The Land of Mother's Milk: Israeli Parents Talk Breastfeeding and Super Nanny

Young families and child development experts tackle the fraught topic of child-rearing in today's reality.

The home of Omri and Merav Imber, Wednesday, 9 A.M., Morasha neighborhood, Ramat Hasharon. Two-year-old Guy has been awaiting the visitor and wants to show me his new room, which he moved into just a week ago. Before that he slept in his parents’ room. “Not in the same bed!” stresses Omri, his dad. After admiring Guy’s toy car collection, we sit down in the living room.

They live in a small, neat detached house, with IKEA furniture and a spice garden. In September, Guy will be 2 and a half and will start attending a private preschool that was carefully selected by his parents. For the past two years, the Imbers have kept their son at home, by their side, as they pursued their careers. Omri is an independent business owner whose company provides enrichment activities for kindergartens and employs three workers. Merav is a cognitive coach. The office and clinic from which they each work are located in a building in the backyard. “We have a shared schedule,” Merav explains. “When I’m working, Omri is at home with Guy and vice-versa.” The couple also cite the generous amount of help they get from all the grandparents, who live nearby.

When Merav was pregnant, Omri left a demanding management position in a large company that operates after-school programs in order to be present and involved in his child’s life from the start. “When Guy was a baby,” says Omri, “we were certain we would keep him at home beyond the period of maternity leave. We were relying on the premise that this is the age during which the child builds his confidence. At this stage in his life we wanted him to be with caregivers who know him personally and who have the greatest interest in giving him the best possible care. This is not meant as a dig at day-care workers or preschool teachers, but when you have to look after five children or 30 children, it’s different.”

It was a bold decision.

Omri: “It was a bold but well-thought out decision. We knew the first year of a new business isn’t easy, so we planned for it financially. I was determined not to be one of those fathers who misses out on his kids’ childhood. I knew that if I was a dad who didn’t get home until seven every night I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

Most of the time, Omri runs the business from home, with occasional outings to activities or meetings at the kindergartens. “Nowadays it seems that a lot of men really care about taking part in raising their kids,” he says. “I think fathers used to be more emotionally distant. But even now, what you often see is fathers who bring their child to preschool and then disappear until eight at night. I’ve read that new fathers actually tend to spend an extra hour at work.”

Merav nursed Guy until he was 18 months old ‏(“No one could believe I would do that”‏). “I believe it’s important for a child to be near his parents as much as possible in the first years,” she says. “Out of awareness and knowledge that in the first years his confidence is built up the more he is loved and the more reinforcement he receives. We now know just how influential these years are. In my work as a coach I meet people in their forties and fifties whose problems − of confidence and assertiveness − can all be traced back to childhood. It always comes back to that.”

Guy is certainly an endearing little boy. He is chatty and curious, and during the interview he plays in our midst and seeks his parents’ attention. Omri and Merav try to integrate him into their daily lives. “It’s important to us to make him a part of our lives,” says Merav. “If Omri is going to visit the schools where he works, he takes Guy with him. When we go shopping, he comes with us. Our life hasn’t changed. We haven’t stopped. Contrary to the ‘continuum concept,’ Guy isn’t being carried around by me all day and he doesn’t sleep in our bed. We have our careers. If I had to only be with him all day and give up on my own interests, I’d go crazy.”

This week, as noted, Guy began sleeping in his own room. The move was crowned a success. The Imbers emphasize that they are constantly acquiring knowledge that informs the way they are raising their first child. They are continually reading and studying. ‏(Omri studies psychology and Merav passed ‏“Super Nanny”‏ Michal Daliot’s course on the Adler Method, which prmotes mutual respect between parent and child‏).

“We read all the material on child-rearing and chose what suited us,” says Omri. And when Guy, like most toddlers, had trouble sleeping at night, they turned to the literature, but also listened to their hearts. “We wanted to teach him to fall asleep alone, and it took time,” says Merav. “I think it worked because we were very relaxed about it and not uptight. If there were nights he didn’t sleep, then he didn’t sleep. I read a book next to him and rocked the stroller. Fatigue is tough, especially because we work, but it’s part of life. I think parenthood is an occupation that needs to be learned. You need to know how and what to do, and ‘awareness’ is a key word.”

The Shiklers, Moshav Elyashiv

The parents: Moran and Dror, who run the family business, a cafe-bakery called Haroa Bacafe
The children: Ariel, 5 and a half; twins Galia and Shirli, 4; twins David and Dafna, 2.and a half
Until what age did the children breast-feed?
“Ariel nursed to the age of 11 months, and then I was already pregnant. For four months Galia and Shirli were given pumped breast milk from a bottle, because they were born preemies and were unable to nurse on their own.

Yanai Yechiel

Although I wanted to continue to nurse them I was forced to use formula, so I reduced the frequency of pumping breast milk until the final transition to a bottle. David and Dafna nursed for a year and nine months.”
When do the children wake up?
“Between 6:30 and 7 A.M.”
When do they go to sleep?
“Between 9 and 9:20 P.M. We put the children to sleep every night by telling stories and caressing them. They used to sleep with a pacifier, but no longer.”
Do they sleep in their own beds?
“During their first year they slept in our bedroom, then they moved to the children’s rooms. Most of the time they sleep well in their own beds, but occasionally they visit us in bed and we receive them with love.”
How did the weaning process go?
“Each one was different, but we learned that to wean from a bottle, a pacifier and even a diaper, you have to stay in the 2-3 year age range, and do it firmly and through learning. When you pass the ‘right moment,’ the connection to an object becomes mainly emotional, and then weaning is harder.”
At what age did the children enter a framework away from home?
“All of them at around the age of a year. They started in a small group and were transferred to ordinary preschools and kindergartens.”
How much does their education cost?
“About NIS 6,000 a month for all the children.”

