GROWING PAINS: Steering a Bumpy Path To Social Responsibility

The best way to make friends with your neighbors, I find, is to ram into their cars.

I usually do this in the pitch blackness of early morning when we're running late for school and I've just stuffed the last of my protesting children into the back of our car. If my three-point-turn in the courtyard is then complicated by a blizzard and distractions such as fishing Bobby's toys out from under the accelerator pedal and looking for Anna's lost mitten, then reversing into a parked vehicle is a natural consequence.

But the pally part comes in when I've owned up to the prang and fished out a fortune for the damages.

Neighbors are so astonished by this bizarre sense of duty that they fawn on me with puppy-like gratitude and invite us all round for slap-up meals and frolics in the snow. Why, you may ask? Why indeed. Partly because most car owners would drive off while the going's good and hope no one noticed. A friend of mine saw a passing vehicle crunch into the back of a parked car with such force that the trunk flew up, but the guilty party then reversed and calmly drove off without a backward glance.

Forgive me for getting a bit philosophical here, but just why is it that political leaders abuse their power? Why are courtyard playgrounds vandalized, and why do New Russians roar down the sidewalks in their jeeps scattering mothers and children to the wind? A whopping social lack of responsibility is why.

And it's not surprising when you consider that everyone here emerges from an educational system that was created under Stalin to churn out armies of blindly obedient workers, soldiers and bureaucrats who lived in fear of doing wrong. The problem is that while Russia has lurched forward into a free society, pedagogy remains preserved in Soviet aspic.

The level of learning (after the age of 7) of course is quite phenomenal - and far advanced to ours.

Sasha's math problems have me gaping in open-mouthed admiration and my 8-year-old Anna's English grammar leaves me at the starting post. But while teachers are great at drilling times tables into 7-year-old heads, encouraging initiative, creativity and a sense of independence is not part of the Plan. I walked into Bobby's kindergarten this week to see a row of identical self-portraits pinned on the wall that brought me out in goose bumps.

Thankfully, my elder child is in a "freestyle" school that tackles the almost impossible task of teaching a Russian curriculum with a Western approach. When Sasha and her friend Dina knocked over a camera in cinema class this weekend, I offered to pay half the repairs but Dina's dad said he'd only pay the rest if his daughter admitted Responsibility. And to her credit, she did.

Our school is a drop in the pedagogical ocean - but maybe there's hope for Mother Russia yet.