Several weeks after my husband and I arrived in New York from Ukraine with our 4-year-old daughter, Katya, we sat down to dinner, eager to share a homemade meal and our impressions of yet another day of our new life here. It was a warm, breezy August day, and the roofs of Manhattan outside the windows of our ninth-floor apartment stretched, sunnily, as far as the eye could see. We were settling in just fine, everything going according to plan. “Katya,” I called out. “Dinner is ready.”
But she didn’t respond. I called her some more, looked frantically around the apartment and found her in a dark closet, huddled on the floor in silence with a blanket draped over her head. She refused to come out. We had brought her here from war-scarred Ukraine, wanting to shield her from tragedy and pain. Yet here she was, hiding from us in pitch darkness and covering herself with a blanket, as if to inflict even more pain on herself. What had I done to her?
Last summer at our home in Kiev, we had summoned Katya, took her little hands in ours and announced our big news: We would be moving to New York, an exciting big city that she would love. We told her we would become students and she, too, would be going to school in America, learning English and starting an adventurous new life. New York was a beautiful city with giant skyscrapers and yellow taxicabs, we told Katya, full of green parks and playgrounds for kids. On Halloween, children in New York even get to go to the houses of complete strangers and ask them for candy. We promised she would love it.
And, for the first several weeks, we were right. There were two playgrounds with sprawling jungle gyms near our new home for her to explore; bagels with strawberry cream cheese, something she’d never tried before; and an amusement complex in Central Park, where she jumped for joy and giggled. Then school started.
Even though Katya had had English lessons in her kindergarten in Kiev, most of the English she knew could be boiled down to a song she had memorized: “Crocky, crocky, crocodile, say ‘hello’ and say ‘goodbye.” Aside from a daytrip to the Bronx Zoo, the song wasn’t very helpful.
Her first school in New York was a bad fit. It was a highly ambitious charter school in Harlem, and provided no English language support for foreign students; it was instead focused on rigorous math and steely discipline, with students required to walk through the halls with their hands clasped together in front of them and their mouths closed. The doors of the school closed precisely at 7:45 a.m.—anybody arriving even a minute after that was marked late and had to walk around the school building to another entrance. Girls had to wear blue tights with their uniform, and when we ran out of clean ones one day and dressed Katya in a white pair, we earned a reprimand.
During one math class that I was allowed to observe, kindergarteners were asked to add six and 16 doughnuts, and to do that using several methods. While the other kids in the class struggled with the computation, an ambitious assignment for a five-year-old, Katya sat quietly on the floor, staring absent-mindedly out the window, unable to even understand the problem, let alone solve it. A brochure from the school proudly announced that students would be expected to divide and multiply by the end of year. Katya was not even 5.
While she had begun to pick up on some English words—“backpack,” “ice cream,” “red”—she still could not express herself. Once, Katya said she spent the whole day at school without going to the bathroom, because she didn’t know how to let her teachers know she needed to. Another day, she came to class with a scratch on her finger and when the teacher started cleaning her hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer, which hurt her, she didn’t know how to protest.
Soon, I found her in the closet.
I panicked. I called a psychiatrist friend asking for advice, I ravaged through our medicine cabinet looking for antidepressants, I wrote long emails to my mom.
A large part of parenting is making decisions about what is best for our children—but all too often we don’t know what that might be. Should we subject our kids to stress and hardship if we believe, or would like to believe, that the eventual outcome will benefit them? Is it a good idea to pluck them out of their familiar surroundings and throw them into a completely new culture, language, and country? Are we prepared to share this journey with them and face the consequences if things don’t work out? And, as I’ve come to learn this year, are we ourselves ready for our children to adapt to the new world that we brought them to?
I had left my job as a journalist for a Western media organization in Ukraine and come to New York on a fellowship from Columbia University Journalism School last year, while my husband also became a graduate student at Columbia studying data science. We knew the year would not be easy, but at least it was our choice.
With Katya it was different—nobody had asked her. She left behind a familiar world of loving grandparents, a trusted nanny, a kindergarten where the kids napped in pajamas in beds with proper bed linen and ate Ukrainian borscht, a playground with her favorite rusty swings. A life where everything was in place.
Last year, the Ukrainian government was toppled after more than 100 demonstrators were killed during protests. Separatist violence broke out in the east of the country. As a journalist, covering Ukraine’s revolution was a professional challenge and an important mission for me, but living through it, especially with a small child, was much harder. Several times in the course of the three months of the pro-Western Maidan protests in the center of Kiev, when police clashed with demonstrators not far from our home, I sent Katya to her grandparents’ house in a small village outside of the city for days at a time. I missed her, but at least I knew she was safe. I retrieved Katya’s vaccination records from her doctor’s office, thinking that if I had to send her away from Kiev for a long time, she might need them to go to kindergarten elsewhere.
