Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Messily American--and Independent

A Russian friend remarked the other day that the American kids at school often stand out from the Russian ones because of how they're dressed. The next day, a fellow American mom said the same thing. 

So how do the American kids differ from their peers? 

I think it all comes down to some messiness, some scruffiness around the edges. 

Sure, my kids' closet is filled with stylish and adorable clothing. If I picked out their clothing every day, they would look so cute... coordinated... put-together. The colors would all match, they'd have hair accessories that compliment their clothes, and they'd wear a wide variety of outfits--not the same thing over and over again. 

I think the same could be said for most of the other American kids in the elementary school, too. 

So why are our kids dressed the way they are?

Because they dress themselves. They pick out their own outfits. (They also help to choose their clothing when I initially purchase it, so you'd think it wouldn't be an issue--but they then insist on coming up with their own ways of wearing it once we're back in Moscow). They fiercely assert their independence, sharing their own senses of style. They know what's comfortable. They also want to brush their own hair and do their own pony tails. 

And we let them.

In my case, it's simply not a battle worth fighting. There are other areas of contention that are way more important and I choose to spend my nagging/discipline time on those. If I also harped on about their clothing, they would only hear the "wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah" drone of the teacher from the Peanuts cartoon. 

I think there's also more to it... I let them put together those sometimes dreadful combinations in part because I value their need for independence. Their need to take on individual responsibility is more important to me as a mother than others' perceptions of their grooming. Granted, they must be clean and decent--but I'm not to going to sweat the small stuff. 

The more I think about, children's independence/individual identity is a common theme throughout American children's literature, television and film. Eloise. Nancy Drew. Harriet the Spy. Ramona. Tom Sawyer. Nim's Island. Freaky Friday. Ratatouille. Finding Nemo. I could go on and on. 

I just can't think of Russian equivalents... The Russian stories and films my kids are most commonly exposed to tend to emphasize the family as a whole or groups of friends/characters. Cheburashka is an individual, but she's not a person... She's an unknown type of cuddly animal... Pippi Longstocking and Carlson (Astrid Lindgren) are very popular here, but they're Swedish...

Anyone care to share his or her two cents/2 kopeks?


Fioleta said...

I always thought of Cheburashka as he.

Individuality wasn't encouraged in Soviet Union, specially when it came to kids. From what I hear it still sounds like everyone and their dog feels that it is their business to raise, correct and criticize Russian kids. So maybe their parents put conforming to some undefined norm and avoiding criticism above their kids individuality. (I left Russia 15 years ago so I could be totally wrong)

Katya said...

Hmm... I always thought Cheburashka is a he, too.
His/Her song starts:
"Ya b'il kogda-ta strannii"... if it was a girl wouldn't the song go "Ya b'ila kogda-ta stranniiya"?

The Expatresse said...

I would so much rather my kids rebel and assert their individuality by dressing themselves as opposed to piercing or tattooing something, or worse, running off to Vegas/Woodstock/Ibiza or whatever.

Rachael said...

I have never had much luck forcing my idea of style on my kids either. Although, they do seem pretty helpless and want help laying their clothes out each morning, they will quickly refuse anything cutesy.

MamaPoRuski said...

It also then teaches them self-regulation and self-respect when you give them this little freedom. Given in increments helps prevent wild behavior once they move out of their restrictive environment! And I agree with you-there are so many other important things to do rather than argue with the kids on their clothes!

katbat said...

I agree with all the above. My russian nanny was shocked that I let Natasha feed herself - she had never heard of anyone letting their 8 month old feed themselves finger food - because it would make and mess and she would get dirty (gasp!). She also was shocked that I made my kids do chores. She thought it was great and saw the value of it, but, had never heard of such a thing. I think too that russians also have a lot of pride wrapped up in their appearance - maybe I dont have a lot, or dont have access to a lot, for those growing up in soviet times, but I know how to look good, sort of attitude. The projected image is a high priority. My kids are scruffy because they also choose their own clothes, but they also dont think about taking care of their things- - if it gets a hole/stain- they dont care, they will wear it anyway and/or we will replace it. Further, I dont think they care what anyone thinks of them - and/or they have been conditioned to not judge on outward appearances. Whats important is on the inside is taught from an early age. Furthermore - I dont iron their clothes - they are clean, but I dont take the time to make sure everything is well pressed, coordinating, etc. I have better things to do - like play with my kids.

anyway - good topic!

garnet said...

