Crime and Punishment: The Children's Version

Discipline. A thorny subject which really does bring out the cultural differences. A Western friend of ours was horrified, when his daughter was born, to hear his Russian wife and mother-in-law debating which corner should be chosen as the "punishment corner."

And Vita has started coming home from her Russian kindergarten threatening her dolls with a severe ya tebya nakazhu (I'll punish you).

My Western child-care bible on the other hand, says that the point of discipline is that the child learns something: you're trying to create a SELF-disciplined child who understands why some behavior is either dangerous, anti-social or hurtful. Punishment which merely humiliates -- like hitting or standing in corners -- frustrates and angers a child and guarantees that nothing will be learned. Indeed a psychological survey in Britain has shown that children thus punished are far more likely to repeat the offense than those who understand why their behavior was unacceptable.

Similarly, the Victorian "because I say so" approach, still popular in Russia, teaches nothing: Contrast, for example, "don't leave your boots there because I say so" to "because daddy might walk through the door and trip over them and have a nasty fall."

Understanding other people's feelings is also an important part of growing into a decent adult: "Don't snatch things away from Benedict" makes sense if you remind Vita how upset she was when Andryushka snatched her doll away from her at play group.

Our lovely nanny, thankfully receptive to different approaches to child care, confessed to me the other day that what she has found most extraordinary is the way "you talk to the children as if they were equals. In Russia we talk to children like children." Down to them in other words?

To be honest I don't know if this is a difference between East and West so much as among different families: My parents always painstakingly gave reasons for rules. But even this approach is not without danger: I remember my father telling me never to use light switches with wet hands explaining that I could get electrocuted. I listened carefully, stood in the bath, got as wet as I could from head to toe, and switched the light on and off several times.

Of course when I was older I realized I had actually been using a harmless string-pull switch, mandatory in British bathrooms. He was horrified when my sister and I in later years detailed several such tests -- like would we really get run over by trucks if we rode our bikes on the main road?

But secretly he was impressed. After all, we also want children with inquiring minds: not something, I guess, that the Soviet Union was renowned for encouraging.