At the height of the protests, a dance recital at Katya’s ballet school was canceled because of the unrest. At her kindergarten, the kids’ spring theater performance turned somber when most children showed up dressed in Ukrainian traditional embroidered shirts—a mark of national pride in difficult times. Dinner party conversations in Kiev changed from discussing ski resorts in the Carpathian Mountains or the latest movie premieres to the young men being drafted to war, some of them our friends, and those who stayed behind collecting money, clothes, and medicine for the soldiers and refugees. The television spoke of nothing but pain, blood, and war.
I tried to shield Katya from all of this tragedy, deciding that she deserved a peaceful and carefree childhood as I’d had. At home, we avoided talking about the Maidan protests and the war with Russia-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine; we switched the channel whenever there was any new news broadcast on TV. But somehow, Katya still sensed a lot of what was happening. Her drawings had a lot of black in them and looked menacing.
Now we were in the safety of New York, attempting a new life. And still my daughter was hurting. After weeks of agonizing, I transferred Katya to a public school near our home, a school that was not as focused on rigorous academics, but offered support for foreign students and a more relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. It meant one more week of Katya’s tears and her clutching me when I dropped her off in the morning, as she began adjusting yet again. I hoped she would acclimate quickly: After all, it is common knowledge that kids are quick learners and absorb new languages and new surroundings easily. I know, because it happened to me.
I was ten when our family moved to Paris from Moscow and I was sent to a French public school, speaking no French. Three months later I could express myself, and my parents used me as a translator when they had to negotiate our utilities bills or communicate with our landlord. Then, we moved to the U.S. Yet it is completely different to subject your child to this experiment, a tiny human being fully dependent on you, and feel responsible both for her joys and her tears. As I have come to learn, though, after the initial stress, children will adapt so quickly that it is we, their parents, who can end up being caught off-guard and unprepared.
With Katya, I cannot pinpoint exactly when the transformation happened. Was it on Halloween, when she walked confidently into stores on Broadway and shouted, “Trick or treat?” Was it near New Year’s, when she asked an American classmate of mine who was watching her for the evening to peel a tangerine for her? “Give me open this,” she demanded. Or was it in January, when I noticed that she sometimes uses English phrases when she plays at home?
Soon, Katya was teaching me about America. In January, she learned in school about “a very great man” named Martin Luther King Jr. When King was a little boy, Katya explained to me, he was expelled from his favorite basketball court because he had brown skin. But when he grew up, he made it is so that all kids of all colors can play anywhere, she said in a firm voice, waving her index finger in the air.
In February, Katya announced the she was preparing to celebrate an important holiday, one that I had only a faint idea about—Presidents Day. Getting ready for the holiday required jumping on the couch and reciting the names of the most famous U.S. presidents. One of them was especially important, Katya said. He was a very tall man who won a war and then declared that all people must be friends with each other. Was this Lincoln, I asked her? “President Abraham Lincoln,” she answered proudly.
Amazed by this metamorphosis, I asked to visit her school and observe Katya in the classroom. That day, the kids were reading a story called “Splishy Sploshy” about a group of naughty trolls named Meanies, who turned the house upside down painting, and their guardian, a woman called Mrs. Wishy Washy, who had to clean up after them.
Sitting on the carpet with their feet crossed, the children discussed the book with their teacher, Ms. Rochel Most, a lively brunette with a kind smile and a seemingly endless patience for her students. “I think she looks like a monsters,” Katya said of the Meanies, mistaking “they” for “she.” I was thrilled to see Katya’s achievements, but I was also intrigued to discover a completely new pedagogical approach in this public school in Harlem, one that was drastically different from what I grew up with in my Soviet school in Moscow.
For starters, the kids were seated freely on the floor and while they were told to be quiet and to be “whole-body listeners,” they still had some room for movement, some interaction with each other, and some fun. In my Moscow elementary school, one of the first lessons I learned was to sit straight in my chair, one arm placed on top of the other one on the desk. Even raising one’s hand was an exercise in rigidity—the right hand had to be half-bent, supported firmly by the left one. Sitting on the floor, the purview of dirty shoes, drafts, and dangerous frivolity just wasn’t done.
In the book Ms. Most’s class had read, the poor Ms. Wishy Washy discovered the mess the Meanies had made and had to “scrub-a-dub” the whole house. Ms. Most asked the class to impersonate the woman and imagine how she would scold the trolls for misbehaving. One after another, kids rose from the floor and offered their version. I was surprised. Elementary school in the Soviet education system was focused on reading, memorizing poems, and reciting stories, but an author’s words were carved in stone. Here, children were allowed to take an existing work of literature and to change it to their taste.
