Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R.
reviewed by Bernard Mackler - 1970
We live in a time when outrage, outburst, disruption, and violence are our hallmarks. The Gandhi-King model of change through nonviolence has passed; rational but honest confrontations are no longer with us. We have guerilla warfare in our midst at our colleges and high schools. Flames crackle at urban schools as well as pastural campuses.
Adults blame teenagers and young adults and vice versa, but no reasonable explanation has yet to fall upon my eyes. Everyone speaks dogmatically as to the causes but their reasonings fall short. They are too simplistic, too emotional, and too egocentric to buy my attention. I have looked for answers, too, and I have often been guilty of being dogmatic and stupid, typically siding with rebellious youth for the inadequacies and indecencies in our nation call for moral outrage; but of late I have moved to see that both sides are wrong and both sides are right—still no explanation emerges. I have often felt as a man between two generations, rigid fathers and rebellious sons, and I have tried to counsel both but always feeling uneasy, for I could see how our society was creating its own undoing.
Now a book has come along which tells us why we are in constant turmoil. Urie Bronfenbrenner does it all in his superbly written and well-documented Two Worlds of Childhood: U. S. and U. S. S. R. The book is about how children are raised in the Soviet Union and the United States with the last section devoted to proposals for improving our nation.
Bronfenbrenner begins by examining the Soviet system, combining observations, anecdotal material, photographs, and posters. He has visited and studied in the Soviet Union for the past decade. His analysis of Soviet society shows that family, schools, and child-rearing are all intimately tied together. This unity converges upon the consistent ideal of the development of a Soviet citizen. The child is brought up to be part of the commune and the state. The life of a child, his family, the schools, and all related institutions form a coherent world—there is nothing left to chance. The child is bathed in security and love. His development is geared towards what he can contribute to others and to the state. This requires two stages of development: (1) self-discipline and responsibility and (2) social responsibility. And these stages are delicately intertwined so that the child is an individual who learns to be on his own and, at the same time, to be for and contribute to the state. His importance, ultimately, is as an individual who contributes to the state.
This development is fostered by parents and schools dedicated to the moral education of the young, and by moral education, the Soviets mean a commitment to the combination of self-discipline and social contribution of the children. Children are respected in the Soviet society. They are not treated like pawns. Peer pressure, the relationship of child to grown-up, emulation of older boys and girls and adults converge on the quest for loyalty to the group. Americans no longer devote their energies to these questions, although they once did. At best our knowledge about loyalty comes from our experiences with teams, competition, and aggression. Thus we are loyal to our inner group and seek to defeat an outer group.
We band together when our survival is at stake, while the Soviets are brought up to be one. The uniqueness of the Soviet state is the cohesiveness of its program and how it affects the populace. Children are not violated in this system; they are respected as humans yet they have loyalties. They have their individuality, for they are considered to be important for what they can and do contribute. One can see visually that children are like spokes in a wheel—without each one there is no wheel and no movement, yet they are allowed to be somewhat individualistic. Creativity is only rewarded if it contributes to the state; if it contributes solely to the individual's growth, it is discouraged. The subtle distinction about creativity gets to the heart of the matter. Individuality exists not in an autonomous or random manner (as it does in the United States), but in subservience to the state. This is the reason that art, music, and literature have not flourished there, but physical science and medical technology have. The former requires a disciplined individuality with no subservience except to the art form and the creative drive and urges of the individual. The physical sciences usually combine an involvement of the creator with colleagues, and the ultimate creation or breakthrough, be it in the Soviet Union or America, depends upon a team rather than the unique contribution of one person.
Americans have difficulty understanding this subtle relationship, for we are so fearful of total subservience especially to the state. Our national fabric since the American Revolutionary era is not to subsume ourselves to another nation (or even our own). We have checks and balances running throughout our system and between the three branches of government; we have states rights versus federal rights and county and local systems, too. It is no small wonder that few of us understand the intricacies of our own system, but we do know that there is also a Bill of Rights to protect the individual. Americans are always fearful of losing individual rights; Soviets have none in our eyes. We fear the loss of these rights to systems to the left or the right of us. The fact that we are so fearful has often left us myopic when trying to understand the Soviet system. Although we are the United States of America, and each state contributes to the whole, and the republic is more important than a given state, and a Civil War was fought to prove the point, we cannot make the imaginative leap and see how a United People's republic might be founded.
The uniqueness of the Soviets is that the state is more important than the individual which parallels our state-federal situation, except it is often a nonnegotiable situation. The Soviets are more complicated than we think. We are afraid to find out how they function, how they live, and what they give up to get where they are. If we would loosen up a bit, we have much to learn about them and us. Thanks to Dr. Bronfenbrenner some of that exposure is occurring. The book is rich in anecdotal material on child-rearing and schooling practices in the Soviet Union.
