Through three generations the Ritchie family has never hit their children. But in other ways, their child-rearing practices have changed enormously.

Jane Ritchie, now 73, her eldest daughter Jenny, 50, Jenny's eldest daughter Jessica, 24, and Jessica's eldest daughter Tesla, 15 months, mirror huge changes in New Zealand society.

When Jane married James Ritchie in Wellington in 1956, the dominant philosophy was that the future wellbeing of children depended on their full-time "attachment" to their mothers.

"Once I became pregnant, I abandoned work on my PhD and, almost with relief, gave myself up to full-time motherhood," Jane wrote in 2001 in a feminist journal article about the changing role of mothers.

She attended Parents Centre antenatal classes run by Helen Brew, later a leading film-maker.

"She looked at us women and said, 'from now on your lives are going to be totally dominated by the babies you are going to have. You must never leave your babies - their total wellbeing depends on your constant presence'," Jane recalls.

When her husband took up a fellowship in the United States, Jane knew her place.

"He went up and did wonderful things at Harvard. I stayed home and looked after Jenny," she says.

Apart from the nights spent in hospital having more children (three more natural children, one of whom died, plus two adopted), she did not spend a night apart from Jenny for the first nine years. She was upset when a Plunket nurse stopped her breastfeeding at 8 months.

She and James adopted what was already Parents Centre's philosophy opposing all physical punishment.

"We growled, shouted, yelled, scolded," Jane says. "We put Jenny in her room once. She was so angry that she threw every toy out of her box, and after that we never put her in her room again."

In 1963, when Jenny was 4, Jane became the first woman at a New Zealand university to obtain a doctorate in psychology. It was done, she wrote, "with the support and assistance of my husband, James, who minded Jenny during the long university summer holiday". James had been the first member of his family to go to university.

But it was not until Jenny was 14 that Jane finally went back to paid work in Waikato University's psychology department, which James then headed.

"The first years were hard; there was no training and no women as role models," she wrote.

The challenges for Jenny were different. By the late 1970s, when she reached her late teens, the road to university was wide open, and her parents were upset when, at first, she turned down the opportunity.

She had had a taste of liberal America on her parents' sabbatical years and after that she "hated every moment" at Hamilton's Hillcrest High School. "When I left, I went and worked at the medical laboratory in Hamilton. I didn't want to have any more of this education shoved down my throat."

Eventually she became a kindergarten teacher and got pregnant at 25 with no stable male partner. Later she had four more children and a step-daughter, but her relationship with the father was "never traditional".

"I was not that sure about living together. I'm still not," she says.

After Jessica was born, Jenny tried being a full-time mother for just over a year, but quickly grew bored.

"What sort of life is that when your whole objective for the morning was getting the nappies changed?" she asks.

So finally the time was right for university. She started doing a single paper, while Jane took over looking after Jessica.

Today she lives just a few metres from her parents in the bush near Raglan, reading nightly stories to her 9-year-old but commuting a couple of days a week to her job as an associate professor in early childhood education at Unitec in Auckland. She has taken her parents' anti-smacking views even further.

"I didn't agree with punishment. I think punishment is quite damaging to a relationship," she says.

Asked what she used instead, she says: "I think mainly trying to talk things through with children, recognising that when both parties are emotionally involved it's not necessarily a good time to talk, and I think it's important that adults admit and apologise if they do lose their temper."

Jenny breastfed Jessica until three weeks before she turned 3. With each later birth she tried to organise six months off around study leave, then went back to work.

"I breastfed while giving lectures until I was told, by two consecutive bosses, that I had to put them into childcare," she says. "I was just chronically exhausted."

Jessica is trying to learn from her mother's experience. She is determined not to have such a big family and says the only pressure she feels is "self-imposed".

"I like achieving things, doing things, being productive," she says.

Unlike her mother, she did most of a degree (in sociology) before having Tesla. She is "kind of flatting, not technically with" her partner. She went back to do a university paper two hours a week in the middle of last year when Tesla was 3 months, and has gone back more or less full-time to do an honours degree this year.

She breastfed, but Tesla "weaned herself" when she had problems teething at 4 months. And Tesla started spending weekends with her grandmother Jenny at 6 months.

Jessica says her parenting philosophy is similar to her mother's.

"I don't believe in punishment because I think it's not very helpful," she says. "I would rather focus on communication and focus on why it is you don't want the child to do something."

Jane is delighted to see her own philosophy persisting into the third generation. She believes her family has thrived on it.

"We have wonderful adult children," she says. David, her eldest son and the only one who chose not to go to university, has just been visiting from Perth because his father, James, is gravely ill.

"It just wouldn't occur to him to smack his children," Jane says.

Jenny's two youngest children, aged 9 and 12, and two sons of another of Jane's daughters, Helen, who lives nearby, have walked down through the Raglan bush to help out every day since James fell ill.

"They walk the dogs since Jim's been unable to walk, they stack the firewood, they light the fire for me," Jane says. "They are never even asked."