Before Landon Pearson became a Canadian senator, she had raised five children and lived with her husband Geoffrey Pearson in several countries where he worked in embassies. In Moscow he was Canada’s ambassador and her children were grown by then. Landon visited schools and playgrounds, observing childrearing practices, and then wrote a book, Children of Glasnost: Growing up Soviet. She now directs an institute at Carleton University on the Rights of the Child.
What are the effects of this collectivity-oriented system on the political values of today’s Russian adults?
METTA SPENCER: When I got to know him, your husband was the head of CIIPS, the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, which Pierre Trudeau created. Geoffrey used to give me money. I was running Peace Magazine and putting on various kinds of conferences and he had funds that he could disperse to people doing good deeds for peace. And I knew three of your five grown kids. Your daughter, Patricia, wrote for Peace Magazine once. Later I read her wonderful book, Opening Heaven’s Door.
LANDON PEARSON: It’s a remarkable book, actually. But it was inspired, in many ways by the deaths of both my daughter Catherine and her father.
SPENCER: Yes. Extraordinary stories, but let’s talk about you and children. You came back from Moscow and became a Canadian senator but before that, you were already interested in the rights of children.
PEARSON: Yes, I was the president of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. And from there, I was appointed to the senate in 1994. I was in the senate from ’94 to 2005. And when I retired from it, I went to Carleton and created this Center for the Study of Childhood and Children’s Rights, which I’ve been working on for the last 15 years.
SPENCER: You were appointed to the senate because you already were an expert on childhood. Having raised five children with great success, you had also written a book about childhood in the Soviet Union, which I read with great pleasure.
I’m fascinated by one question: whether or not style of childrearing has any implications for the ethical and political values of the children in adulthood. When I was an undergraduate, I read a book by Uri Bronfenbrenner about childhood in the Soviet Union. He was very favorable. He described ways in which they used group pressure to get kids to support each other to behave properly. A teacher would be able to leave the room and know that every child would be monitoring one of the other children and making sure they behaved themselves. They didn’t throw chalk at each other while she was out of the room because they were all trained to cooperate and monitor each other. At that time, I thought, well, that’s such a charming idea.
In retrospect, I wonder how charming it is, if everybody’s learning to spy on each other, or something of that kind. But group pressure and conformity were certainly being encouraged by that. It’s only in retrospect that I questioned whether that’s a good thing or not. I wonder about the effect of early childhood interactions, and the possible lingering effects in adulthood. Do you have opinions about that?
PEARSON: My view is that you have a number of components, always. First is what the child brings genetically. Temperament is very much a genetic component. Are you cheerful? Are you melancholic? Those are temperamental issues that go with your central nervous system and you come into the world with them.
Then after that, it’s the interaction between you and the people who are looking after you that shaped you as you grow up. In Russia, I noticed that, generally speaking, the relationships in families were pretty affectionate. There was probably a fair amount of corporal punishment, because that was characteristic everywhere, but I think in the Slavic nations probably even more. And the corporal punishment we know now is very damaging. But beyond that, there was a lot of very close interaction with children. And they were wrapped up like watermelons. They were kept tight as they were being carried around and observed by everybody. The affection and the nurture were very strong. What was missing was the attempt to enable children to become autonomous.
And I think it’s still characteristic in Russia and countries like that, children don’t get an opportunity to make their own mistakes, or to feel that they’re in charge of their lives. They don’t have that sense of agency. And if you don’t have a sense of agency, which is very important, then you’re more likely to conform. So, my sense of what you’re looking at overall in a population now in Russia, is a population that has grown up, generally speaking, to conform, and not to “kick against the pricks,” so to speak. To accept what’s there and make the best of it. They were good at learning how to share quarters, that kind of thing. They had to, but they were not revolutionaries, in spite of the revolution of 1917. But that’s a hundred years ago, so that’s not part of who they are now.
So, what we’re looking at now is a population that, on the one hand, is begun to grow up, to take advantage of some of the new opportunities, materially, that emerged under Putin. I saw where someone said that they’re choosing the material advantages that Putin brought rather than the challenges of freedom, of being independent. This is a big generalization because every child will be brought up somewhat differently. But the strength of family ties means that they’re emotionally open, but intellectually closed. Well, you must have had that experience. You’d have wonderful conversations. People were so open, but not really intellectually.