I feel very blessed that my daughter still has absolutely no interest in shopping so I get to purchase all her cute clothes. Unfortunately, some relatives tend to give her things that fall under my definition of tacky and she seems to love those the best. She'd also wear the same things over and over. Thankfully some of those are still cute dresses. But around here -- certainly not at her little elementary school -- there isn't much interest in fashion. The one other child in her grade, a girl, generally looks terribly scruffy -- she's a real tomboy always hanging from trees -- so I don't have to worry yet about my kids feeling any fashion pressure. Right now I'm more concerned about my son who insists on long sleeved outfits in this terribly hot weather. And who never does have combed hair.

kristin said...

I don't know if it is just a Russian thing. We were in France last year and it seemed the kids dressed very nice there too. Maybe European? The styles are much different too. I think American styles of big dresses etc can look a little messy too compared to straight dresses etc. Also it could be a form of "how well-off" you are. That image. Where in America we show it through our cars and macMansions, not really our clothing. Also I always thought Cheburashka was a he too! That is my two cents!

Fioleta said...

P.S. re books there is "Dyadya Fedor, Pes i Kot" about a boy, who runs away from home because his parents don't allow him keep a cat and ends up living in an abandoned house in a village with a dog and a cat. Byratino (Pinocchio) used to be pretty popular as well, though I guess it would be classed as translation.

Tina in CT said...

I was so lucky that you were easy that way as a little girl. I got a BIG surprise when Katya was with me for a Grandma Streusel/Katya Weekend a few weeks after she turned two. She refused to wear jean shorts with a Hanna Andersoon primary colored striped jersey. She told me it was for a boy. I gave her two different choices and then off we went for the day at a fair in town. I can say that your girls are very opinionated on what they wear and don't back down.

I was so glad that I did not have to deal with it when you were little.

Remember how I used to iron your cotton boxes shorts and even spray starched them?

Your girls have such cute clothes that I hope they wear what goes with what.

Susan said...

I agree with Kat (after all she is my daughter!) I let my kids choose their own clothes too. They went to Catholic schools, so uniforms were the norm...
I think its all tied up in impressing others. Something I taught my kids to never try to do with clothing or "things."
There are so many other things in life that are important..

Elle J said...

Timely. Just yesterday the weather turned from sunshine to rain. I told my son it was time for the jeans. He put them on (new pair, never worn, and he's been in shorts since May) and complained. After a quick debate and argument, I finally realized that it was not worth the battle, hence he tore off those jeans so fast, whipped on his shorts, and ran to the car for school.