When describing the Meanies, a girl sitting next to Katya said that she actually found them beautiful. I felt sorry for Katya’s classmate—she’d clearly gotten it wrong. The Meanies were strange short creatures with giant red noses and fur. How do you tell a five-year-old that she made a mistake without hurting her feelings? I wondered.
But Ms. Most praised the girl’s thinking. She is “allowed to think that they are beautiful,” she continued. “That is her o-pi-ni-on,” she emphasized. I was amazed. This is how dissidents are raised, I thought to myself.
During the writing lesson, the children were seated at small tables, three to four at each, and asked to write about their recent field trip to a puppet show and draw a picture to illustrate it. Katya finished her drawing quickly, but she struggled with the writing, tilting her head slightly to the left, fiddling with her two blond braids, walking up to the board to look at a list of words they had been learning. In the end, she wrote, “We see good trip.”
I was curious to see how the other kids fared. One of Katya’s classmates scribbled, “I went to the park and I play.” Another one put down, “I was sic.” Less than a year after coming here, my daughter wasn’t too far behind her American peers. I was proud.
Several weeks later, the parents were invited to school for an award ceremony called “Shiny Star.” As the classroom filled with moms, dads, and grandparents, the kids, sitting, of course, on the carpet with paper stars attached to their shirts, sang songs about the days of the week and months of the year. Katya knew them all. What a change it was since the crocodile song!
“Who is a Shiny Star?” Ms. Most called out.
“Meee!” shouted the kids.
“Who is the most wonderful?”
“Who is the best listener?”
When quiet was restored, Ms. Most began the ceremony. She announced a child’s name and handed the boy or girl a yellow paper certificate to the applause of the families. Some children received the award for smiling a lot, others for being friendly, still others for helping out in the classroom. Katya became a Shiny Star for being a “quiet worker.”
Essentially, Ms. Most, the parents, and the school were praising the kids for no particular reason—just for being themselves. Everybody was great. Everybody was smart. Everybody was a shiny star. This is how self-esteem is built. This was another revelation.
When all the awards were handed out, the kids were invited to celebrate the occasion with snacks brought by the parents. Here, the Russian mother in me protested. Several small tables were laden with doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies, chips, candy, sugary juices and other junk food that would be frowned upon in a Russian or Ukrainian school, at least in such quantities. Katya, of course, ran for the doughnuts, seeing a rare opportunity to treat herself, since such foods are not often served at our house. For the rest of the day, my Shiny Star was bouncing around our one-bedroom apartment like a kangaroo.
Another stark difference I noticed between the post-Soviet and American approach to parenting is clothing, or rather lack of overclothing. In Russia and Ukraine, a mother’s love and devotion to her child is typically measured by how many layers of clothes the kid has on—the more, the better. In winter, jeans and snowsuits are worn over tights, T-shirts over undershirts, jackets over several shirts and sweaters, and shapka—the hat—stays firmly on from October until April.
I was shocked when I saw New York children with bare legs and only light jackets climbing ladders on playgrounds in late fall and early spring, when it was still decidedly cold by Russian standards, often without gloves, wool scarves, and—this felt like child abuse—without a hat. But as the months went by, I noticed that the world hadn’t come to an end. All those kids who looked half-naked to me—and whose mothers would surely earn numerous reprimands on the streets of Moscow—were perfectly healthy. Nobody was catching pneumonia or coming down with meningitis because they weren’t wearing hats. In fact, unlike Katya’s two years at her Kiev kindergarten, when she would often stay at home sick for weeks at a time, in New York she fell ill just a couple of times. I conceded defeat.
As the school year was drawing to a close, Katya—wearing socks, not tights, under her jeans, her hat stashed away in the closet—said she was tired of the unhealthy cafeteria food at school (hamburgers and mozzarella sticks) and asked that from now on I pack her a homemade lunch. I was happy to oblige. I was ready to give up the shapka, if that’s what it took to help Katya adjust here, but not the Russian home-cooked meals.
One recent evening, after a full day of classes, I returned home late and exhausted. I forced myself to go to the kitchen and prepare meat patties for Katya’s lunch the next day, the benchmark of a good Russian mother. Barely awake, I chopped onions, mixed ground meet with eggs and bread, rolled the patties in flour, and fried them in a sizzling pan.
In the morning, as I was proudly putting the meat patties in her lunch box, Katya looked at me shyly. “Mommy, can you make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead?” she asked. With a sigh, I did.