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The Care and Feeding of a Legend : Dr. Spock Looks Back on a Lifetime of Caring for Babies

March 31, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

Here is a living contradiction if ever there was one. Two of them, in fact.

Here, across the coffee table of a Beverly Wilshire suite, is Dr. Benjamin Spock, 81, a ready, booming laugh crouched just under the surface of a distinguished mien.

Here too is Dr. Michael Rothenberg, 58, a quick and penetrating mind camouflaged behind an instinctive affability.

Spock, of course, is second only to God on the best-seller list. Rothenberg is his handpicked successor--his Simon Peter, as it were--and collaborator on the latest edition of "Baby and Child Care."

Here are two men whose considerable success is predicated in large part on their insistence that intimidation of a child (or, for that matter, of a parent) is an abomination; that intimidation stunts psychological growth, squelches creativity, squashes potential.

Here are two men who are secure, accomplished, preeminent in their chosen profession.

Two men who, as children, were thoroughly intimidated.

Both men are psychiatrists as well as pediatricians--Spock was the world's first doctor to parlay the disciplines--and each, no doubt, has a rational explanation for the anomaly. A 90-minute interview, however--a discussion ranging from divorce to diphtheria, from pacifiers to pacifism--hardly provides an adequate forum to probe such a seeming contradiction.

One positive effect of early intimidation of the good doctors, though, is perhaps evidenced by their respective reactions to the awesome responsibility of counseling tens of millions of bewildered parents. ("Baby and Child Care" has been read, so far, by 30 million book buyers and countless borrowers; it is history's biggest seller besides the Bible.) Each man, in his own way, faces the challenge with conscience, conscientiousness and a healthy, endearing humility.

Before the first edition appeared, in 1946, Spock was told by his Pocket Books publisher, "It doesn't have to be a very good book, because at 25 cents a copy we'll be able to sell thousands. "

"That alone scared me a little," said Spock. "It also motivated me, because I'm a do-gooder and the idea appealed to me that I'd reach a lot more parents than if it was a hard-cover.

Against the Tide

"Still, I was scared because I was really telling a lot more than most pediatricians, and telling things that were quite newfangled. Unlike other 'baby books,' mine was not condescending and not threatening. Doctors' whole thing was ' I am the one who knows! You listen to me !' It was very hard to swim against the tide and say, 'Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry.'

"So I was scared that it would be criticized by the profession but even more scared that it could actually kill children through parents' misinterpretation. Even when I thought that the book could be selling 10,000 copies, I was scared of the harm it might do. . . . "

"The difference between Ben's book and just about every other child-care book on the market," Rothenberg interjected, "is that it's not a how-to book. It doesn't say, 'You've got to do this, or that happens.'

"What attracted me to the earlier editions, when I used it on my own children, is that it gave a number of different ways of handling almost anything you could think of, and then, when it was finished, it would say, 'However . . . if none of these feels right to you and your child, by all means do it your way.' The book was, and is, reassuring ."

"Yes," agreed Spock, "it leans over backwards. But even that scared me. I was afraid some casual parents would be too reassured. . . . "

Spock's Homeric hands--the hands, in fact, of an Olympic rower who still pulls a mean oar--waved like giant cornstalks as he recalled "one of my favorite families in New York. This very mature, very educated woman called up one day almost casually and said, 'I decided I really ought to call you.'

"Her youngest child, 3 or 4, had had a fever of 104 for four days, along with a splitting headache. Well, to a doctor, that's meningitis!

"I jumped out of my office, leaped into my car. I was tearing through Central Park and got stuck behind a truck with a load of live chickens.

"Talk about evil omens! One chicken had gotten its head between the crates and had strangled to death. There was its head, bobbling at me. I thought, 'My God, I'm not on time.'

"I was, thank God, but I've always thought since then that maybe we ought to have reassurance insurance."

Still, to this day, the book begins, "You know more than you think you do."

Rothenberg wasn't sure he did when he got the call to discuss the succession. An extensive search had dwindled down to a precious few. Rothenberg had caught the eye of Spock's second wife, Mary Morgan, for his work on the effect of TV violence upon children.

"When I got Ben's note asking if I were interested . . . well, it took literally three days to get over my state of shock and get to the typewriter.

Overwhelming Responsibility

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