Dr Spock on Permissive Child Rearing

Dr Benjamin Spock (1903–98) was a medical doctor whose book, Baby and Child Care, was first published in 1946. By the time he died, it had sold 50 million copies and influenced a generation of parents, encouraging them to be less strict and concerned about ‘spoiling’ their children. He is seen in the picture above with Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Spock describes changes in child-rearing practices, from an authoritarian to a more permissive approach:

We’ve been through a big transition. It’s hard to get any perspective on this topic without taking a historical view. Styles in strictness vary from one period to another. The Victorian Age was quite strict, for instance, about manners and modesty. In the twentieth century, especially after World War I, a reaction set in. Several factors pushed it along. Pioneers in educational research, like John Dewey and William Kilpatrick, showed that a child learns better and faster with a method of teaching that makes allowance for his particular readiness to progress and that recognizes his eagerness to learn if the subject matter is suitable. Freud and his followers showed that harsh toilet training or frightening a child about sex can distort his personality and lead to neurosis. Studies of delinquents and criminals revealed that most of them had suffered more from lack of love in childhood than from lack of punishment. These discoveries, among others, encouraged a general relaxation in child discipline and a greater effort to give children what they seemed to need as individuals … [T]he experiments of Dr. Preston McLendon and Mrs. Frances P. Simsarian with the ‘self-demand’ time-table … helped to convince doctors that most babies can do very well choosing their own feeding times and will remain healthy. Since then, there has been a rapid and widespread shift in medical practice. Today a majority of babies are being put on more or less flexible time-tables at first.

Doctors who used to conscientiously warn young parents against spoiling are now encouraging them to meet their baby’s needs, not only for food, but for comforting and loving. These discoveries and these changes of attitudes and methods have benefited most children and parents. There are fewer tense ones, more happy ones.

But it’s not possible for a civilization like ours to go through such a change of philosophy—it really amounts to a revolution —without raising doubts in many parents’ minds and without getting some parents thoroughly mixed up. It’s basic human nature to tend to bring up your children about as you were brought up. It’s easy enough to pick up new ideas about vitamins and inoculations. But if your upbringing was fairly strict in regard to obedience, manners, sex, truthfulness, it’s natural, it’s almost inevitable, that you will feel strongly underneath about such matters when raising your own children …

Parents who become confused with new theories are often of two kind. There are, first of all, those who have been brought up with too little confidence in their own judgment. If you don’t dare trust yourself, you have to follow what someone else says, willy-nilly. A second group are those parents who feel that they were brought up too severely. They remember the resentment they felt towards their parents at times, and they don’t want their children to feel that way about them. But this is a very difficult approach. If you want to raise your children the way you were raised, you have a definite pattern to follow. You know just how obedient, how helpful, how polite, you want them to be. You don’t have to stop and think. But if you want to treat them quite differently to the way you were treated—more indulgently, for instance, or more as equals—you don’t have any pattern of how far to carry it. If things begin to get out of hand—if, for example, your child begins to take advantage of your permissiveness—it’s harder to find your way back on to the right track. The child makes you angry but the angrier you get the guiltier you feel for fear you’ll step into the very pattern you were determined to avoid …

I think that good parents who naturally lean towards strictness should stick to their guns and raise their children that way. Moderate strictness—in the sense of requiring good manners, prompt obedience, orderliness—is not harmful to children so long as the parents are basically kind and so long as the children are growing up happy and friendly. But strictness is harmful when the parents are overbearing, harsh, chronically disapproving, and make no allowances for a child’s age and individuality. This kind of severity produces children who are either meek and colourless or unkind to others.

Parents who incline to an easy-going kind of management, who are satisfied with casual manners as long as the child’s attitude is friendly, or who happen not to be particularly strict—for instance, about promptness or neatness—can also raise children who are considerate and co-operative, as long as the parents are not afraid to be firm about those matters that do seem important to them.

When parents get unhappy results from too much permissiveness, it is not so much because they demand too little, though this is part of it. It is more because they are timid or guilty about what they ask or because they are unconsciously encouraging the child to rule the roost.


Spock, Benjamin. 1958. Child and Baby Care. London: The Bodley Head. pp. 57–60. || Amazon || WorldCat


Previous || Chapter 5: Directory || Next