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Missing the point of Spock

Education Matters, Radio 4 LW, Monday, October 21, 11.00pm

As a Sixties parent I am, of course, responsible for the fact that all youngsters today have flat feet, sniff glue and know what condoms are for. It is a judgment that comes a bit hard, because, as I recall, the question then was not whether you smacked your children, but how hard you could belt them in public without getting frowned at by people who had read Dr Spock.

Advance publicity for Education Matters made much of its interview with the 93-year-old Benjamin Spock, 50 years on from the publication of his mega-best-selling The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In the event, what we got was another look at some familiar arguments. Did he really preach permissiveness, for example? No. He was in favour of "firm, clear leadership".

What Spock did, of course - and he was staunchly supported in this on the programme by Miriam Stoppard - was to give parents the confidence to believe in their own instincts, which are to love the baby and respond to his or her needs. Thus it is that 30 years on from being a Spock baby, my own daughter has a son who, at two months, is only just beginning to spend short periods out of his parents' arms. He feeds when he wants to, and is cuddled for perhaps 20 hours out of the 24. Before Spock this was scandalous.

The programme was good, with supporting interviews, on the reassurance and liberation that Spock gave to mothers. I wanted, a bit more, though. Where did his ideas come from, for example? He was a paediatrician, not just a popular writer, and it would have been good to have had a little about his academic background.

I also wished that the programme had made more of the clear link that, for me, ran between Spock and the other items in this programme - on, respectively, child abuse, Birmingham's University of the First Age, and the Internet.

The connecting thread, I felt, is that Spock was representative of how vital it is for society to be aware of the needs of children from birth to the end of youth, whenever that might be. If love, care and response to need is not only desirable but essential for infants, why is it not equally important for older children?

A sane, child-centred society would tackle child abuse effectively; it would look at developing the hidden needs and talents of young teenagers - as Birmingham is doing - instead of working out ways of locking them up; and it would recognise that information technology has the capacity to liberate young people from an agenda set by adults.

Had Education Matters explicitly made these points, it might have given a better ending than the weak "other Dr Spock" link which led into the Star Trek theme music.

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