A quick reflection on parenting from Mockingbird reader Robby Brumberg:

When I picked up Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld by Nicolai Lilin, I anticipated a mindless read of non-stop action and sordid Russian violence. So I was surprised to find that the first 100 pages or so paint a nuanced, principled, orderly, even tender picture of growing up in a close-knit community of ‘honest criminals.’ I even found myself feeling a bit envious of a childhood filled with so much tradition, purpose, reverence, cultural pride,  adventure and genuine liberty (egregious criminal activity excepted, of course…). Lilin writes:

“Unlike other communities, the Siberians respect children, and will talk freely about any subject in front of them, without creating an air of mystery or prohibition.” (pg 10)

Recalling a childhood event of observing his family win a tense stand-off with police (via insults, intimidation and a bit of hostage-taking) who had entered their home,

“I was elated; I wanted to dance, shout, sing and express some great emotion that I couldn’t yet understand. I felt I was part of, belonged to, a strong world, and it seemed as if all the strength of that world was inside me.” (pg 15)

“…in the Siberian criminal tradition both mentally and physically handicapped people were considered sacred messengers of God and described as ‘God-willed.'” (pg 117)

Whether or not Lilin’s stories are based in fact or reflect more of an idealized version of his community, the portrait he draws is compelling enough to challenge notions of what a ‘proper’ upbringing consists of. And needless to say, it got me thinking about which culture or society has “got it right” when it comes to child-rearing. That my wife and I just had our first child might be a contributing factor as well.

Everyone’s got their own ideas… For instance:

  • Some Amish sects allow their kids a period of ‘Rumspringa,’ where they get a chance to go wild and experience what the world has to offer, then decide if they want to officially join the church (thereby renouncing electricity, booze, and most other forms of fun).
  • Indian children in America are dominating the Bee-scene (Spelling, Geography, Math, etc.) thanks to the no-nonsense combination of hard work and intense pressure to succeed.
  • Then there’s the infamous ‘Tiger Mom” method of raising your children that’s been making so many waves recently. While this authoritarian style can produce a disciplined maestro genius, it also runs the risk of instilling a bitter, lifelong hatred of the cello.
  • In Siberian (Urka) ‘criminal communities’ (according to the above-mentioned Lilin), children are highly regarded, encouraged to ask questions and raised to revere their elders. Older people are expected to spend ample amounts of time with children, teaching them about their society’s rules, traditions and history. On the other hand, kids are also expected to begin criminal activities at the age of 12 or so.
  • In America, (very generally speaking), more conservative folks seem to emphasize protecting their children from ‘non-traditional’ values, pop culture and ideas, while more liberal parents may lean towards giving their kids free reign to explore and indulge their impulses. The Tiger Mom lady has accused most American parents of coddling their children and being overly concerned with their feelings, leading to this sort of progeny.
  • Throughout rural sub-Saharan Africa, you can see the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ method in action, both for better (it’s inspiring to see neighbors and extended family caring for kids) and for worse (it’s tragic to see how many kids have been orphaned, abandoned or neglected).

Of course, there are thousands and thousands of parenting strategies and philosophies out there, surely none of which are entirely foolproof, as none of which will ever be a match for human nature/original sin. That said, the more children I meet, the more attractive a Siberian criminal upbringing sounds…