>> 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!”