How warm is too warm? It's all relative...

>> Monday, 6 June 2011

One evening a couple of weeks back, a Russian friend stood in our dining room and looked through the window at Boys #1 and #2 on the terrace outside.

“I like to think of myself as pretty broad-minded” she said. “But I’m really uncomfortable with what I’m seeing right now.”

I knew exactly what she was going to say next. And it wasn’t that my children are badly in need of haircut (which they are), or that they were still up and out of bed at 8pm on a school night. Still, I didn’t want to embarrass her by assuming she fit a lazy cultural stereotype, so I asked what it was that was upsetting her so much.

“They’re in short-sleeved, short-trousered pyjamas! They have no dressing gowns, no socks, and no slippers! Aren’t you worried they will catch cold?”

And there we have it. One of the biggest differences between Western European and Russian styles of parenting; how many layers of clothes the children should wear. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that this is less of a cultural difference and more of a cultural divide, and in my humble opinion, the babushka’s have a great deal to do with this...

Nowhere is this divide more obvious than in the classroom. My sons go to a school with a mix of Russian and international students, and the amount of clothes a child wears can be directly attributed to their parents’ nationalities. Those with one or more Russian parents (or – more crucially – Russian grandparents) are still wearing their snowsuits to school mid-May, whilst the rest of us throw caution to the winds and put the kids’ padded jackets in mothballs substantially earlier (although it has to be said, that this year that moment was somewhat later than it had been in previous springs).

Non-Russian teachers of my acquaintance at the school find themselves in the tricky position of needing to speak to their melting students’ carers and request that they be sent to school without their snowsuits and hats at a stage when the rest of the kids in class are already bounding in (often, it has to be admitted, shivering in the chill of the early Spring mornings) in shorts and light-weight jackets.

I get the reason for this caution on the part of Russian parents, I really do. A cold or flu could easily lead to something more threatening, and without the healthcare safety net that many of us from different countries take for granted, this is a possibility any loving parent concerned for their child’s well-being would do almost anything to avoid.

However, times have changed. Access to healthcare has moved on, as has the advice given to parents (in the West, at any rate). Certainly, in the low temperatures of a Russian winter we all – no matter where our country of origin – wrap up our children in layer upon layer and woe-betide the child who steps outside without a hat. But it doesn’t seem so necessary once the temperatures rise (certainly not to the +15 degrees C that it was on the evening that my friend made her pronouncement), and if they live in a warm, clean, secure home, are well fed, and have plenty of excercise.

But getting back to my friend. How to deal with her concerns without causing offence? “I know this is a key issue for many Russians” I said. “But the thing is, the kids are used to this; you can see for yourself, they’re not cold and they’re perfectly happy. And they are never sick.” She looked at me disbelievingly. “Seriously. In the 18 months that we’ve lived here we haven’t – touch wood – had to make a single visit to the doctor.”

Still, she looked doubtful. And then I hit on the one fact that I knew she couldn't dispute, her not having spent much time in the UK recently. Sure, it conformed to yet another lazy cultural stereotype, and isn't really true these days, but it would get us out of this slightly tricky situation without either person offending the other... She might even accept it as good reason for my seeming carelessness with my children’s health.

“And don’t forget, we are British, after all. 15degrees Celscius? For us, this is summer!”


Iota 6 June 2011 at 08:54  

I don't know whether to be slightly offended on your behalf at your busybody friend, or rejoice that you have a friendship where you can say things like that and be open and honest with each other.

But that isn't the point of the post at all, in any case. Off subject comment. Oops.

Isn't there a lot of evidence that colds and coughs and flu are caused by viruses and bacteria, and not by being cold? I've been berated by a doctor on this point. "There's no such thing as catching a chill" he said. Having said that, it's been a journey for me. I was ALWAYS putting clothes on my oldest and worrying that he was too cold (or too hot, for that matter). I've learnt to relax and let them all decide for themselves what temperature levels they want to exist at. But it's been a years-long process. And sometimes - even now - I say to them "you're going to have to put a sweater on, because it's making ME cold just looking at you".

LJB @ crankymonkeys in london 6 June 2011 at 10:37  

In that respect, Estonians are like Russians - they seem to think that the cause for all illnesses is The Draught. They are forever closing windows and making sure there is no breeze... even when it's 20C outside...

I don't belong to "proper Estonians" anymore, so I'm a bit more relaxed about all this. And thankfully my kids are old enough to tell me when they're cold or hot, so I no longer have to guess.

P.S. (I saw an Asian baby in a snowsuit the other day here in London, the temperature was 20C+ something...)

I'm So Fancy 6 June 2011 at 11:00  

Agree with Iota. Shush yourself lady! And yes, we get more colds in winter because we're cuddling together indoors, rubbing germs all over each other. Not because of the temperature...a point I must bring up to the grandparents over and over...