SPENCER: That’s right. At one point when a lot of color revolutions were happening in various countries, I did some calculations about what percentage of the population turned out in different cities — for example, in Belgrade to get rid of Milosevic. If you have a big crowd, you’re likely to be pretty successful in getting rid of your dictator. At that point, Moscow had a population of nearly twelve million, but would only have maybe 3000 people in a demonstration. For a protest movement, it just wasn’t on the scale, compared to some of the other countries that had no more grievances than the Russians certainly had. Russians would complain about it and say they didn’t like Putin, but that didn’t mean they would take any measures.
PEARSON: Also, a big element of fear. I mean, historically it would take more courage to be a protester than it would ever take here.
SPENCER: Oh, absolutely. And right now it’s taking ten times as much courage as a year ago, because they enacted this law that you go to prison for 15 years if you say the word “war” in a certain context. You can get in real deep trouble for publicly expressing disagreement. I was talking to a guy in Moscow yesterday on our monthly Global Town Hall, and he said that they had been prosecuting people early in the war, but not as much lately. He thinks that maybe the regime is getting nervous that if they push people too far they might react.
But you mentioned that they’re not revolutionaries. Well, of course they were. Not only were they revolutionaries against the Tsar, but there were anarchists and all kinds of violent people in the period leading up to the Russian Revolution. So, Russians had a lot of activity in those days. Can you give a theoretical explanation for why they would have been more overt in those days than now?
PEARSON: I expect that leadership was one of the issues. When you think about Lenin, there was leadership there. He was a leader and an idealogue. He was a communist. Putin is not a communist. He’s just an autocrat. He talks about the great Russian state, but he doesn’t talk about the “new Soviet man,” which was what the earlier days talked about. He talks a bit about the Russian Orthodox Church, but he’s not driven by ideology.
SPENCER: Right. There’s no ideological fight going on in the world at all today.
PEARSON: Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. The Taliban are certainly driven by ideology.
SPENCER: Fair enough. Yeah, I agree. Well, going back to the childhood precursors of this, were there any changes in child rearing practices between the two eras, the revolutionary or pre-revolutionary era and today?
PEARSON: Technology changed. Access to a more open technology would have made a difference. And if you look at the Second World War, there were huge numbers of single mothers and Russian male mortality is still very high because of alcohol. But what that means in terms of parental influence, it’s hard to say.
And there are now also a lot more abandoned children. There used to be a lot around at the time of the revolution. Whole roving bands of young people.
SPENCER: I remember reading — was it Makarenko? This man who took in a whole bunch of homeless children and raised them in a group?
SPENCER: He certainly encouraged them to be extremely responsible. I don’t know that there was any room for individuality or critical thinking, but there was certainly a sense of duty. One memory I have from that book was when someone famous — maybe it was Gorky — was coming for a visit. They knew that Gorky liked lemon in his tea. So he sent a boy out to find a lemon, but that wasn’t easy. He went everywhere looking for somebody who would give him a lemon and, late at night, he returned with his lemon, or maybe it was without a lemon.
I don’t think you’d find anything like that childrearing practice in many Russian families recently. For a long time, I went to Russia every year or so, sometimes for several months. But I didn’t meet many people with small children, so I can’t make any judgments. But I never really got the impression that such diligence has been expected of children lately.
PEARSON: Our children in the west, particularly in North America, tend to be brought up to be more individualistic, and the children in Russia would tend to be more social — not socialist, but social community. In the schools, it was stressed that you are together, not apart. I don’t know how that translates into generosity, when people are in trouble, but it was definitely: You think of yourself as a member of a group before you think of yourself as an individual.
In talking sometimes about our indigenous peoples, they too tend to think of themselves as part of a group with a group identity. Be conscious of your neighbors as opposed to being all out for yourself.
SPENCER: I got the impression too, not only from that Makarenko book, but the Bronfenbrenner book and your book, that they were brought up to be conformists to the group. And that had many good aspects. Children could be motivated to behave themselves, not to be too self-centered.
PEARSON: That’s right. They would often go to kindergarten very early and they are not punitive. The children were not punished. And at high schools they were not punitive either. They were highly structured in terms of what was being taught. The quality of education when I was there — in terms of basics (literacy, and so on — was very high. I’m not sure it’s high anymore, but many Russians that one knows now outside of Russia are very literate. They’re well aware of their culture, their background. They’ve always been very good scientists.
SPENCER: You said a minute ago that they did not punish children. I wonder how they got kids to behave. If they didn’t punish them, what did they do instead?
PEARSON: I was thinking of corporal punishment. I didn’t see or hear much about being beaten. Chekhov talks about being beaten. Social isolation, I would think, would be the punishment.
SPENCER: I remember reading someplace that the teachers would say, “Okay, kids, let’s see which row can sit up tallest in your chairs.” The competition was between the various rows of students in the class. You were trying to make your row stand out, but not yourself.