Now we turn to the section on the United States. Here Bronfenbrenner is less positive. His criticisms stem from a clinical bias, for he does not look at our system in the same way. In the Soviet Union he is more descriptive, looking more at the total process of child-rearing, while here he focuses more on our social and psychological ills. He seems less of a researcher here and more of a social critic, a diagnostician. He rarely is anecdotal as he was in the section devoted to the Soviet Union, and he gives the impression that the Soviets are healthy and we are sick. I do not wish to detract from the book, for Bronfenbrenner has a crucial message and he presents it well. Few social scientists undertake so difficult a task, and so meaningfully. Yet he seems to be shortsighted about the gains and losses that every society must inevitably face in the kind of culture it creates and the way it raises its next generation. There is no Utopia. The issue is taking a stand for the society that is mostly moral or that is moralistic for all of its constituents. We don't seek a stand, the Soviets do—but there is a price to pay either way. Here Bronfenbrenner points out how badly we fare, but he seems to be less critical of the Soviets. Neither society has the kind of world I want to live in. One is noncreative yet fairly affective, the other effective (productive), potentially creative but nonaffective. Both are failing, especially in their preparation of the next generation. Both are distrustful, and the Soviets' distrust manifests itself in the free individual whose autonomy may lead to the downfall of the state, while our distrust is of the state which may lead to the entombment of the individual. Neither society has produced a healthy populace; but the Soviets take a stand, program their future and present, and this takes courage for if they fail, it is their fault. We avoid this responsibility and let a laissez-faire policy (permissiveness) guide our child-rearing. Both societies' failures come from a strong ideological position that rationalizes its distrust for what its ideology does not encompass.
This is an important book. Bronfenbrenner has done what most social scientists ought to do—that is, use analytical acumen to describe what is in a global or societal sense and what happens to us on a personal level. His descriptions of the Soviets are more sociological and are written with a positive and touching style. With the U.S. he loses that humaneness, for he becomes too detached. Bronfenbrenner describes the Soviets as humans, and we are left with the impression that Americans are robots out of control. Somehow the feelings of these Americans who are bewildered are not described with equivalent compassion.
In a bold yet systematic way Bronfenbrenner tells us why our families are disintegrating, why we have social chaos. This man is trying to shock us into our senses but he does not try to do so by jingoism, nor does he put the finger on parents alone but all of us who live and enjoy the comforts of industrialization. We have assumed that we could have the good life—bask in the softness of living in a highly competitive and confusing world and bring children into it the way our parents and grandparents did. It's not that simple. The depersonalization of the individual as he tries to market his life takes a toll on the modern worker, and, in turn, his family.
Bronfenbrenner points out that there is a price to pay for our materialism—and he also points out that the Soviets pay a price for their collectivization. The commune involves children in a sensitive way—they are not both indulged and abandoned as they are here. The Soviets care for their offspring, for they care for the future of their country. We are spiraling along ignoring our future (witness the ecology furor) both technologically and humanely. Our young are not part of our lives, yet our guilt forces us to buy them off with all kinds of abundant materialistic bribes. These include too many toys, clothes, books, games, etc. Where we really show our indifference is the way we react and act with infants. We are not sensuous with each other, we rarely kiss upon greeting. Men do not kiss sons nor each other, but Soviets do. Many women do fondle their young here, but the men do not.
Bronfenbrenner points out that there are a number of reasons, but they all come down to one fact—parents no longer raise their children here. Who does? Peers and television.
In the Soviet Union, parents are still parents; this may change as that country intensifies its industrial pace. Discipline, respect, love, authority are still lodged in the parent, yet concomitantly children are felt wanted, they have a home to live in, not a room where they sleep. The children of the Soviet Union are treated with dignity. We abandon our young—collectively and individually. Ours is a rapidly evolving and changing country which has almost condensed a century into a decade. We do so much in a given time period that we cannot pause to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
These rapid changes have come upon us and have changed us before our very noses without our keen awareness. Our lives have become impersonal as we become'immersed into long and tedious business schedules. For us the extended family no longer exists, and deep in-roads have been made on the family. Not only are children confused, but so are parents. They don't know their roles; nor what to do. They try to emulate their parents but somehow the shoe doesn't fit. The social scientific expert and his tremendous upsurge in importance are a direct reflection of our impersonal lives and our need for a life with meaning. This life includes action, and not just analysis, and action coupled with an interdependency upon each other.
It is evident that we have been raised for independence yet we are hobbled and badly so. We follow fads. We are shackled by fashion. We conform. This is due to what Bronfenbrenner and others have described as premature independence. We have a long childhood yet paradoxically have lost our childhood. These are no longer playful times but deadly competitive years. School is work: It is homework and preparing for a future vocation. Yet the child has little or no realistic responsibility. At home where he could truly pitch in he is bathed in television and leisure time, but he does not play nor does he help. He sits and time passes by as he moves further and further away into indifference, boredom, and futility.
