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Lisa Belkin

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Parenting Book Club Book: Dr. Spock, For A New Generation

Posted: 01/09/12 05:38 PM ET

Trust Yourself. You know more than you think you do.

Those are the opening words of "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care", which, at 65, is essentially a grandparent of a book. In fact, the first mothers to rely on it were the great-grandmothers of those who are having babies today.

To mark the anniversary, the 9th edition was released last week, all 1130 pages of it. While every parent has arguably heard of the book, it's a safe bet that not nearly as many have actually read it. Certainly not all of it.

Which is why I've chosen it as the newest selection of the You-Help-Choose-The-Name-Blog Book Club.

No, I don't expect you'll have the time to read the whole brick-sized thing. Instead I'm hoping we'll look at the tome as a piece of parenting history. I plan to compare the latest edition with the earliest one, looking at what the differences tell us about parenting trends. (Hint: there is no chapter on "The Internet", "The New Brain Science" or "Saving for College" in the original, and the advice about infant sleep is just a smidge different...)

I also plan to look at how so many of our assumptions of what "everybody knows" about raising children actually began with this one book. We'll spend some time talking about the thinking it spawned, and also the ones it conflicts with (what, for instance, would Dr. Spock make of Tiger Mom?). And I'll get to introduce you to Mrs. Dr. Spock -- his wife of 26 years, Mary Morgan. (Fun Mary Morgan fact: when she and the doctor were arrested during a protest against the Vietnam War in front of the White House, she was strip searched and he was not. She sued the District of Columbia for sex discrimination. And won.)

We'll delve more into all this content over the next few weeks, once you've had a chance to get a copy and read along.

But for today, let's talk about those first two sentences.

When I told Morgan we would be reading the latest edition of her husband's book here in book club she brought me a copy of the first edition, a hardback with a simple green cover and black type -- The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. (No, she didn't let me keep it...) Turning to the first page, seeing the two lines that have not changed in 65 years, I was struck by the reality that parents back then had doubts too. Sure today's parents are suffused with doubt. That's what modern parenting IS. But we tend to assume that earlier generations, in contrast, were just so darn certain.

We either envy that certainty (things were so simple then; parents didn't have to torture themselves with worry that they weren't doing their best for their kids) or we sneer at it (aren't we lucky we know so much more than they did and can do so much better for our kids.)

But either way we don't think of our grandparents et al as second guessing.

Dr. Spock, apparently, knew otherwise.

Trust Yourself. You know more than you think you do.

Those words, says Dr. Robert Needlman, who revised this 9th edition and the one before it, were revolutionary. They came at the end of a 20 year stretch where the first wave of "parenting experts" were lecturing and hectoring, telling parents exactly what they should and should not do. (In general, the advice was to be less coddling and more stern.)

"Historically, there had been parenting guides before," Needlman says, "but they were all very prescriptive. Spock was the first to be 'on the one hand, on the other hand.' His was not so much of an instruction, as a permission, making judgments of what works for you."

To today's parents, who not only have doubts, but who also think they are the first ever to have them, two thoughts:

First, while the two iconic lines have remained the same through every edition, the name of the chapter of which those sentences are a part has been tweaked, and it now reads: Trust Yourself and Your Children.

"Too much of the advice out there about parenting paints the parent child relationship in an adversarial way," Needlman says. "The message should not be 'you have to control this child and teach them the rules,' but rather 'how can you helo you child to have a better sense of themselves from within.' "

In other words, in books, parenting, and life, a small change of the lens can make a world of difference.

Second, trusting your instincts does not mean you are going to get it right every time -- and certainly not right from the start. Parenting is a process, a journey. You have to get to know yourself as a parent, and you have to get to know your particular child. Think of it as writing a book. Sometimes you aren't certain what you think until you are a good ways into your manuscript.

Which is, as it turns out, what happened to Dr. Spock.

His widow tells me that her husband penned the manuscript in long hand, wrapped it with paper and twine, and took it to the post office. He was about to hand it to the clerk when he had a thought, untied the package, and scribbled the following words at the top of the first page:

Trust Yourself. You know more than you think you do.

DO you?