Family Matters / Just Child's Play?

In the last few years, theories on childraising have changed so drastically that parents find themselves changing techniques with each newborn. How can we know that what we are doing today is the right way to go?

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the parenting guru of the 1960s and '70s, advised parents to frequently hug their babies but "this doesn't mean you should be talking at him all the time while he's awake, or constantly joggling or tickling him. That would tire him out and, in the long run, would make him tense and spoiled." Twenty-first century mothers are amazed when they read these words. Does one really have to advise parents to hug their babies? That is even harder to digest than the fact that those same mothers were fed cow's milk when they were infants.

But the changes in parenting that have taken place since the 1960s are not surprising. What is more surprising is that multiple shifts in parenting trends have created significant gaps among contemporary parents that are not only generational in nature but related to the children's birth order. Even when age gaps between siblings are absolutely standard, such as those in a family of four children, who range from 3-12 years of age, the youngest and oldest children are raised differently, and not only because parents are more experienced or exhausted when the youngest is born.

Doula and Jacuzzi

During her pregnancy, the mother of a child born in Israel in the mid-1990s underwent two or three genetic tests, a regular, early ultrasound, and a later comprehensive ultrasound to scan for fetal abnormalities. She would go to the closest hospital to her home after completing a childbirth education class and would receive an epidural anesthetic (unless she belonged to a certain minority that demanded to give birth "naturally" at Misgav Ladach Hospital in Jerusalem). As soon as the baby was born, it would be snatched from the mother's arms to have an Apgar evaluation and be vaccinated. Mother and baby went home, two days later.

Only a few years later, that same Israeli mother undergoes more than 10 genetic and other tests during her pregnancy. She browses the "Yoledet" ( or "Doula" ( Web sites for "birth plans" (that assist her in explaining to labor and delivery personnel exactly how she wants the birth to proceed - down to the last detail) or she reads Internet birthing accounts of new mothers on forums or blogs. She may see a scanned, three-dimensional image of her fetus, choose the government hospital which offers her most of the available benefits, decide whether or not she wishes to give birth naturally and whether or not blood from the umbilical cord will be collected after the birth.

In the hospital, she can choose to give birth with or without a doula, in a Jacuzzi or a bed, remain with the baby for many hours in the delivery room or stay in a hospital birthing room that resembles a hotel suite. The latter, which was available in only one hospital a decade ago, is now an integral part of all Israeli obstetric departments. Mothers are now free to share their hospital rooms with their babies, which was not permitted in the past. In fact, a local paper recently printed complaints from new mothers who objected to the fact that staff at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem left their babies at their bedsides throughout the day. Meanwhile, new fathers document the entire process on digital cameras and upload hundreds of pictures to personal Web sites devoted to their new offspring. These infants' older siblings were forced to make due with a few photographs shot on film.

Snuggle 'transitional objects'

When the baby-boy born in the '90s, who will celebrate his bar mitzvah this year, returned from the hospital with his parents, a nursery with furnishings from the leading baby chain was awaiting him: A standard, beech or white, laminate changing table with a charming mobile hanging overhead. His sister, who came home days ago, lives in a room full of chic furnishings from the Rishpon designer belt and curtains that match her crib bumper. Her wooden armoire is packed with a one-off wardrobe. Many clothing chains now offer a "baby" or "kids" line and many leading designers provide pint-sized versions of their creations (although prices are not similarly scaled down). This is a universal trend: One year ago, the high-end fashion magazine "Cookie" hit American shelves. "Cookie" caters to trendy mothers who long to dress their children in Dolce & Gabbana.

The remote control unit, which came with the mobile hanging over the youngest baby's crib, permits a choice between three musical selections: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Every toy, "baby gym," and stuffed animal "encourages development" and "stimulates" the baby. Her older brother's crib was equipped with a fuzzy teddy bear but hers contains a "transitional object." The latter is also a bear but its quasi-scientific title implies that her snuggly companion is not merely entertaining, but vital.