PEARSON: Right. Collective identity being emphasized.
SPENCER: I remember one of my Russian friends actually was one of the rare dissidents. She was a geographer at Moscow State University and they deprived her of her credentials — her PhD or something. They had a meeting of all of the faculty members together, and had them put up their hands and say whether they would vote to strip this woman of her academic credentials. Her friends were there, and they were all on her side. They agreed with her in every political way. But at the end, with great shame and embarrassment, they would put their face down and not want to look, but they put their hand up and voted against her. Well, I guess that could happen anywhere. But…
PEARSON: It can happen anywhere, but we’re not usually forced into those situations.That’s why we use a closed ballot, not an open ballot.
SPENCER: Do you stay in touch with anybody who was a child of that age that you knew there when they were growing up? Do you have any way of finding out how they’ve turned out compared to what you expected of them?
PEARSON: Not really, we were there in 1980. That’s 40 years ago.
SPENCER: So those kids would now be well into middle age. Probably some of them may be in positions of decision-making power.
PEARSON: It would be interesting to know but I’m out of touch. And my own kids all were living here. They were grown at that time.
SPENCER: You mentioned Russian kids being bundled up and even said they couldn’t move well. I’d like your thoughts about this. During World War Two, social psychologists were very influential by psychoanalytic theories. Margaret Mead and her colleagues were all studying national character. We had Ruth Benedict writing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and all these people doing analyses of the personality traits of people in an enemy culture — Japan or Russia or Germany.
We had people writing about the F scale, the authoritarian personality in Germany. The harsh parental father figure was considered a major factor contributing to the authoritarian personality and so on. Well, there was one book about Russian national character. The author attributed a lot to the practice of swaddling. Babies are bound up tightly; they can’t move for months or maybe a year or two.
It’s not just a Russian thing; people in many countries practice swaddling. Well, I got into deep, deep trouble about this. In something I wrote, I speculated about whether or not some of the traits of Russian personality could be traced back to this very early period of infancy.
The reason I was thinking about it is that I have claustrophobia. It’s better now, but I am convinced that it dates back to birth; they say I was thirteen hours in the birth canal. So, I think my residual anxieties are about being unable to move. I used to have anxiety attacks about being trapped.
Well, here I’m really overgeneralizing and you may tell me I’m full of nonsense, but some of my Russian friends love to be locked in. I once got locked in by a friend who only had one key, so he locked it from the outside and left me in all day. I had anxiety because of the claustrophobia, but he said, “No, everybody I know likes to be locked in.”
And when I went out to the dachas, I saw they put up steel fences about 10 feet tall around their dachas now. I don’t know whether it’s a new thing or not, but they feel better if they’re locked inside these steel walls. So, I started speculating about whether this comes from an experience of being bound up and absolutely unable to break out, so, as an infant, you just learn to lie there and take it and don’t resist because you’re going to be defeated, no matter what you do. You can’t win.
I wrote that in something I published, but it so offended one of my Russian friends that our friendship actually ended. She thought it was horribly offensive of me to talk about that. Now I wonder. Am I really full of nonsense?
PEARSON: Oh, no, I think there’s a lot to be said for that. That’s why pediatricians never recommend you wrap up babies too tight. The limbs have to have plenty of freedom.
SPENCER: I understand that there’s — at least a few years ago, there was a trend to re-institutionalize swaddling, even in North America and maybe Europe.
PEARSON: No! Really?
SPENCER: Yeah, I heard of people doing it. About fifteen years ago.
PEARSON: I met a lot of Russians who were wise. So it wasn’t that they didn’t understand. A lot of the academics, the people that I wrote about in my book — the ones who understood about problems of intellectual development, artists and so on — they were very sophisticated. One of the great psychologists who understood development was Lev Vygotsky. He was in the early 30s. Luria also understood much, so there was a lot of wisdom among the Russian academics, about development. It just didn’t translate entirely into practice. Which, of course, was also the case here.
SPENCER: Yes, the UN adopted a treaty or convention on the rights of children. What was your part in that?
PEARSON: My center at Carleton is focused on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s the most widely signed treaty of all the international humanitarian treaties that emerged from the UN. Every country does have to report on it, including the Russians. It was created and adopted at the United Nations, literally within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, the fall of the Berlin Wall was book-ended by the fall of the Twin Towers. So, all that time between those two events there was major progress on children’s rights, and with the shift of government priorities to terrorism.
Our responsibility is to respect the child as a person. It’s all there. And so my whole center is organized according to the different articles. They talk about the child’s right to protection, the child’s right to provision, the child’s right to participation, which is a major right within the convention. I have maybe 12,000 items that are organized in my center for students. Of course, COVID has made it impossible to access.
