After writing my first article, "An Immigrant's First Impression" at Magic City Morning Star, I did my best to focus on what surprised me about America when I first arrived. These "first impressions" being over a decade old, I quickly learned I was quite unsure of whether they were relevant anymore -- until I started talking with one of my co-workers about our childhoods. It took me only a little while to realize that my peers in America were raised in an environment very different from what I was used to. If you think of it, we are shaped by the experiences of our childhood years. This is the time when we learn who we are, where we belong, what the world around us is like. And I actually believe growing up in Russia was one of the best things that could happen to me. This is why.
I remember the surprise I felt when I first heard about curfews and laws talking about the age when a child was old enough to stay home alone. None of that existed in Russia when I was young! I remember walking to and from school on my own even as a first-grader, playing outside until dusk during the summer, sometimes several blocks away from home. It was the norm. I don't want to give you an impression that children were allowed to roam completely unsupervised. Rules were present and enforced, the times we had to come back home stated plainly. The difference is my parents, not the local police, made sure I followed these rules. I don't think we lived in a safer world than our American peers back then. When I decided to look back at the nineties (the decade that encompasses most of the childhood years I remember), I realized Russia wasn't a safe place to be back then, for children and adults alike. Still, our parents trusted us enough to let us go into the unfamiliar world... and stay safe, the way they taught us. And... it worked.
I shopped for groceries when I was a kid. Eight years old is the earliest I can remember. I cooked with my Mom when I was that age, too. I mean cooking when I say it. I was allowed to handle knives when Mom said it was my turn to chop the veggies for the salad or the stew. I was allowed to come near the hot stove and keep watch over whatever was cooking as Mom took over the other necessary arrangements. I was expected to be mature enough to handle these household duties. That's the part I love about the Russia I grew up in! Being a young child did not absolve one from being responsible for what they knew and did. Any time your parents sent you to keep their place in line for them, or suggested you try your hand at cooking, you were supposed to be old and responsible enough to handle these expectations, or to ask for instructions and follow them.
That said, we had a class at school called Homemaker's Education. Boys and girls alike had to take it. The boys learned how to fix or make things... simple stuff like hanging shelves or fixing minor electrical issues on their own. Girls were taught how to cook and sew. They showed us the simplest recipes, the simplest designs, of course -- but we learned everything, as far as the basics went. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there was a similar class in the American high schools... an elective, one that very few students took. I grew up thinking it was normal for people my age to know how to handle the simplest problems life can throw at you -- like cooking your own dinner. Years later, I still felt surprised when I realized some of my college classmates -- intelligent and skilled people -- have never learned how to cook in their younger days.
I think the difference between the American and the Russian attitude towards children is mostly about the way these cultures perceive safety. No parent would willingly put their child in harm's way, of course! But in America, the general logic is that the government will protect its citizens. When something goes wrong, Americans immediately try to figure out which laws would fix the problem. I can't really say such approach is ineffective, but I feel it does more to stifle the children's sense of independence than to keep them safe. This is not the way it works in Russia. We don't trust the government, and we learn from our earliest years that one can truly rely on his or her wits and close friends or neighbors. People in the same community are also very close in Russia. Any adult stranger will first raise suspicions. This sense of familiarity with most people one comes in contact with daily created a safety network of sorts, one that allowed most kids to be safe without curfews or special laws. At least that's how it was when I was little.
I can only describe what I remember about the Russia I grew up in -- because, unfortunately, I haven't heard that much about the current generation of Russian kids. Still, I hope you'd agree, after reading this article, that Russia wasn't a bad place to be a kid.
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Ekaterina Yuvasheva was born in Rostov, Russia a few years before the fall of the Soviet Union. A bookish kid, she let her imagination run wild, which became an important part of understanding the world around her. At fifteen, her family moved to America where she graduated college, then Temple University Pharmacy school and become a Pharmacist.
She recently published a 470 page novel titled: "I Am Angelo: Sense of Direction." Many aspects of the story -- from her character's loneliness and opportunities at the School to his choice of a Healer career -- are drawn from experience.