Soviet children are brought up to be self-disciplined; all programs and behaviors at the collectives and at home are aimed toward this goal. So through collectivity, self-responsibility and social responsibility are instilled. The children pay a price for they are conforming, disciplined but not creative nor autonomous.
Bronfenbrenner points out that the most important difference between Soviet and American schools is the emphasis placed in the former not only on subject matter, but equally on Vospitanie, a term for which there is no exact equivalent in English, but which might best be translated as "upbringing" or "character education." The school and home complement each other as they raise the child to be obedient, respectful and to give his all to the collective enterprise, the State. Bronfenbrenner concludes the first half of his book, which is devoted to the U.S.S.R., by stating:
In any event, whatever the future may hold, we have every reason to expect that Soviet society will continue to rely heavily on commercial facilities for the care and education of children. And in all of these institutions, as well as in the regular schools, the well-proven techniques of collective upbringing, even if applied with greater tolerance for individual needs, will continue to be used.
All of this suggests that Soviet children of the future will continue to be more conforming than our own. But this also means that they will be' less anti-adult, rebellious, aggressive, and delinquent. During our family sojourns in the U.S.S.R., we learned to our surprise and pleasure that the streets of Moscow and other Soviet cities were reasonably safe for women and children, by night as well as by day.
When Bronfenbrenner turns to the U.S., he is equally objective, but he finds more to worry about. He is an American and his patriotism shows as it should. He wants to help and not just be a critic. Bronfenbrenner sees the American family segregated not only by race and income but by age, too. Children are brought up by peers. (I have come up with similar findings in my book, The Little Black School-house, to be published shortly by Atheneum.) Not only are children segregated by age in school but after school and at home. They are relegated to watch children's television—how specialized can one get—ushered to separate book sections in libraries and separate playrooms in their own homes. We have created a separate world as we both protected them with what we thought was best and isolated them so we could do "our thing." Now they want to do theirs. For years we have worried about an overthrow of our government from without while the seeds were being sown from within.
Children cannot raise themselves; they do need parents. But we do not know how to act. What we lack is character, a moral commitment to social values. Life is a day-to-day existence, and for many of us our salvation is objects that can define our existence. And we have transmitted to our children our own confusion, our own power-lessness, for the power we seek is an attempt to conquer our feelings of nothingness. We vacillate between pushing our young as if we were bosses and being pals to them, for we know children are to be loved; but we confuse love and friendship, especially with our children. We need to lead them and we need to respect our children—without respect and dignity the family becomes a group who live together and go off in separate ways.
Bronfenbrenner describes how the peer group in the Soviet Union complements the adult values, for the children have learned to behave individually and collectively according to specific adult codes, while for us the peer group floats on its own and the children's code of ethics is filled in by substitutes who are not always moral. Television plays the guiding hand, and the young led astray give vent to their own immaturity and incompleteness and often brutalize and bully one another.
Bronfenbrenner concludes his analytic section on the U.S. by comparing this country to half dozen other nations that he has studied. He states that: "The only country which exceeds the United States in the willingness of children to engage in antisocial behavior is the nation closest to us in our Anglo-Saxon traditions of individualism. That country is England, the home of the Mods and the Rockers, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and our principal competitor in tabloid sensationalism, juvenile delinquency, and violence.
Bronfenbrenner's emphasis is the family. To me his description is accurate and frighteningly so. I felt heartened and discouraged when I read his book. I have been saying and writing along the same lines but not as eloquently nor with the grasp of Bronfenbrenner. I was brought up in an immigrant family who brought with them the involvement of concerned parents, who loved and still love each other after forty-two years of marriage. That love spread to us, their offspring. But I sensed the collision of two worlds, America and Russia (my parents were brought up in Tsarist Russia), with me caught between the two. I finally broached and integrated the two. My wife, too, is European, French, and as I live with Jeannie and her family and visit France I am struck with the same differences that Bronfenbrenner finds.
If Bronfenbrenner has a weak spot, it is the last section where he valiantly and responsibly tries to recommend constructive solutions. He misses the mark. After a long and excellent analysis of what ails us, he comes up with some interesting psychological research and suggestions about enduring change through models and social reinforcement. But his emphasis is upon the child and woefully inadequate vis-a-vis parents and the society that create the problem. His suggestion for a Commission on Children is sheer nonsense. No commission ever resolved such critical social problems. Nor will schools do the job. We need to evaluate our goals as a society. And then we need to act and act democratically.
I rarely am uncritical of a book; at best my grandiose expectations, especially of my fellow social scientists, go far beyond what our craft can truly produce. I want the excitement of a novel and the honesty and detachment of a scholarly presentation. Urie Bronfenbrenner is my Man For All Seasons.