Benjamin Spock Theory Explained


Everyone has needs that must be met.

Published in 1946, the book Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock was one of the first attempts to understand the needs of infants, toddlers, and young children. Spock associated the needs of a child to the dynamics of the family, with special attention paid to the attention that parents offered and their flexibility when handling their needs.

Critics see the Benjamin Spock theory as a method of promoting permissiveness through parenting. This would result in children expecting to be instantly gratified with their needs. The issue with the theory was that the definition of a “want” was often confused with the definition of a “need.”

How Does a Child Define Their Wants and Needs?

Imagine a child is waiting in line at the grocery store with their parent. The child is bored. To relieve that boredom, they begin fiddling with the candy bars, looking through magazines, and randomly screaming at the top of their lungs.

Those who would view these behaviors would likely feel that the child is unfocused. Demanding. When screaming, observers would likely become irritated with the child and their parent if it continued for some time.

Is the desire to remove feelings of boredom a need? Or is it a want?

There are three solutions to this behavior that the parent can use. They can choose to ignore it. They can choose to discipline the child for being disruptive. Or they can take on a leadership role and show the child how to conduct themselves in a way that is not disruptive to the rest of the grocery store.

The Benjamin Spock theory takes the latter approach. Parenting, according to Spock, is about providing their child with clear leadership qualities and behaviors that are set through example. In return, the parent is expected to ask for politeness and cooperation. This creates a give-and-take relationship where needs can be met because the child learns how to recognize the difference between their wants and their needs.

What Is a Need and What is a “Want?”

Children have the same needs that parents attempt to meet for themselves every day. Basic needs include food, water, sleep, shelter, and clothing. According to the Benjamin Spock theory, it is these basic needs that should be met on-demand.

There are supplementary needs that a child may have as well. If a child is asthmatic, then an inhaler would become a basic need because the medicine is necessary for a certain quality of life.

A “want” is something that is unnecessary for the health and wellbeing of a child. If the child at the grocery store demands that their parent purchase a candy bar for them and throws a tantrum until that is rewarded, then the parent has not met the needs of the child. They have satisfied a want.

This is where the criticism of the Benjamin Spock theory takes root. Children that have their “wants” instantly gratified learn through the leadership of their parent that specific behaviors, actions, or questions generate results. Then these children, as they grow older, attempt to use that leadership skill with the rest of the world.

It is why this pediatric theory is often regarded as advocating “permissiveness.”

Why Intuition and Parenting Are Important Partners

Parents have a unique ability to understand the genuine needs of their own child. At the grocery store, their child may be having a tantrum because they see a candy bar and want it. The parent might choose to purchase that candy bar as a method of tempering the behaviors that are being seen in public, but then use that moment for instruction later at home.

“You can have this candy bar,” the parent might say, “but only after we talk about what behaviors are acceptable in public and which behaviors are not acceptable.”

Leadership comes in many different forms. Some leaders directly lead others. Others show their leadership by setting an example. Parents, Spock has argued, can recognize what response will work best for their child in any given moment. That means the intuition of parent, even if it is perceived as “wrong” by others, is still an opportunity to have a child’s needs met.

Ultimately, the response to a parent interacting with their child is also a way to set an example of leadership for the children of those who have responded. Casting blame on those who follow the Benjamin Spock theory is a way to show that leadership isn’t taking responsibility for one’s own actions.

That’s why recognizing wants and needs on the individual level is so important. By meeting needs, healthy interactions and behaviors can grow, and that will one day lead today’s child to become tomorrow’s parent.