The Imbers exemplify an approach to parenthood that is quite different from that of a generation ago. Child-rearing is dictated by fashions and trends, scientific discoveries and behavioral research. Educational methods that seem to have always been standard were considered provocative once upon a time. For many years, a certain shop window in Washington was said to bear a sign summarizing the child-rearing advice given to parents over the decades:

1910: Give them a whipping!

1920: Don’t let them!

1930: Ignore them!

1940: Hold them accountable!

1950: Love them!

1960: Understand them!

1970: They have rights!

If Dr. Edna Katznelson, an educational and developmental clinical psychologist and lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s medical faculty, had to add a new line to that sign in the shop window, no doubt she would put it this way − 2010: Parents have rights, too!

Asked what sort of child-rearing approach is typical in Israel today, and if there are any trends one can point to, Katznelson says that over the years, there has been a transition from an authoritative to a democratic approach, and that this has left many parents feeling helpless. “The transition from a traditional family to a modern family is characterized by changes in parenting patterns,” she says. “From an attitude of authority, in which the parents exclusively set the parameters of the children’s behavior, to a democratic attitude based on cooperation and equality.”

The Kreisels, Kfar Sava

The parents: Shirli, an occupational therapist ‏(not working‏) and Oded, a lawyer
The children: Ami, 7 and a half; Dori, 5 and a half; Eitan, 3 and a half
Until what age did the children breast-feed?
“The eldest until his second birthday, the middle one until the age of 7 months, and the third, who is 3 and a half, is still breast-feeding.”

Ilya Melnikov

When do the children wake up?
“The clock rings at 6:55 A.M. Some still stay in bed a little longer, but by 7:20 the entire family is already in the living room.”
When do they go to sleep?
“The older ones go to sleep at 8:30-9 P.M. and the little one, who still naps in the afternoon, falls asleep a little later. None of the children falls asleep alone. We tell a story in bed to the older ones and then we put on a soothing disc. We’re with them in the room quietly, we caress them a little and mainly we’re there, until they fall asleep. The little one falls asleep at the breast, in the living room or in bed.”

Do they sleep in their own beds?
“None of them slept in a crib, although we hadn’t planned that. All the children slept with us until a new baby arrived. Now the three of them sleep together in a room. They begin the night in their beds, and during the night − due to a bad dream or just because they miss us − they come to us and are warmly welcomed. In order for sleeping to be comfortable for everyone, we widened our double bed with another adjacent bed.”

Do the children have some item that accompanies them?
“The big one and the little one never had anything. The middle one, who is 5 and a half, uses a pacifier and no fewer than three regular and beloved blankets at once. Today he uses them only in the evening, before going to sleep.”

How did potty training go?
“Ami was trained within a day at the age of 3 years and 7 months. He simply announced one morning that he didn’t want a diaper and that was the end of the story. Dori was trained at around the age of 3 and a half, when we were thinking that he’d walk around in a diaper forever. We had parental guidance on how to do it properly, and within a short period of time, after we stopped complaining and insulting him with statements like ‘What will become of you?’ and we learned to love poop and treat it and its creator with respect ‏(‘How nice, look what a special shape came out!‏’), the effort was successful. In spite of the relatively late age, training was immediate. Eitan was trained at the age of 2 years and 8 months, at his initiative.”

At what age did the children enter a framework away from home?
“All of them at about the age of one year. The eldest is in first grade in a regular school, the middle one is in kindergarten and the youngest in a private Montessori nursery school.”
How much does their education cost?
“About NIS 4,000 a month for all of them.”

Katznelson says that this democratization created a lack of clarity. Parents no longer feel they have authority, and are in need of guidance. “In certain places we see a troubling side of the democratization of education. There is near anarchy in many schools. Teachers have to spend most of their time dealing with discipline problems. We’re living in an age in which there are many problems between parents and children, and there is more talk of the need to restore parental authority.

“Nowadays children are raised in a nuclear family,” adds Katznelson. “In the past, generations of a family lived together and one generation learned from the other. Today’s parents turn to their own parents for guidance less and less. The age at which people have children is also a factor. In the past, when it was more common for people to marry at, say, age 22, and have children, it was natural for the young mother to turn to her own mother, who was still a young woman, for help. The generation gap was small. Today, people are starting families later, the parents have accumulated more life experience, the generation gap is larger, and so they look to other sources of authority.”

Young parents contend daily with this shift from autocracy to democracy: how to get a toddler to sleep, how much to nurse, when to toilet train, and just when to say no. “Everything related to setting boundaries, such as toilet training, for example, is being postponed,” says Katznelson. “Once upon a time, toilet training usually happened between the ages of 20 months to 2 years. Today, because of the convenience of disposable diapers and the psychological theories that talk about the damage done to a child when he is pressured about toilet training, parents postpone this even beyond age 3, and no one is fazed by it.”