MsCaroline 6 June 2011 at 13:29  

Since our temperatures in May have been topping out at around 100 (38.5C, I believe), I am miserable just thinking about putting more clothes on, and extremely jealous at the idea of temperatures around 15C. I find your friend's comment to be culturally interesting. As an American/Canadian hybrid, I would never presume to tell someone else how to dress their child (assuming the child wasn't visibly suffering.) However, when we lived in Germany, I found it much more common for people to tell us what they felt was unhealthy/healthy. Like LBJ said about Estonians, drafts were a big issue for Germans. The words, 'es zieht' (there's a draft) always struck terror into my heart. It usually meant that the room/train compartment/car was about to become unbearably stuffy. Different strokes, I guess.

Jennifer Eremeeva from Dividing My Time 6 June 2011 at 14:25  

Does your Russian friend have concerns about the copious amounts of peat bog smoke on its way to the Russian capital as we speak????

Potty Mummy 6 June 2011 at 14:44  

Iota, I think it's a measure of how long I've been here that I wasn't offended in the slightest. Russians are not the slightest bit afraid of giving you their opinion (especially on this matter), and I've long given up taking it personally. Maybe it's a subject for another post, actually...

LJB, the Draught, the Draught!! It puts the fear of god into grown men here, doesn't it?

Fancy, it wasn't meant harshly; Russians really can't understand why we're so blase about temperature and think they're doing us a favour by mentioning such things...

MsC, interesting that 'the draught' was also feared in Germany. Never knew that! (And yes, have to say that many Europeans - Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians etc - have no hesitation in offering 'advice'...)

Jennifer, not sure but it will be interesting as I believe their palatial dacha is right in the forefront of that. We're due to visit them there soon so will keep you updated!

nappy valley girl 6 June 2011 at 17:05  

Here in the States it's more usual for people to send their kids to school without a coat, sweater etc, when it's really cold. The reason? They don't really expect them to go outside. (And the school panders to this). I had to laugh when we had a note home from school saying that they were daring to take the kids out to play at recess (it was mid February) so could parents please make sure they were wearing a coat!

Nora 7 June 2011 at 01:29  

Right, a draft does not cause a cold, not does being cold cause a pneumonia. That's just an old wives tale. A child will let you know when he's too cold for comfort. A little fresh air does wonders for their constitution. It is healthy, as far as I'm concerned. When we were kids, we couldn't wait to go outside without our jackets on. We did at the first opportunity. I think being overdressed and getting overheated can cause a heatstroke.

Potty Mummy 7 June 2011 at 09:47  

NVG, really? Not go outside at all? Wow. (Russians are very big on 20 minutes of outside time a day in the winter. Only 20 minutes, mind you, but it MUST happen).

Nora, you're speaking complete sense, of course. It's just that for most people here that goes completely against what they've always been taught.

Muddling Along 7 June 2011 at 10:41  

I love how you deal with cultural clashes with cultural assumptions! Brilliant

And some children just don't feel the cold. My Bigger never wears a coat or gloves and thrives on it (Littler by contrast has to be wrapped up like a mini Russian)

solnushka 9 June 2011 at 11:00  

The Draught is one of the things my Russian MiL battle about occasionally, although I confess to finding the minimal amount of clothing some kids go about in in the UK when I am chilly in a cardy quite baffling. I know it doesn't cause colds, but surely they _are_ cold? I find myself thinking. Clearly I have been in Russia too long.

Of course, I also think Russian kids wear too few clothes in summer. This is because I do not expect the temperatures to get above 25, even when it is clearly 40 degrees outside. My husband laughs at my when I insist on taking a cardy everywhere just in case.

But I don;t think it's fear of substandard healthcare that makes them so paranoid. Actually, the healthcare for bog standard childhood illnesses in Russia is very good. Or at least proactive. Much much more energetic than in the UK, where you are expected to go it alone.

They just don;t subscribe to the idea that's popular here that getting colds stiffens the immune system. It's not just draughts, they will also go out of their way to isolate children with colds, rather than flinging them into daycare/ playgroups regardless of runny noses.

My son was hospitalised for tonsilitus last year for example. I wrote about my changing attitude here:

and especially here:

I don't think either viewpoint is particularly better. My husband, for example, is a full on Soviet attitude to childhood illness survivor and as well as being rarely ill as a child, is very rarely ill now. I'm British, and I was always getting tonsillitis as a child, but I am rarely ill now, although slightly more ill than my husband. My job involves more contact with people with colds though. Of course, that's just anecdotal at best. But I find the cultural difference fascinating.

solnushka 9 June 2011 at 11:48  

Oh and my favourite Russian comment that in the UK would have been left unsaid is:

'Are you his mother or his grandmother?'

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