Shopping carts, lined with activity blankets, sport makeshift mobiles that enable parents to leave the comforts of the online, baby-product Web site, drive to the mall and consume, unfettered by a fussy infant. Recently released baby colognes may provide the ultimate proof of the endless limits of stupidity in this arena.

Playground shame

Then there are the strollers. A dozen years ago, big spenders opted for the "Inglesina," which offered both seated and reclining positions. "Nowadays, anyone who spends less than NIS 2,000 is risking disgrace at the playground," observes Roni, a mother of two children, aged 2 and 4.

Bilha Harel-Goren, owner of the "Baby-Teva," chain confirms Roni's suspicions. "When we imported premium strollers, priced at NIS 4,000, we thought we would only sell a few every month. But we sell dozens. And we are not the only ones. Strollers that cost NIS 4,000 or more are very common, not only in Tel Aviv."

Designer label clothes, pricey strollers, handsome slings and meticulously designed diaper bags indicate that in recent years, infants have become status symbols. "How did motherhood become so fashionable?" wonders a fashion writer in the Boston Globe. "It has to do with an international trend that is not only linked to babies," Harel-Goren says. She cites two contradictory shifts of recent years, "On the one hand, there is more focus on labels. On the other, consumers yearn for something more traditional: hand-laundered breast pads, natural births and organic food."

Gila, a mother of three, aged 11, 7, and 3, also speaks of, "opposing forces. On the one hand, there is a return to nature, to healthier things. On the other, there is an endless consumption of products, even if they are healthy." Indeed, it is common to see piles of commercial toys and clothes changed not only every season but every day in the homes of parents who pay scrupulous attention to healthful nutrition and claim to embrace ecological principles.

A mattress for the 'family bed'

Fashion does not limit itself to design. "I was told to put every one of my children to bed in a different position," says Sigal, a mother of three, aged 13, 11, and 5. "I was told that the eldest absolutely had to sleep on her back, the middle boy on his side, and the youngest on her back, again." Now, infant-care experts advise that babies lie on their bellies as much as possible while awake, to prevent the upper chest and shoulders from weakening.

Dominique, a mother of four, aged 12, 9, 6, and 3, adds that soy milk was nearly considered a wonder drug until recent research suggested that it may contribute to hormonal problems.

Even the "attachment parenting" trend, which was so popular a decade ago, lost its cache. "Suddenly, they told parents to stop sleeping with their infants. They said it was dangerous and that they could be crushed," says Harel-Goren. "In recent years, there has been a return to co-sleeping. There's even a 'Snugglenest' folding mattress with a frame that prevents parents from rolling on top of their babies."

"I'm aware of all the ecological products that rely on baby-raising theories," says Gila. "There are all kinds of soaps and baby sleeping bags, but, in the end, it's just another way to buy more." When her oldest daughter was a year old, she had a "Gymbo, the Clown" videotape, which Gila dared to show her every few days. Today, three television channels vie for her youngest brother's attention: "Luli," "BabyTV," and "HOP," and all of them offer a new season of series to replace previously screened content. Some parents even carry portable DVDs to restaurants to prevent toddlers from disrupting their meals.

Baby soap operas

A decade ago, parents and their children were perturbed by the sudden flood of commercial advertisement on newly privatized television channels. Now, their four-year-old siblings watch Israeli soap operas and reveal a disturbing awareness of the foibles of heroes on and off screen. Years before they imagined they would, parents are forced to explain subjects like nudity and adult love.

Family relations expert Michal Daliot, star of the Israeli version of "Supernanny," says that today, people are more likely to capitulate to trends and technology. "In the short run, it makes life easier," she explains. "We used to devote some of our time to parlor games or passing information. Now, we use the television and the computer. They have some really good content. But the result is that we spend less time with our children. We spend less time transmitting our values and the truth about our lives and pass on more messages from television programs."

The status of televised "Supernannies" in Israel and abroad also teaches us something about recent shifts in parenting: They espouse limits and punishment and a parenting style which differs little from the one supported by Dr. Spock. Daliot says that while a decade ago experts maintained that parents should avoid saying, "No," to their children, now they speak of "reclaiming parental authority."