Toddler bedtime is a known testing ground for parents and their boundaries: “At night, it’s like a busy boardwalk,” is how Dr. Katznelson describes the situation in many homes. “The parents get up, kids get up, they sleep in the same bed. I don’t remember my children staying in my bed. Today there’s a more liberal attitude: If the child wakes up at night, you don’t let him cry.”

so the five-minute rule is history?

Katznelson: “It truly is a hard thing to keep to. But I think that in the past, children received the message that they sleep in their room, in their bed. Today the message has changed and sleep problems have increased.”

Prof. Avi Sadeh is the director of both the Children’s Sleep Disorders Clinic and the Adler Center for Research in Child Development and Psychopathology at Tel Aviv University. In western culture, he says, most parents want their children to sleep in their own room and their own bed from a very early age. The separation from the parents’ bedroom usually occurs in the first half year of life. “The main thing about sleep with babies is helping them learn to calm themselves and fall asleep on their own. It matters less whether it’s in their own bed or in the parents’ bed, or if a parent is next to them or outside the room.”

Is there a correlation between children who sleep with their parents until a later age and better development or greater self-confidence?

Sadeh: “Not at all. There is no scientific evidence for these theories. All the studies show that when babies sleep with their parents, out of ideology or just because it’s more convenient, both the baby and the parents sleep less well − because they’re continually waking one another and moving one another. We hear promises that if we stay attached to the child all day and all night long we’ll get a calm and happy baby. I get a lot of parents coming to the clinic who’ve had it with all the promises, who find themselves with a very demanding child who can’t tolerate any frustration.”

One study conducted in Sadeh’s laboratory used video cameras to measure how long it took parents to go to their 3-month-old baby sleeping in an adjacent room, from the moment the baby began to wail. “The index predicted who would develop sleep problems at age 9 months and at 1 year. Parents who waited upon hearing the first cry, and gave the child a chance to turn over or find the pacifier, got a child who slept better when he got older. Parents who leap out of bed at the first peep continue having to deal with the child waking up repeatedly even at the age of one year,” says Prof. Sadeh. “And so we know that it’s best to let a child deal with frustration. It’s important. This is a central motif throughout the child’s development.”

The longing for more authoritative parenting also seems apparent from the sales figures of parenting guidebooks at the Steimatzky bookstore chain. Tracy Hogg’s books feature prominently there, and the most recent top seller is Prof. Amos Rolider’s “Parenting Without Guilt,” which counsels parents on how to reclaim the authority they have lost. Rolider wants parents to take back the reins. He recommends a “controlled and age-appropriate punitive response in a situation where the child is behaving inappropriately.” When a child refuses to get up, Rolider suggests waiting outside for 10 minutes and then, “enter the room ‏(both parents, optimally‏), turn on the light and address the child clearly and briefly ... If the child argues, ignore his comments, do not give in, continue firmly demanding that he get up and what is required of him.” Of course, he also recommends a set bedtime that should be nonnegotiable. And Rolider’s key tip: “The real test is to withstand the pressure of crying and tears. Work together and respond consistently and clearly.”

Fatherhood today

One of the most significant factors in modern child-rearing is the new kind of fatherhood. “In the past 20 or 30 years, the father’s role as part of the couple and as a parent has changed,” says Prof. Ruth Feldman, a psychologist and social scientist from Bar-Ilan University’s Brain Research Center and an adjunct professor at Yale University medical school’s Child Study Center. “Nowadays we talk about fathers who are sensitive and involved. These are concepts that didn’t exist 30 years ago, when a good father was a father who supported his children financially.” The authority problem has arisen in part because most young fathers today do not have a model, she says. These new fathers grew up with fathers who took a different approach.

For many years, Feldman has been conducting research at Bar-Ilan University on fatherhood. More than a decade ago, she and her team began following couples with children just a few months old to see how fatherhood affected the child’s development. “These children are adolescents now,” she says. “We see that the reciprocity the child creates with the father is different from that which it has with the mother. Reciprocity with the mother is personal, face to face, protected. Reciprocity with the father is directed interpersonally. The relationship between child and father directs the child toward activity in the outside world. He’s less protective, he’s not always listened to, it’s a relationship that helps him in his relations with friends. Fatherhood prepares the child for conflict situations.”

Osnat Harel, director of the Adler Institute, agrees that the shift from authority-based to democratic child-rearing is making it hard for parents. “We get senior managers coming to us who oversee dozens of people at work, but their 2-year-old at home has them at their wits’ end. We see parents who say to their children, ‘So shall we go to bed, sweetheart?’ rather than saying kindly but firmly, ‘Sweetheart, go to bed.’ We see parents who are confused, parents who want to compensate their children for all the hours they spend away at work, parents who try to be their kids’ best buddy. Eventually they come to us crying for help.”

Alfred Adler, an Austrian-Jewish physician and founder of the field of individual psychology, believed in the concept of mutual respect. At the Adler Institute, parents are taught to use their authority, not by punishing, rebuking or spoiling the child, but through encouragement, by conveying the message that the child is loved and cherished, and is up to performing the tasks that are asked of him. “Our aim is for the child to live in a democratic family that respects boundaries and authority,” says Harel. “Not authority that comes from force. Parental authority depends upon the child knowing that he can trust the parent. The parents’ job is to set boundaries, to say what is permissible and what is not permissible. There needn’t be many boundaries, very few, but they have to be akin to a red flag. And within these boundaries the child should be allowed to fail, to make mistakes and to feel frustration. We’re very quick to soothe when a child is yelling and crying. We hurry to assuage his frustration. Why? The family is life’s training ground. If we don’t let the child experience anger, frustration and sadness, he won’t know how to cope with this at a later age.”