Today, however, he wore jeans. :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting topic.
There are so many hidden cultural questions in it. I am afraid one need to write a whole volume to cover even a tip of this iceberg.
First on Cheburashka - technically speaking, the ending "a" implies female gender, but I will vote for male, he is he. I wonder how many of native Russian speakers who read this blog think of him as "he" or "she".
I can not speak of modern Russian children and what they read now. I have no idea, as I left USSR 30 years ago. But in my childhood years, the Soviet children literature was pretty provocative and interesting.
On the translations - they where widely read and I never consider them "foreign". Jule Verne, Dickens, Dumas, Kipling ... did not feel as foreign writers to me at all.
About Pinocchio - Russian version is not so much a translation as it is a story retold for children. There are many other examples of such "retold" stories, my favorite is Uncle Tom cabin.I must of read it at least 100 times as a child and loved it dearly. When I gathered enough English to read the original version, I was greatly disappointed.
About the way children are dressed, again, it is hard for me to say what is going on now, but in my childhood it was mostly conservatism based on dire economical restriction. I would get one nice dress for my birthday, so I can look good going to the theater or family gathering. It had to be taken care off. We were wearing uniforms in school. They were considered expansive and had to be taken off when we came home. A lot of things Japanese follow as religion (shoes and all) we were asked to follow as a matter of practicality and respect for the house. As a child I rebelled against it.
When I was about 12 or so, there was most unique exhibition in Russian Academy of Arts in Leningrad - The American Architecture. My mother friend had two tickets (which was a miracle in itself) and she took me there and even bought me a brochure as a gift. It was amazing, I never seen anything like that before - House over waterfall and all... But the thing which I could not take my eyes of in the book (and believe me,I studied every dot of ink in that book) was the California design high school. It showed the picture of "glass and concrete" structure with wide steps going down from the wide glass doors to the pavement. I did not care for any of it (it was not "House over waterfall" by any means of imagination to me) I was looking at children scattered on the steps. They were wearing loose sloppy clothes, some sweater, some gym type shoes and were holding their books in their arms. It mesmerized me. I do not recall if I actually thought of the word "freedom", but I recall the feeling - it was definitely freedom. It took me some time to gather all the materials. I had to beg my older cousin to give me her old mended on the elbows sweater, I got somewhere the checkered cowboy type shirt and I used my gym basketball shoes (the old type that you lace up to your ankles). Could not get any pants like the ones kids were wearing in the picture (jeans I suppose), so had to settle for dark blue skirt I owned. And in this creative outfit I enter my school one morning.
Anyone who knows anything about Soviet schools can guess the rest of my story. My freedom did not last long. The first teacher I had that morning looked at me, left the classroom,returned in a few minutes and announced that I am to see a principal (the director) in her office immediately. I had about 15 minutes of argument with the director and run for covers (back home to change). There is nothing more scary to the good Soviet child than the warning that tomorrow morning you will have to come with your mother to school if you ever want to come back to school at all. I could argue with director, but coming to school with my mother was no option...

cathy said...

Hmmm, I have the same mentality as you!! When living abroad in Scandanavia, many of the children wore the same type of clothes, because there just wasn't that much to choose from for variety in the stores. I remember the daycare 'aunts' remarking about how my girls were 'very independent' in taking care of themselves with regards to dressing!

I long ago adapted the same attitude as you with the whole 'bigger battles to fight.' As long as clothes are clean, non-stained and appear in good shape, they can pick out whatever they wish!!

Anonymous said...

Forgot the France comment.
I was also amazed how well behaved and well dressed children in Paris are. I came to Paris from Holland and saw a big difference in style of children dress and behavior.
Somehow children in Paris did not fit the impression I got from French movies (Small change ... and such). I guess there is a difference between public and private behavior in every culture and it may not be always easy to read it.

Maria said...

Hi MoscowMum.! I have recently stumbled on your blog - great fun to read about your adventures.

On the topic though, I almost think its the style. My 3 yr old does not pick his clothes (and being a boy, may not have any inclination to do so for a while :) ), yet, as one of my Moscovite friends said, " I do not know what it is, but your child just does not look local"... And he doesn't because I do not tuck his shirt in his jeans, or button the top button on his polos, or have him wear cardies... Its also in the clothes we buy, they are just not Russian. I love it, I like him looking Australian, freer and more relaxed :)

Also, I think local women like their kids to look nice, the same way the make themselves look beautiful, as if the kids are a reflection of them (or on them, as in "a great mum cannot have a messy child"). Pressure to be perfect... This comes about in many ways...

Oh, and as a native Russian speaker, I also think Cheburashka is a "he".

Tina in CT said...

I think it's also a generational "thing" as when you were growing up, most of your little friends were dressed nicely and coordinated. I know my friends all did that with their kids.

Annie said...

I suppose I read too much Russian and British literature. Lydia was dressed beautifully (she got to pick from my selections) and I did her hair until she was in high school (even then, she'd sometimes ask me do her hair). I guess she was docile, and it was our bonding time, and she got so many compliments for looking lovely - I think she liked that.

Anastasia on the other hand, is a Russian girl. And I believe she must have entertained herself in the orphanage "doing hair". She can make a gorgeous french braids without a mirror (and demonstrated this on our airplane ride home as she experimented with one style after another. And she is oh-so-picky about her clothing. She will wear jeans - but with dress shoes and a nice t-shirts for her. MY fight is with her desire for heels and fingernail polish.