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Dr. Spock Still Active, Writing New Baby Book

June 07, 1992|DAVID BEARD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TORTOLA, British Virgin Islands — When visiting the Spock household, bring a swimsuit.

America's top baby doctor, at age 88, swims daily and has plenty of snorkeling gear for visitors. On land, Dr. Benjamin Spock is working on a new book. His attitude about child-rearing is increasingly moralistic.

"I'm ready!" Spock called to his wife, Mary Morgan, who already was knee-deep in the aqua waters outside their bay shore condominium one sunny Saturday afternoon. She was feeding bread to a pet grouper.

Spock splashed into the Caribbean, adjusted his face mask, then began swimming toward his 35-foot sloop, the Carapace, anchored about 200 feet offshore. He swam a lap around the boat and slapped toward shore.

Spock has appreciated the sea since his youth in Connecticut. While at Yale, he won a spot on the U.S. crew team, and took a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

As a young pediatrician in Manhattan, he kept a 12-foot sailboat moored on the Hudson River or on Long Island Sound. As a medical administrator at the University of Pittsburgh, he spent evenings building a boat. While directing a university medical program in Cleveland, he would take his boat out on Lake Erie and haul it to Cape Cod for summer vacations.

From his retirement in 1967 until last year, he lived aboard sailboats near Camden, Me., and off this sparsely populated British Virgin Island. He reluctantly moved ashore for health reasons, but spends much of his time on his shaded seaside deck or at a writing desk that faces the water. He planned to return to Maine for the summer.

"I feel like all my life has been on the sea," Spock said as he eased his thin, 6-foot-2 frame into a deck chair. About 100 feet away, a pelican dived into the bay for a fish.

Spock, author of "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care" and a longtime peace activist, said he first came to the Virgin Islands after speaking in Puerto Rico.

But he doesn't spend all his time looking.

He rose this Saturday before 6 a.m. and went with his wife to shop for fresh vegetables. He returned home to work on his book and she went to a neighbor's farm, where she slopped the hogs in exchange for some okra.

The okra, breaded and fried in sesame oil, was later served for lunch with homemade corn bread, rice and a leafy salad--typical of the couple's macrobiotic diet. The 7-month-old diet, as well as exercises and meditation, are intended--as his wife puts it in her native Arkansas twang--"to keep Ben around here a lot longer."

"I've had at least six friends here tell me, 'Say, you look well!' I've lost my beer belly and haven't been sick a day since I started in September," Spock said.

Since then, he's done a publicity tour to promote the sixth revised edition of "Baby and Child Care," published last month, and resumed work on his next book, "A Better World for Our Children." He played host to a screenwriter after selling Disney the right to make a movie about his life.

Spock said he is more and more moralistic about child-rearing, and warns parents not to show hesitancy about enforcing bedtime or other home rules. He believes parents should cultivate children's desire to be helpful, and should push them not to compete, but to help others as tutors, counselors or other kinds of volunteers.

Spock said he envies people who have strong religious beliefs, and emphasized the need to give children strong values. "I've come to the realization that a lot of our problems are because of a dearth of spiritual values," he said.

On practical matters, he is against disposable diapers (bad for the environment), Little League (too competitive), sunbathing, infant walkers and sugar-coated cereals.

Spock sees his life as having been lived in three phases: as the struggling pediatrician, the successful author and medical researcher, and the peacenik, anti-nuclear activist and presidential candidate.

He entered medical practice during the Great Depression with a combination of pediatric and psychological training that was rare at the time. He recalls that it took him three years to earn enough to pay rent. While struggling to reconcile Freudian psychology with what mothers told him about their babies, he spent three years writing "Baby and Child Care."

The book was a big success when it was published in 1946. It since has sold 40 million paperback copies and has been translated into 39 languages, according to the publisher.

"Without that book," Spock acknowledged, "I'd have had to have worked as a practitioner until I died."

Instead, he developed theories on thumb-sucking, toilet training, punishment and discipline. After his retirement he gave 800 college lectures in the next eight years, mostly speaking out against the Vietnam War and levels of military spending.

In the latest edition of the book, he and co-author Michael Rothenberg urge mothers and fathers to vote and to support better medical care and education in a world of discrimination and homelessness.

"People have said, 'You've turned your back on pediatrics.' I said, 'No. It took me until I was in my 60s to realize that politics was a part of pediatrics," Spock said.

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