The Cohen-Sturms, Tel Aviv

The parents: Sharon, a lawyer ‏(now at home with Louie‏) and Adam, an artist and lawyer
The children: Nina, 3 and a half and Louie, almost a year old
Until what age did the children breast-feed?
“Nina up to the age of a year; Louie is still nursing.”

Ilya Melnikov

When do the children wake up?
“Louie wakes up at about 6:30-7 A.M.; we wake Nina up at 7:15.”
When do they go to sleep?
“Louie falls asleep at about 7:30-8 P.M., and wakes up about every three hours to feed. Nina goes to sleep between 8 and 9:30 P.M. and wakes up only when she sleeps alone in the room rather than with us. Because it was hard for her to sleep, we took her to sleep with us regularly from the age of a year. That way she slept well and without interruption, and we slept well too. Now, when we find ourselves four in the bed every night it’s become somewhat more crowded. We stay with both of them until they fall asleep. I lie down next to Nina until she falls asleep, and Louie falls asleep on us or by being rocked on the bed.”

Do they sleep in their own beds?
“Louie still sleeps in the room with us. He starts the night in his own bed, and we transfer him to us at about midnight, when he gets up to feed. Nina slept with us until the age of 3, when she moved into a room of her own. But almost every night she wanders into our bed at some point.”
Do the children have some item that accompanies them?
“Nina had a pacifier until she was about a year old, but then they stopped manufacturing the pacifier she was used to. After all the pacifiers got lost, and since she wouldn’t take any other type, she was forced against her will to be weaned. Louie never showed any interest in a pacifier.”
How did you wean them from breast-feeding?
“Nina was weaned at about the age of a year. When she was 6 months old I went back to work and she stayed home with Adam, so she could breast-feed only in the afternoon and at night. When she was about a year old we weaned her from nursing at night, and at some point she lost interest in it entirely. Louie still nurses, infrequently during the day and frequently at night.”
At what age did the children enter a framework away from home?
“Nina started nursery school at the age of a year and 4 months, and now she’s in a private nursery. Louie is still at home with me.”
What is the cost of education?
“NIS 3,300 a month.”

Reciprocal relationship

There are parents who want to bring their children up to be happy. Others want their children to be successful. “Among immigrants, you can see that it’s important to them that their child learn to adjust,” says Prof. David Oppenheim of the University of Haifa’s psychology department, who researches bonding between parents and children and its effects on child development. A child’s upbringing starts from the moment of birth, or even before. “It’s a reciprocal relationship in which the child affects the parent and the parent affects the child and it’s been changing constantly throughout history. In the old days, parents sent their children out to work.”

There’s one thing on which there is no debate. Research in the field of child development has provided a firm basis for theories that view the first years of a child’s life as being of decisive influence in shaping his personality. Parents are aware that they bear a great responsibility, sometimes too great, and one that often leads to feelings of insecurity and a quest for the right answers − if such things exists.

Pnina Klein, a psychologist, professor of education and 2011 Israel Prize laureate in the study of education, developed an approach that is implemented in many countries for mediated intervention between young children and their caregivers. “A positive emotional basis may be affected by factors like genetics, physiology and the family’s socioeconomic situation,” she says. “But the thing that explains differences among children, perhaps more than any other factor, is the quality of the child’s interaction with the adults around him. The quality of the bond between the toddler and his parents, between the toddler and his caregivers. One of the biggest and most important studies was conducted by the NICHD ‏[National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the United States] It followed babies from birth through their teens, and there is proof that what happens at a very young age leaves a mark for years to come.”

Prof. Klein developed a model for assessing the mental “menu” that children need to receive in order to develop emotionally and cognitively. The menu is relayed by means of the communications “ping-pong” between the child and the adult who is with him in the first years of his life, and includes touch, physical closeness, eye contact, shared joy, making sounds, smiles. “One of the studies’ strongest findings is that a mother’s depression can have terrible consequences for the child’s development,” says Klein. “And the same could be said about other caregivers who lack the emotional energy and vitality.”

So what happens when a young child goes off to day care or to preschool?

Klein: “It has a big influence. And it’s even greater in Israel, since children here spend many more hours in day care than do children in America, for instance. It has an influence on the children’s impulsiveness, on their ability to regulate their emotions and on their memory processes. I was on the Trachtenberg Committee [established to make recommendations on socioeconomic policy]. We submitted a whole booklet of recommendations. The recommendation for free education from age 3 was accepted. And I’m worried. They’re going to put 35 small children, 3-year-olds, with a single teacher and caregiver. How can a quality education be given in that situation?”

In other words, you certainly understand those families that choose to keep their young children at home.

