GROWING PAINS: Search for 'Ideal' School Is Cross-Cultural Lesson

I was in our local store recently buying the usual sosiski and smetana when the saleswoman asked me where the children were.

"All in school," I replied happily.

Ikh ne obizhayut? "Are they mistreated there?" she asked matter-of-factly.

The question came as no surprise to me because unfortunately this is a common enough response when Russian schools come up, just as a writer in this space noted recently.

"No," I said. "Ours is a kind school." She looked baffled by this obvious contradiction in terms and turned to the next customer.

Discipline in the bad old English tradition of "spare the rod and spoil the child" is the pivot of education here. Corporal punishment is against the law, but disciplining a child means punishing him into blind obedience, as opposed to training a child to feel responsible for his own actions.

What never ceases to amaze me is that so many parents are all for this former version. Now anxious moms and dads are searching for the perfect school, and, for the majority, the word "ideal" is synonymous with "strict." Sasha's first school, a private school, was run on the principle that sarcasm, humiliation and bullying children into submission were the best tools of education, and yet I had huge difficulties getting her accepted because it was (and is) so popular.

They stood her in the corner as a dunce, slapped her and taught her not to tell me anything about mistreatment. But when I found she wasn't sleeping nights and was crying every morning before school, I went in to talk to the principal, who immediately called Sasha up before her, fixed her with her gimlet eye and demanded to know if she liked school. "Yes, yes!" said the poor girl, looking like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. "There you are, then," said the principal triumphantly to me. "You have two other children to look after. Leave Sasha to us."

Needless to say, Sasha now goes to another school, aptly named Freestyle, which is like heaven on earth when compared to most schools. It brings a Western-style approach to the Russian curriculum with all the emphasis on encouragement rather than punishment and aims for the unthinkable: making school a fun place to be. The academic results are great, but is this what parents want? Not a bit. A private school down the road from ours is on the right track when it advertises itself as offering "quality education and rigid discipline."

All my children now go to Freestyle and never want to leave when I pick them up. But the father of one of Anna's friends,Asya, refused to send her here because "life is tough and the sooner you learn to protect yourself the better."

Asya's mom agreed to the decision but was saddened. "When Asya went to school she changed," she says sadly. "She lost her joyfulness."