LAST NIGHT: Review of Reputations

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The strangest revelation in Reputations' intriguing programme (BBC2) about Dr Spock was of the impermeable membrane that existed between his theory and his life. Compare these two statements, for instance, the first from an American television show in which he was talking about paternal roles, and the second from a taped interview about his own family: "What children need is a father who is fond of them and is showing them that he is fond of them when he is with them." And then this: "It never occurred to me, at the time that I was bringing up my sons, that I should show physical affection, or that they would miss it if I didn't show it to them." Now, while these two remarks aren't necessarily incompatible (the word "physical" might prove an escape hole for a sufficiently sinuous mind) the phrase "it never occurred to me" is pretty unyielding. It seemed as if the man who had given America permission to love its children had simply overlooked his own.

The opening words of Spock's book, printed in enlarged type, were "Trust Yourself", an injunction that was immediately ignored by almost everyone who bought it. "I used it to such an extent that the pages were eventually falling out," said one devotee, who had bought two volumes so that she could have one in the office and one at home. Far from persuading parents to obey their own instincts about tenderness and discipline, Spock's book became holy writ, regarded as infallible in its pronouncements (even though its first lesson was that there were no infallible pronouncements). Reputations made it clear that the book had been written to counterbalance a prevailing wind - the bracing blast of existing theories about regulation and discipline which had governed Spock's own upbringing by his mother. In his argument that parents should lavish love on their children, you could see that a private longing had become a public prescription. And when the wind of discipline dropped (in part because of Spock's own benign influence) - it wasn't entirely surprising that he suddenly found himself dropped in deep water - reviled as the creator of a selfish and self-indulgent generation. This was unfair, and it was one of the strengths of Ella Bahaire's elegant reconsideration of his career that she managed to maintain a sense of his achievement alongside the more prurient attractions of his domestic failures.

The Spock film made an interesting companion piece to Trouble With Boys (BBC2), a fascinating video diary about a kind of familial exorcism, with therapists arriving in an ordinary Lancashire home tormented by loud screaming noises and the tendency of small-change to vanish without warning. These entirely unmysterious manifestations clustered around the figure of Paul, a 12- year-old boy whose tantrums and unrepentant thieving suggested that he was what is known in non-specialist circles as "a right little sod". I'm not sure that you needed a degree in psychology to see that Paul relished the battle far more than the winning, but Dan Gordon, an American expert in delinquency, certainly offered some effective techniques for defusing the emotional booby-traps that he laid for his parents.

What you saw unfolding wasn't a miracle transformation, exactly - the best the parents were going to get out of it was a normal teenager, purgatory rather than hell - but the establishment of reliable patterns of approval and punishment did seem to lure Paul back into the family. Last night's episode ended pertinently, with a long shot in which he huddled beside an armchair as his parents expressed their appreciation for his good deeds (part of the slightly churchy affirmation required by the therapeutic programme). He looked whipped by his parent's affection - after all that abuse and rage, just a little boy who couldn't find the words to say what he really needed. And any parent who has ever served on this particular front line would have had something to learn from the series, even if it was only how bad you look when you are finally provoked into losing your temper.