“When I look at the mental menu, which can be obtained from a whole range of people − the babysitter, the day-care director, the preschool teacher, the mother − there is no question that the mother can best provide this menu because she knows the child the best, she cares about him and she knows that this is a long-term investment. On the other hand, a woman has a right to build a career, and we’re living in a world where one salary just isn’t enough. The question is what kind of home you come from and what kind of school you go to. In any event, the answer lies in training the personnel − the day-care directors, the preschool teachers. They need to be given more knowledge.

Parents need to be given knowledge so they can make good choices. Look at how little childcare workers make. Children are going to keep falling through the cracks until these things are implemented.”

Natural choice

On a Tuesday a few weeks ago, in the park adjoining the Ramat Gan Safari, the annual seminar for members of Beofen Tivi ‏(The Natural Way‏) was held. The community is dedicated to supporting families by sharing information on home schooling, natural parenting and eco-living, and its website offers material on matters like home births, the continuum concept, breast-feeding, alternative medicine, and even support groups for the brave souls who have decided to raise their kids without the benefit of diapers, vaccinations or circumcision.

Parents carrying babies in cloth slings and happy barefoot children gather beneath shade trees. The adults sit down in a circle and listen to talks on topics such as home schooling and ecological nutrition. My attention is drawn by a young woman sitting on a straw mat with one breast exposed. She keeps pushing her nipple into the mouth of her 2-year-old son, who turns his head away in refusal sometimes. At one point, the woman, Noga Shifron, asks the news photographer to take her picture, like Jamie Lynne Grumet, a young mother from Los Angeles who had just caused a big stir when she appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, boldly nursing her not-so-small boy.

“I’m very much in favor of breast-feeding in public,” says Noga. She is 22, married and lives in Kfar Giladi. Her parents are Orna and Tzafrir Shifron, pioneers of home schooling, who educated all seven of their children at home. “For a woman who has never seen a baby breast-feeding, it’s harder to do, compared to a woman who sees breast-feeding babies all the time,” she explains simply. “And that’s why women should breast-feed in public.”

Her son has been kept at home, with her, of course. He wears cloth diapers usually, and sleeps with her at night, attached to her breast. “This is how I saw children grow up, next to their parents, and it’s very natural for me. It’s the way I grew up,” she says.

More than 20 years ago, two couples, Orna and Tzafrir Shifron, and Hedva and Rani Kasher ‏(Hedva and Orna are sisters‏), were the first families in Israel who decided not to give their children formal schooling. Over the years, the Shifron and Kasher families became pioneers in the field and the exponents of an ideology. The Kasher family presides over the meeting in the park. The couple has six children. Not one of them has ever been to school. “It’s developed into a philosophy and a lifestyle, of which education is only one part,” explains Rani Kasher. “It’s an outlook that relates to pregnancy, birth, breast-feeding, sleep and other aspects of life. We’ve evolved over the years. Our three eldest children were born in the hospital; the rest were home births. As far as family sleeping − our two youngest still sleep on mattresses next to us. The older kids slept with us until they were 9 or 10, too. It’s a way of life that’s about making choices that seek to maximize the person’s natural essence and try to remove the very thick covering of Western culture from our lives.”

Kasher, 51, holds a master’s degree in botany and works as a consultant to kibbutzim on environmental and ecological issues. Our conversation on the grass is repeatedly interrupted by friends who come by to say hello. Their beautiful children hover around. Seven-year-old Or occasionally pops over to help himself to a slice of ‏(healthy!‏) cake, 10-year-old Ofri whizzes around on rollerblades. Fourteen-year-old Amir, 16-year-old Noam, and Ro’i, almost 18, are all big, strong boys, already taller than their father. Raz, 20, is just about to complete her army service, in which she served as an outstanding dancer.

Kasher says that for years he was careful not to teach his children anything. “And it’s still hard, because I’m a product of the school system too, after all,” he smiles. “When they ask me a question, I try to just answer the question and no more. We’ve learned not to look at learning in a school-like manner. Whatever they need to know, they learn. And whatever they don’t need, like the history and art that Western culture says is necessary, they’ll pick up from their environment. There are books, there’s the computer.”

For the Kasher family, education ‏(or the lack thereof‏) has become an entire ideology that developed over the years. “Personally, at home we do our utmost to avoid wasteful consumerism, and that’s true of many in the community,” says Kasher. “As soon as you achieve an awareness of the possibility of choice, you start to see what really matters to you. These choices, of course, are also related to things like how long to breast-feed, where to give birth, and whether to give children vaccinations. We decided not to have our kids vaccinated. My father is a doctor, by the way. It was hard for him. One time I called him when one of the kids was having ear pain and he said: ‘With the ear you don’t play around. You need antibiotics.’ So I stopped calling him about medical matters. We operate a lot on intuition. The problem with Western culture is that intuition has become covered up by many extraneous layers.”

In 1995, the Kasher and Shifron families started publishing a bulletin called “Beofen Tivi” about their personal experiences. In 2000, they launched a website that has attracted an ever-growing virtual community from all over the country. Kasher estimates that there are thousands of people interested in the kind of lifestyle he advocates. He has also published a book called “Tinokot Beofen Tivi” ‏(“Babies the Natural Way”‏) that describes the experiences of various members of the community.

Were you surprised by how much this approach caught on among Israeli parents?

Kasher: “Actually, it’s slower than what I’d like or expect. People come to the community because of home schooling, and that is a main issue, but it’s not what really unites us. What unites the people of this community is that they have the courage to make choices that are different from the usual ones, and to take responsibility for their lives.”