But we do all kinds of activities. I learned in Russia that children have to be given the opportunity to develop the skills to participate. And that means respecting their political and civil rights as well as their economic, social, and cultural rights.
SPENCER: Have you observed any changes — even in Canada — of child rearing practices? Have we been changing over the years?
PEARSON: I think we have been changing quite a lot, I’m glad to say. Our laws have changed. When I was in the senate, I was sponsoring the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which was a major improvement in our previous treatment of children in trouble with the law, much more respectful. In fact, the numbers of kids incarcerated has diminished enormously as a result of the changes that we brought in which were respectful to the child. We have made things like the child tax benefit to address issues of child poverty, it’s quite a major move forward.
That’s one thing that children need to develop — to have enough economic security. The new move forward on childcare is another important thing. There are advances, for example, with respect to children who are exploited in the sex trade. We put a lot of legislation in place that improve that situation. On the other hand, you have the ungoverned social media that counterbalances those effects. But, generally speaking, attitudes and behavior toward children have improved.
SPENCER: Let’s talk about teaching children to empathize. One of the great things that I got from reading comments by Barack Obama. You know, he was raised pretty much by his mother. He didn’t have his father around. He said that if he did something that she disapproved of, she would say to him, “How would you feel if somebody did that to you?” And she would stick with it. She wouldn’t let him off the hook until she could see that he was actually trying to imagine how that other person felt. And that is empathy. I think training for empathy is an extremely important thing, and he stresses that.
PEARSON: Empathy is a hugely important component of our social life. Mary Gordon’s programs, called “The Roots of Empathy,” are in schools. To me, they are a model of what one should be doing, helping children develop relationships with one another. Just what Barack Obama said—understanding how other people feel. The roots of empathy start in early childhood. A child often learns to feel with animals. Children can understand a hurt animal in ways they can’t understand a hurt adult, It’s about building relationships within children. Parenting or bringing up children is a huge responsibility and I’m very excited to watch the children of my two great-grandchildren, who clearly are interacting with them all the time. It’s marvelous. Unfortunately, a lot of our young parents don’t have the kinds of support they need to think that way. And in Russia, that’s also a big issue.
SPENCER: Barack Obama makes the point that empathy is not only something we need to teach children, but that it is crucial in political life. Everything that a politician does should be organized in terms of empathizing with the needs and feelings of other people and responding to that.
I started comparing that to what I read from Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, who wrote a book about her uncle and their family. He was not only not encouraged to empathize with other people, but was virtually prohibited from empathizing. His father taught him to be a bully -– demanding and self-centered. I guess the mother had health issues and they had an understanding that the father would raise the sons, and she could raise their daughters. So, she pretty much relinquished any effort to straighten her son out. And we see the results.
PEARSON: Yes, yes.
SPENCER: But Obama’s mother would not relent until he actually demonstrated that he understood how the other people felt with whom he had been interacting badly.
PEARSON: That’s one of the reasons we get so offended by the behavior in the House of Commons. We get really offended by rudeness. And also by what’s happening south of the border. There’s no sense of how other people feel. Rudeness is lack of empathy. For the bully it’s satisfying. So, when I’m talking about the political rights of children, it’s not to show them what goes on in question period in the House. (We laugh.)
SPENCER: In the Rights of Children Convention, is there any explicit recommendation about how parents are correct or coach or discipline their children?
PEARSON: Yes, everything in the convention is a description of how we should behave toward children. The article that relates to the right to life and development, which is Article Three, I think, is that you have to be respectful. So, it’s incorporated in some ways in the term of respect.
SPENCER: Does the Convention on the Rights of the Child instruct parents how to elicit respectfulness in their children?
PEARSON: One of my colleagues is Joan Durant at University of Manitoba. She’s very strong on the issue of corporal punishment and she’s written a book about it. It’s called Thoughtful Parenting. Unlike Canada, 66 countries have now abolished corporal punishment by law, We allow it, as long as the child is over two and under 12. The supreme court made a judgment. It’s ridiculous. You can’t hit any other human being but you can hit a young child if, they say, appropriate under the circumstances. But it’s never appropriate!
It’s more difficult when you’ve lost your temper. The child has pushed you beyond limit, so you push back. People need to hear the message that this is not acceptable. There are other ways of interacting with your children that require more time and patience, but they’re possible.
SPENCER: Landon, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Let’s hope that other people learn something too. Thank you.
Video of this conversation can be found at: https://tosavetheworld.ca/episode-458-political-socialization