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On Dr. Spock's Birthday, a Call for Peace, for Health, and for Kids

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D., and Kristine Kieswer

This piece was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 1, 2003, under the headline “Recalling the Sage Advice of Dr. Spock.”

World-renowned physician Benjamin Spock rocked the pediatric community in 1946 when his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care advised new parents to adopt a totally new attitude toward their children.

Trust your instincts, he said. Be flexible, and rest assured your own good judgment will lead you in the right direction. He stood for strong discipline, but insisted that discipline never mean corporal punishment—ringing the death knell of the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child philosophy of the time. And Ben was just warming up.

May 2 would have marked his 100th birthday. Had he lived to see it, he would have found a world in need of his strength, morality, and compassion more than ever before. He cared passionately about peace, never wanting the children he helped us raise to have to risk their lives in war. In the turbulent 1960s, he protested the Vietnam War, joined Martin Luther King in the fight against racial discrimination, and was arrested dozens of times championing these causes.

When it came to kids, he never was afraid to take a stand, no matter how controversial. In 1992, after the New England Journal of Medicine reported new evidence suggesting that the childhood-onset form of diabetes was related to exposure to certain dairy proteins, Dr. Spock took on the dairy industry, encouraging parents to take dairy’s risks to heart.

He made dramatic changes in his own diet, too, adopting a plant-based diet late in life to regain his health for several more years. He finally died in 1998 at age 94. In the seventh and last edition of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Spock encouraged all parents to make a major departure from the unhealthy diets that too many families eat and to feed their children a plant-based diet. "We used to think of vegetables, grains, and beans as side dishes. We kept meat and dairy products as our favored foods, and we were not particularly concerned about fat and cholesterol in children’s diets. We now know better. Research shows us very clearly that vegetables, grains, beans, and fruits should take center stage. They provide the nutrition children need to grow, and avoid the cholesterol and animal fat that can cause so many problems," he noted.

We need this sage advice now more than ever. According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of U.S. children who are overweight has doubled in the past couple of decades. With the rise in childhood obesity, the health care system is bracing for an even greater increase in type 2 diabetes, a potentially devastating disease if not closely managed. And before they finish high school, many children already have the beginnings of heart disease, which eventually kills about half the U.S. adult population.

What Dr. Spock advocated long ago is still true: Parents should remain the top advisors in a child’s life. Whether it comes to conflict resolution, maintaining a kindly attitude toward our fellows, or taking care of our children’s health, it’s never too late for families to get on the right track. His vision for a healthy, peaceful planet would do us all a world of good.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher, author, and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Kristine Kieswer is the editor of Good Medicine, PCRM’s quarterly membership magazine. Dr. Spock was a member of PCRM’s advisory board.


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