Close attachments

The TIME Magazine article dealt with so-called attachment parenting, a philosophy prescribed by Dr. Bill Sears, an American physician and the author of books on the subject. Advocates of the method favor close and continuous parenting that includes sleeping in the same bed with the child, carrying the child and breast-feeding until a late age. Advocates say the approach is based on principles of attachment theory and the idea that a close bond with the parent bolsters and encourages the child emotionally and socially.

Attachment theory, developed by psychologist John Bowlby, holds that toddlers have an innate need for attachment with a caregiver figure, for the sake of protection and closeness. Studies have shown how one’s childhood attachments will affect psychological and social functioning later in life.

“One has to distinguish between theories and opinions on the one hand, and actual research,” says the University of Haifa’s Prof. Oppenheim. “Today there is total confusion, and no distinction is made between different people’s theories and what the research shows. The TIME Magazine article spoke of the importance of breast-feeding and of adherents of attachment theory. There is no connection between what people claimed there and the principles of attachment theory. Today, attachment theory is the dominant theory in developmental psychology, insofar as the emotional development of young children is concerned. The theory stresses the importance of interaction between children and the people caring for them, and how in these years the emotional infrastructure for the child’s development is laid. It’s a theory that has spawned much scientific research. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing how the concept of ‘attachment’ has been co-opted by all kinds of self-appointed experts. And on this basis they say how one should breast-feed, how to sleep, and how to set boundaries.”

And what does research in developmental psychology actually have to say about all of these issues? Like breast-feeding for example?

Oppenheim: “Apparently there are many healthful advantages to breast-feeding. But we have no empirical evidence about the long-term implications for the child’s emotional or social development. And the reason is simple: When it comes to a child’s proper emotional development, the important question isn’t whether or not he was breast-fed. What matters is the quality of the interaction between the parents and the child, such as the proper reading of the child’s emotional signals. It’s very important that this be said. Because we’re living in a world where it’s ‘if you didn’t breast-feed, you’re guilty of child neglect.’”

Has any correlation been found between being so closely attached to the mother, sleeping in the parents’ bed and the building of children’s self-confidence?

“Attachment theory certainly emphasizes the importance of contact and closeness in inspiring confidence, and so a connection is also drawn to the continuum concept. There’s no question that a child’s sense of confidence, that they have someone to turn to − these feelings are very important in child development. And we have studies that show it. But to achieve this, is it necessary for the child to sleep in the same bed with the parents? Is it necessary to breast-feed until age 3? There is not necessarily a connection. Today we know from research what kind of treatment from parents helps to build confidence and what type of treatment encourages insecurity. Sleeping in the parental bed until a late age may broadcast a sense of insecurity. It’s complicated. There are no clear formulas. People should be wary of any guru who thinks he’s found the magic formula.”

What does the research show?

“The day-to-day is challenging, and there are no magic solutions. The research shows that the combination of warmth and support and clear boundaries is the ideal combination for the child’s psychological development. How to balance warmth and boundaries? It’s a complex process. And the combination of the two is vitally important. We often see situations in which the parents are not sure of themselves, are overwhelmed with other problems, with their own difficulties, and are not able to put themselves in their children’s shoes and understand the importance of their presence as decisive figures who know what they want.”

Parents as educators

The home of Julie and Daniel Oved, Kibbutz Hukuk, 10 A.M. Until two years ago, Julie Oved, 41, used to visit the Beofen Tivi site on a daily basis. She home schooled her three children − Eden, 7, May, 5 and Noam, 3, and breast-fed all of them for an extended period. “When Noam was born, I tried to breast-feed the younger two at once, but after one month I couldn’t handle it anymore.” The children also sleep with the parents ‏(“Just a month ago we separated the mattresses in the bedroom, but we’re still all together in the same room”‏).

For the past two years, they have been part of a community of about 40 families that joined the kibbutz and are following its own education system and ecological lifestyle. The rather substantial villa where they live, in the new section of the kibbutz, is a bit surprising. They apologize. It’s a rental. But opposite them is a house that is genuinely ecological. Their home has many areas with mattresses or mats to sprawl upon. They came here in search of the right way to raise their children.

It’s mid-morning and the Oveds are enjoying the child-free hours, something that until a couple of years ago was far from a normal occurrence. Daniel leads “medi-dance” group workshops ‏(free dancing to live music‏), usually in a tent somewhere outdoors, and Julie does the marketing for the business. She came to Israel from Colombia when she was 20. Her schooling as a child was very formal.

“I attended a very conservative British school,” she says. “We wore school uniforms with knee-high socks, a skirt and tie. My parents had servants at home. I chose a different kind of life. When my father found out that I planned to give birth at home, he tried phoning, from Colombia, to send an ambulance to wait outside.”

As soon as the kids were born, she somehow felt it would be different. “When Eden was born we were living in Michmoret. It was a home birth and I was certain I was going to stay home with her. We, Daniel and I, devoted the first five years to the children. We were together everywhere − at home, at the beach, with friends. We were living a kind of fantasy − a small house by the sea, a couple with children.”

Were you able to deal with sleep problems?

