Do Russians push their children too hard?
The pressure’s on for Russian kids this month, as they cram for exams while keeping up a host of extracurricular activities. And the holidays won’t see an end to their labours, as they are packed off for extra lessons at camp. While the gifted can cope with the most gruelling of schedules with a smile, others will struggle. Are their childhoods being sacrificed to the modern age need to succeed?
Text by Peter Ellis
“I do it every day and I hate it. I really don’t want to do karate but my mum says I’ve got to,” says Pasha. With his soft brown eyes, wavy brown hair, trusting face and all of his eleven years, he doesn’t look like a killer. I ask him why he thinks his mum makes him do it. “To make me strong. Men have to be strong,” he replies with a weak smile.
Pasha’s sister Sasha, 13, shares the same woes. “And I’ve been doing it for two year’s longer than him,” she whimpers. The kids are two of my students, who have been booked in for extra English lessons by their concerned mother, though their English is well in advance of their years. We talked about their daily routine: these school children have schedules which would make an international executive’s head spin.
Sasha and Pasha aren’t alone in being busy. At weekends another of my students, Alex, goes to boot camp, where the day starts before breakfast with a five kilometre run with a heavy backpack, while during the week his free time is taken up with extra English, Spanish, and the martial arts. His father is hoping to get him into the FSB: a Russian James Bond in the making. But this seems parttime compared to one of my colleague’s twelve-year-old charges. She doesn’t go to school except to take exams and is ferried from tutor to tutor in a seven-day-aweek, twelve-hours-a-day regime. “My mum thinks I’m a genius,” she explains, though recently she has managed to negotiate some Sundays off.
Even when school’s out, lessons don’t stop for many of Moscow’s youngsters. Busy working parents can relax knowing their offspring are being taken care of at a host of summer camps.
“It’s great being a away from home and with my friends. We had great fun especially in the evening when we had free time,” says Andrei, another of my students who attended a two-week ‘bio camp’ last July, where he was taught woodland ecology, followed by a fourweek language course in the UK.
Much of this extracurricular learning is organised by the youngsters’ schools, where they can experience the sort of practical activities that UK schoolchildren take for granted, though there are legions of private companies willingly selling sojourns so kids can study languages, sport, music, the arts and the rest, both in Russia and around the World.
Is it all too much? Worries about ‘overscheduled’ or ‘overbooked’ children have been niggling parents in the UK and the US ever since author and psychologist, David Elkins, highlighted the issue in his best-selling book, The Hurried Child, back in 1981.
“The perfect picture of a balanced childhood, one in which our kids go to school, do a little homework and play fort, is a myth for many youngsters. More and more children are involved in far too many activities,” Elkins wrote recently in Psychology Today.
He quotes Berkley professor Diane Ehrensaft: “Middle-class children in America are so overscheduled that they have almost no ‘nothing time’. They have no time to call on their own resources and be creative. Creativity is making something out of nothing, and it takes time for that to happen. In our efforts to produce Renaissance children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity.”
While round-the-clock schooling isn’t as unquestioningly accepted in Russia as it appears to be in Japan and Korea, it doesn’t seem to be causing as much hand-wringing as in the West. Moscowbased psychologist Anastasia Yerokhina says the pressure on children in Russia is not taken seriously enough: “It’s not considered a problem by the majority of the public and not treated as a priority by health professionals. Parents believe hard working children are necessary for Society; others want their children to have the sort of opportunities that weren’t available to them when they were young. Many of the children themselves don’t realise they have a problem but they are often nervous and tired all the time. They don’t appreciate their lives.
“Overscheduled children are generally forced to study harder by their parents. They most probably don’t like it at all, but are not able to oppose. Parents try to make children obey, and children try to avoid oppression. But in case of overscheduled children, they are not taught to resist this pressure. Further in their lives, this disability leads to a lot of problems within society and with feelings of self-worth as well. Such children tend to conform more than their peers. They have significant problems when they need to demonstrate independence and in their ability to make their own decisions.”
The Church is also concerned. Archimandrite Zacchaeus is Dean of St. Catherine the Great Martyr Church, Bolshaya Ordynka, and Representative of the Orthodox Church in America to the Moscow Patriarchate. He says: “Life in Moscow is moving more and more to the western style, where both parents and children are bombarded with demands on their time and extracurricular activities. They miss church services and have less time for spiritual matters. We have the ‘New York minute’ (definition: ‘half the length but with five times the activity than elsewhere’), soon there’s going to be a ‘Moscow minute’; it’s a problem for all ages. The Holy Scriptures state ‘be still and know that I’m God’. By being over busy we loose connection with both God and ourselves, and that is a very dangerous thing.”
Like parents the world over, Moscow mums and dads want the best for their kids. “My son had breathing problems, so I enrolled him in swimming classes,” says the mother of one seven-year-old, “he was also shy and awkward with other children so I took him to drama class. His breathing was better and he was more confident when he started school”.
“The world’s a tough place,” adds a father of two, “we’ve got to give our children every advantage so they can compete when they are older. They may not like it now but they’ll thank us for it in the end”. He also explains the parental preoccupation with self-defence: “When the USSR collapsed the streets were dangerous, a lot of parents got their kids into karate class for their own good. Parents still think this.”
“The over-scheduled child is a myth,” writes John Cloud in Time magazine. He blasts the idea that kids’ “more rushed, scheduled and digitized” lives are doing them any harm. Quite the opposite, he says: busy children have “better well-being and less drug use ... they even eat meals with their parents more often.” The desire for kids to slow down is an example of ‘transference’ he suggests, it expresses adults’ wish for an easier lifestyle. “Childhood is an invention of modernity ... [so] the next time you’re hauling your kids from basketball, to SAT prep, to violin lessons, ask yourself whether it is them who really wants a break ... or you.”
Elkins remains concerned: “parents need to relax. Slow down. Activities are fine but don’t go over the top. Research says that what children need most are relationships not activities. Focus on building meaningful relationships with your children, not becoming their chauffeur.”
Veterans of parent pressure can look back wryly in adulthood. Zhenia is now a successful scientist: “My dad wanted me to play the piano and I spent hours at lessons. One day he said if I learnt three tunes he would buy me a kitten; I wanted a puppy. I don’t touch a piano nowadays and the cat hates me, we have issues,” she giggles “but that cat loves my dad.”
Back in class I ask Sasha if she had asked her mum if she could give up karate. “Only if I start learning Chinese— she is really interested in China— but I don’t want to learn Chinese”. I ask what she would prefer to do if she had the choice. “I want to learn the guitar so I can play Beatles songs”. And which of their songs does she most want to sing? “Help!” She replies forlornly.