When Carol Ann Rudolph directed a day-care center at the National Institutes of Health in the mid-'70s, she recognized something unsettling about many of the parents: Most of them were new to parenting; few of them knew what they were doing.

"They didn't even know the first question to ask when looking for child care," recalls Rudolph, a Bethesda resident who has known the frustrations and self-doubts of raising two children as a single working mother. "But none of us were born knowing how to be parents."

Ten years ago, with a few exceptions, parent education meant childbirth classes -- the now ubiquitous Lamaze-style sessions where couples haul along pillows and blankets to practice giving birth. Not coincidentally, those classes represented a new experience and attitude toward childbirth that, when induced by larger cultural shifts, also gave birth to a generation of parents unlike any before it. Never has there been one less prepared for raising children -- nor one more eager to learn how.

Rudolph, who is considered a pioneer of multifaceted parent education in the metropolitan area, quit the day-care center and began promoting classes on bringing up baby. Initially, there were few takers. Her breakthrough came when Giant Foods penciled her class on choosing child care into its brown-bag seminar schedule of garden club lectures and tax advice. She has been talking with parents about parenting ever since.

"Some people have good nurturing abilities and that comes naturally," says Rudolph, who founded Child Care Management Resources to offer parenting seminars in the workplace. "But they don't really know what their children should be doing when they are 2 years old, 3 or 4. Parents today need to be taught those skills."

As national statistics and informal surveys of strollers parked at playgrounds confirm, there are more young children than anytime since the first baby boom. Some experts are calling it "the echo of the baby boom." In numbers alone, offspring of the original boomers have increased the population of infants to 5-year-olds since 1980 by more than 2 million.

And that has put a premium on research and information on how to raise Junior. It is particularly evident on bookstore shelves: Where Dr. Benjamin Spock once had the last word on matters of upbringing, his seminal book is now but one of dozens. With that escalation of expertise has come a proliferation of parenting classes, workshops and seminars -- a phenomenon that sputtered in the '70s only to come of age a decade later.

"The customers are out there," says Mel Silberman, professor of psychoeducational processes at Temple University, whose book Confident Parenting is scheduled to be released by Warner Books in March. "And they're older ... more educated and more mature parents today. There is a growing desire among couples to come together in parenting classes."

The early '80s, however, were a down period for parenting education. The population of newborns wasn't yet increasing and times were tough economically. "You couldn't give away parent education at that point," says Silberman, who credits the get-tough era of parenting that came in vogue with the Reagan era for helping couples to recognize their strength was in numbers. "Parents began to band together instead of being intimidated or desperate."

Linda Jessup has watched the phenomenon grow firsthand. An 11-year veteran of parent education, she is director of the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), a Silver Spring-based program modeled on the family psychology of Alfred Adler. For the past five years, she has tracked the demographics of enrollment in PEP classes. "We attract a broad spectrum, from blue-collar parents to welfare mothers, with the bulk falling into the educated white parents category," reports Jessup.

"You hear a lot of talk about hurried kids? I see hurried parents," says Jessup, who reports the enrollment -- which has jumped from 60 to 115 since the fall -- consists of 40 percent men and a majority with children aged 2 to 5. "We're dealing with the Hurried Parent Syndrome. There's a real yearning for family life and connectedness ... what is missing is a feeling of control and competency among adults who in most every other aspect of their lives feel proficient. But as parents they feel inadequate."

In more than 1,500 classes that Noel Merenstein has taught, he has seen the same needs expressed by parents. "I was in a home in Westchester {N.Y.}," says the founder of Baby-Life, a New York-based group that now offers its emergency-response classes here. "These were very sophisticated people, yet they never blinked an eye for four hours. We are, without question, dealing with a new and unique generation of parents. They not only care for and love their children, but they are also taking the responsibility to learn how to bring them up."

That today's new parents would return to the classroom to learn parenting skills shouldn't be surprising. They make up the most formally educated generation in history. These are the same people who topped off their BAs and graduate degrees with extension classes like "Making Your Own Sushi" and "Juggling to Beat Stress."

"This generation of parents are people who are used to going to books and classes and professionals for resources," says Deborah Benke, director of The Parent Connection, a Bethesda-based nonprofit group that offers a wide range of workshops and activities for parents and children.

"You can read and read and read, but somehow that human factor is really important," says Benke, adding that the biggest problem for today's parents is simply knowing what is normal in their children. "If you can give them a perspective of what's normal behavior, that's really what it is all about."

Experts say not knowing what is normal is a problem due to social and cultural realities. There was a time when new parents picked up tips on baby care from nearby grandmothers and aunts with friendly advice. Today's extended family has to kibitz long-distance. Meanwhile another training ground for parents dried up: As the babies born per family dropped below 2.0 over the past 25 years, fewer of today's parents ever had a runny-nosed sibling to help mama raise. "The old ways that we got information and help about our children no longer exist," says Rudolph.

The cultural change of more women punching the clock has almost overnight made parenting concerns an issue of the workplace. "Anywhere between 50 to 65 percent of mothers with young children in this area work, so if you want to go where the parents are, you've got to go to the workplace," says Sandy Kronsberg, a developmental psychologist who 16 months ago founded the Great Kids Program, sponsored by Children's Hospital National Medical Center.

Brad Sachs says the emergence of fathers in the '80s taking a hands-on role in parenting also has sent parents scurrying for help. "When men become involved with parenting in an intense way, it breaks some assumptions and mythology that parents of this generation have carried with them," says Sachs, a clinical psychologist who last September founded The Father Center, in Columbia, Md. "So as fathers become more involved, couples are asking what other myths have we been carrying around that aren't accurate anymore?"

Some experts say there may be a trickle-down effect from parenting education that, in the long run, will benefit all children. "Part of our whole purpose is to strengthen families and change attitudes," says Joan Danzansky, executive director of Family Stress Services, a District-based referral and information group.

Danzansky believes that information on good parenting is a realistic offense against child abuse in the United States. "A lot of parents don't know any other way of changing their child's behavior without relying on corporal punishment," she says. "We try to make the point that there are alternatives. We're trying to get across that we can all improve our parenting skills."