Julie laughs. “I’d see other parents collapsing, and we didn’t have any trouble. In the evening, when the girls were tired, I just took them with me into the room, on the mattress, and we slept together until morning. It was so easy that at one point I couldn’t understand what other people were complaining about. And it was the same with everything else. I was attuned to them, my entire being was with them.”

After moving to Israel, she studied graphics at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and then education at David Yellin College in Jerusalem. Daniel grew up in Haifa, and had conventional Israeli schooling. They met and married eight years ago, when both were in their thirties. After the birth of their eldest daughter, Daniel got carried away with the experience of fatherhood.

“My whole life, I’d been busy all the time with work,” he says. “And when the kids were born I put that aside. A lot of it was Julie’s influence. I was just with the girls and I enjoyed every minute.” Still, happiness notwithstanding, there was a financial cost. “Although it doesn’t take that much money to feed little children, we got into debt. We were in overdraft and we had to live in a very spartan way. Julie wasn’t bothered by it at all. But it bothered me. My ambition began to stir again. I’d spent years building a career and then stopped everything. I looked at Julie with admiration. She was with the kids 24 hours a day, but suddenly I lost patience.”

The change came after the birth of their third child, when Julie also began to feel that she’d had enough of being at home all the time. “I was less patient,” she admits. An acquaintance told her about the community in Hukuk, where the emphasis is on education and the community members themselves act as the preschool teachers. The couple came for a two-day visit and fell in love with the place. A month later they rented the house and the kids started attending school.

So basically, you moved for the sake of your kids’ education?

Julie: “Yes, we came here for the education. I felt it was a safe place for children. The secret is that the parents, the members of the community, are really the educators. And I think that’s amazing. We just felt that this was the place for us.”

Daniel: “The place is really impossible to describe. We found a gentle place, where people really listen, where there is much natural creativity and well-organized activity. There are boundaries, there is an order, but the main thing is that the people here view their kids’ education as a mission. When a friend pops over to visit in the afternoon, and it’s Eden’s teacher, say, it’s all part of a circle.”

Was it hard for your kids to adjust to being in a school where there are limits?

Daniel: “People who aren’t familiar with it have this idea that home schooling is chaos. But that’s not true. We’re very organized people and time and order are important. I think, actually, that when you choose a life that is seemingly without limits, you have to set your internal limits, and then you can operate within those boundaries. The children get up at 6 A.M. and go to bed at 8:30 P.M. We’re a family that sits down together at the table to eat. Nobody wanders about here with food. We’ve raised three children who are good kids, who listen and are respectful. The kids have something very happy and secure about them. They know that someone is there for them. I really believe that this age, the child’s first years, are the most significant in terms of their upbringing. I don’t regret our decision for a moment. It’s a root that’s planted deep in the ground and gradually blossoms.”

We go to visit the school. It’s an enchanting place. Amid all the natural greenery are some old buildings the community members renovated themselves. There are about 70 pupils altogether, aged 2 to 13, divided into small groups. There are 12 teachers and staff, all members of the community. “The educator is the center, the essence, he’s committed to the cause,” says Tzvi Nir, a community founder and a teacher there.

Nir, 39, and his wife, Orna, have two sons, 6 and 8, who also attend the school. He lives in a trailer surrounded by greenery and believes in “social ecology.” “I believe that my children should have significant adults in their lives besides their parents,” he says. “I remember that when I was a kid I didn’t dare to speak with my friends’ parents and I certainly didn’t know the other adults on my street. But the kids here know all the parents and I know all the kids. Any kid passing by here on the path can come in and ask for my help with something if he needs to. The kids here trust us.”

What does education within the community mean exactly?

Nir: “It means that there is no disconnection between the children’s world and the adults’ world. In conventional education, I get up in the morning and send my kids to a closed place called a school or a kindergarten and I go off somewhere else, to work, usually somewhere far from home. There’s an African saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s what we’re doing here.”

Mightn’t it also be confusing for a child when the teacher is also the father of his friend?

“It’s true that in the morning my son studies with my friend and in the evening I teach that same friend yoga. And we all get together here, with the children, for coffee and so on. But there’s no confusion. The more things intersect, the more connections there are.”

The families of the community, who arrived on the kibbutz five years ago, invested their time and money in building the school and fixing up the old structures. The school has no maintenance or cleaning staff. From the time they’re young, the children sweep and clean up and are responsible for keeping the place tidy. They also cut up vegetables for salad, and if the grass needs to be cut the parents gladly take care of it. “All the responsibility is ours,” says Nir. “It’s kind of like the kibbutz upbringing of long ago.”

Nir pulls out a homemade notebook, sheets of paper bound with cardboard. The children here make their own notebooks. Learning is a long process that teaches patience. For example, when it was decided that one group would learn to play the recorder, the children whittled their own reeds from branches, knitted wool cases for the recorders and collected money from running a snack bar they set up. Finally, they bought all the musical instruments they wanted. “We’re the opposite of the Internet culture,” says Nir.

What will happen when they leave this protected environment and go out into the Internet culture?

“I’m not worried. When a person has good roots and a strong emotional foundation he can handle anything. The kids here also know what’s happening outside. Most of them don’t have television at home, which is something the community supports. But they still know all about everything. Because there’s a computer, and there’s Grandma and Grandpa. The kids know very well what [reality TV show] ‘Survivor’ is and they know the names of all the contestants. But there’s also a place in class to talk about all that we’ve seen. There’s a place that can take it in. We can go through all the tough experiences as long as there’s a responsible adult to help you process them.”

