GROWING PAINS: Will a Beating Bring Up A Kid's Falling Grades?

On her way home from school this week my 8-year-old Anna told me she'd gotten a 5 - the top mark - at her Russian school for English. Not too surprising I suppose considering she is English, but she went on to reel off all her other fairly good marks. "Why don't you ever ask me what marks I get?" she asked.

"Well as long as you're happy and doing okay, I don't think I need to check them all the time."

"I'm glad. All the other mothers do. Ksyusha got a 2 in English today, and she burst into tears because she said her mum would beat her with a belt."

So, I patiently explained that Ksyusha's mother, who is a very nice, quietly spoken woman, would never dream of whipping her only daughter and that Ksyusha was probably just angling for a better mark.

But the next day Ksyusha was not in school, and when Anna called her, Ksyusha told her that the beating hurt so much she couldn't get out of bed. "Rubbish!" I laughed when Anna related this to me. "She probably has a cold."

"It's not rubbish at all," retorted my young nanny, Ira. "My mother always took the belt to me if I came home with a 2. She sometimes used to whip me until I bled."

To say I was gobsmacked was putting it mildly, especially when Ira casually went on to say she saw nothing wrong with corporal punishment and gave my Bobby the occasional whack if he was misbehaving.

"But, Ira, Ira," I gabbled incoherently. "I really don't want you to smack him, I don't smack him even though I was smacked myself."

"Well you should have told me straight away," she replied. "How else am I to discipline him?"

When my husband Nikolai came home I related the whole incident. He shrugged. "Big deal. My mother whipped me whenever I got bad marks or misbehaved."

"She did? What with?"

"Whatever came to hand - boots, sticks and belts mostly."

It's not a great reflection on our 17-year marriage that I never knew of this, but Nikolai never mentioned it because everyone gets belt-whipped, don't they? Even when we first had children and decided to try not to spank them he never said anything like: "Well I was always beaten black and blue and look how well I turned out." He just agreed.

Dealing out corporal punishment to young children is not exactly a Russian family tradition, but it's not at all unusual either. A strict upbringing is considered a good upbringing, and while the fantastic popularity of Dr. Spock has wrought changes for the better in the younger generation of parents, there's still a nostalgia for the knout.

"I don't beat Bulat," sighed one of my Spock-reading friends of her 8-year-old son. "If I did, he'd be bringing back 5s from school instead of 3s!