offered real protection. But I believe that on balance these particular precautions are likely to do more harm than good, because they will make millions of children fearful without a redeeming benefit.

There is no doubt that children have morbid imaginations and are easily frightened. Studies have shown, for example, that children entering a hospital for as ordinary an operation as a tonsillectomy have developed all manner of dreads -- that the operation is necessary because they have not obeyed their parents, that their necks would be sliced open from ear to ear, or that their parents would never be able to find them again to take them home.

You can guess, then, what a child's imagination will make of a policeman's lecture on kidnapping, rape, and murder. For one thing, to many children, police represent not protection but punishment. And I can easily imagine a young girl who has passed a raggedy-looking man on the way to school exclaiming to her friend, "I saw a kidnapper this morning and he was looking at me!"

In fact, the overwhelming majority of molesters are people the child knows well -- a relative or a friend of the family whom the child is accustomed to respect. How can a police officer explain sexual molestation or warn children not to trust close relatives? I feel that these are jobs better done by parents, who know their child's sensitivities.

An overwhelming majority of the children who "disappear" fall into two categories. The first are those picked up by a divorced, noncustodial parent who feels resentful about unsatisfactory visitation rights. Obviously, having children fingerprinted will not prevent such abductions. The second large group are young teenage runaways, mostly girls, who have felt misunderstood or insufficiently loved by parents. Their fingerprints will not help anyone to discover them. When they are eventually picked up by the police it will be because of their evasive behavior. They soon identify themselves anyway.

Actually the only real use of fingerprints that I can see would be to hasten the identification of recently murdered children, who usually get identified anyway because police and parents are on the alert. (I say "recently murdered" because decomposition of the body soon destroys fingerprints.)

How can parents themselves go about protecting their children against molesters, to the extent that this can be done at all?

To me it seems easier and less traumatic to talk first about sexual proposals from other children, of your child's age or older. The subject might come up through some sex question your child asks or her report of such an incident, or because you've discovered sex play. Children get interested in the origin of babies and also get involved in sex play at three and four years. You can say to a girl that if a boy asks to see or touch her vulva (or whatever the family word is), she doesn't have to let him. She can just say, "No! I don't want you to do that!" Then the parent, say it's the mother, can repeat the same advice as applying to an older boy. Finally she can repeat it as applying to a man. The repetition is valuable to help any child take in a new idea and to prepare the child to make the same speech herself. In fact the parent can invite the child to practice the recitation with her, right then: "Let's say it together: 'No! I don't want you to do that.'" This should to some degree help the child to call her body her own if and when a suggestion comes from an adult relative or family friend.

To give a young child some protection against abductors, I'd say, matter-of-factly, "Don't get into a car with anybody but us. And don't go with anybody to his house. If somebody asks you to, you tell them, 'No! I don't want to!' and run the other way." You are telling the child that she doesn't have to obey a stranger (abductor or molester), and that there are a couple of things she can do, so she has some power. If she wants to know what a stranger might do, I'd say, "There are a few mean people in the world and they might be mean to a child."

If a child, having heard some report of molestation from a friend or television, asked why a person would do such a thing, I'd try to be low-key. "There are a few men," I might say, "who are mixed up in their heads; they think it's okay to make a boy or girl who isn't a member of their family come live at their house, or touch them in ways that make them uncomfortable." I would be trying to put the mildest interpretation on such behavior because that would be sufficient warning, and I feel it is important to raise children with as much trust as possible in their fellow beings.

If the child were reacting to a specific television report of a murdered boy or girl, I would say more: "A few people were treated so badly when they were children that now they want to hurt others -- not only children but grown-ups too."

Whether children have been molested in a brief, incomplete way or more aggressively, it's essential for parents to realize that the children always feel guilty and that you should do your best to minimize this guilt. "It's not your fault at all," you might say. "You didn't want him to do that. He was mixed up. He was mean." You shouldn't pretend nothing has happened: that tells the child that it's too awful to talk about. At the same time, don't carry on as if a terrible tragedy has occurred, one that can never be overcome.

It is wise to secure help for the child and for yourselves from a family guidance clinic, an agency that specializes in sexual trauma, or a family social agency.

The long-range solution for all kinds of violence toward children, including sexual abuse, is to raise future generations in such an atmosphere that they will grow up to be kindlier adults -- parents, teachers, and people generally -- than many who are alive today. In other parts of the world the figures for violence of all kinds -- toward adults as well as children -- are much lower than here, which should give us hope that we too can make a better society if we will recognize the problems and work on them.

All schools should be friendly, creative places like the best I've seen. We should wean ourselves away from physical punishment. We should demand challenging television and movie programs in place of the present violence. We should have more and better social services to rescue the children who are presently being neglected and abused so that the pattern will not be passed down.

Copyright © 1988 by Benjamin Spock

About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Spock was the most trusted and most famous pediatrician worldwide; his reassuring and commonsense advice shaped parenting practices for half a century. The author of eleven books, he was a political activist for causes that vitally affect children: disarmament, day care, schooling, housing, and medical care for all. Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care has been translated into thirty-nine languages and has sold more than fifty million copies worldwide since its first publication in 1946. Please visit for more information.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (August 1, 2001)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743426831

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Publishers Weekly Spock provides interesting reading...straight answers to tough questions.

Chattanooga News­Free Press [TN] Sound and thoughtful advice on a variety of topics concerning parents.

Kirkus Reviews "Cheerfully definite" (his recommendation for talking to children) and skilled in reviewing contemporary parenting situations.

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