From Spock to the continuum concept

When Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” was first published in the United States in 1946 it sparked a revolution. In those days, parents were told to feed their baby at set intervals, put him to bed at set hours, and above all not to get worked up if the baby cried or to display too much affection, lest the child become spoiled.

Then Spock came along and advised parents to shower their children with love and adopt a flexible schedule in tune with the baby’s needs. He was a pioneer in telling parents to refrain from using corporal punishment − i.e., spanking − which was standard practice at the time. The book became a bible for generations of parents and sold millions of copies.

Spock and his permissive approach initially attracted many critics. In the 1960s, Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, would go so far as to accuse Spock’s child-rearing methods of being the cause of young people’s opposition to the Vietnam War.

Similar books were published in Israel. Israeli women were familiar with Dr. Spock, but they also regularly listened to Dr. Pinhas Sharshevski’s radio segment on Rivka Michaeli’s Reshet Bet program, “For the Housewife.” Sharshevski’s book, “You and Your Child,” based on that program and others like it, was published in 1971 and became very popular. Many Israeli children of the 1970s were raised on it. “Sharshevski based himself on the medical literature, combined with his personal experience,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Katznelson. “Most of the book has to do with the medical aspects of raising children, but it also deals with emotional things like jealousy of a younger sibling, sleep disorders and how to cope with children’s behavioral problems. Generally it shows an understanding of the child’s needs.”

Since Spock’s time, every decade has seen its own guru, it seems. In the 1980s, Dr. Miriam Stoppard, a pediatrician from England and a columnist for The Daily Mirror, won over parents with a simple, practical child-care guidebook. Then came Penelope Leach, a psychologist, lecturer on child development and author of “Your Baby and Child.” The Hebrew edition came out in 1986 and sold 80,000 copies. In the first decade of this century, Tracy Hogg’s “The Baby Whisperer,” became the hot title on the market, with her advice that one must first understand the baby and then act.

Another revolution in child-rearing practices was led by Jean Liedloff, author of “The Continuum Concept.”‏ In the 1970s, Liedloff, an American therapist, set off on an expedition to the rain forests of Venezuela in search of diamonds. She found more than that. In the forests she met members of the Yequana Indian tribe and ended up spending two years with them. She returned home with new insights about child-rearing, which she put into her book, published in 1975. From the tribe she learned that in its first years, the baby should be in continuous contact with the mother’s body, nurse as often as it wants, sleep next to its mother and feel the warmth of her body. Liedloff also said that the toddler should be present in the adults’ lives without being the center of attention, so it will learn how to behave. Liedloff attributes the ills of Western society − violence, hatred and alienation − to child-rearing practices that are far from that natural vision. In the 1990s, her book was translated into Hebrew and was very successful. Countless articles and blogs have been written on the method, and it is a frequent subject of discussion on parenting websites. Although it is suited to tribal life where the women raise the kids while the men go out to hunt, opponents argued that the concept sends women back to the kitchen.

The Levin-Radumskys, Tel Aviv

The parents: Yael and Ziv, owners of KIDIZ, an importer and seller of toys and children’s products.

The girls: Ariel, 3 years and 4 months; Noam, 2 years and 2 months. Yael is in her ninth month of pregnancy and is expecting a boy.

Until what age did the girls breast-feed?

“Ariel nursed until the age of 8 months, when I discovered I was pregnant again. Noam nursed until the age of a year and a half.”

When do the girls wake up?

“Mid-week between 7 and 8 A.M., and on the weekend they sleep until 9:00 A.M.”

When do they go to sleep?

“They go into the room at about 8:30 P.M., after a shower and a story. We’re there, hug them, cover them and leave them alone with music. We hear them giggling and they fall asleep at about 9:30 P.M. Up until two months ago we would lie down or sit next to them after the shower, sometimes for over two hours. Recently, as preparation for the new baby and also because it’s time, we got them used to falling asleep alone, ‘Like in nursery school.’ Of course when they’re in the room we’re called to come for various reasons: a hug, a blanket, a doll, peepee-poop, another hug, another kiss. Finally it’s suddenly quiet. Usually they also use a doll or some other object in order to fall asleep. Ariel still falls asleep with a pacifier.”

Do they sleep in their own beds?

“They were first moved to a room of their own last August, before starting nursery. Ariel was 2 years and 7 months old and Noam was a year and 5 months. To date both come to our bed in the middle of the night, and in the morning we all wake up in one not very large bed. They sleep a total of about 10 hours a night.”

How did the weaning process go?

“Every weaning process we’ve gone through so far ‏(nursing, falling asleep, diapers‏) was a matter of a few days. The moment we decided, we became strong but very patient, accepting and loving. We explained to them that the process was for their own good and even if it makes them angry or sad now, it’s the way for them to become independent. They were able to internalize and accept it well.”

At what age did the girls enter a framework away from home?

“Ariel was in a family play group from the age of 18 months until she was 2 and a half, and Noam was at home until the age of a year and a half. Last September both entered the Beit Hayeladim ‏(the Children’s House‏), a Montessori nursery in Neve Tzedek. Ariel is in the older group and Noam in the younger group.”

How much does their education cost?

“NIS 5,900 a month for the two of them.”