Myths about Italy: 1. Italians love children

Some stereotypes are so strong and well established internationally that they will be the first thing you hear when meeting a foreigner. I have a beautiful, über smart Brazilian friend who owns more PhDs than all the people I know but keeps being asked on first meetings about her mastering of samba. I have been asked a thousand times about Berlusconi, who apparently has become a synonymous of Italy as Mafia and Pizza. Since I had kids, though, all the foreigners I cross paths with are eager to tell me about Italian mothers. It varies between “Ah, an Italian mamma, always around her children” and “Ahhhh, children in Italy are treated like kings! All Italians love children!” and then, when they are a certain age, they take a dreaming look and start recollecting stories from traveling on the Italian coast in the 70s, when kids would play football on the streets and someone was always around giving them candies and distributing kisses and hugs.

The Wall Street Journal even dedicated last year an article to the apology of Italian-American mothers, described as “warm, affectionate, passionated and generous”.

This perfect picture illustrated the WSJ article on Italian mothers

I feel compelled to reestablish the truth: Italians DO NOT love children. The loving, brave, patient and constantly kissing Italian mother is a thing of the past.

Wandering around with children, surrounded by Italian families, is an anthropological epiphany. Neurotic is the nicest thing I can say of Italian parents. Or, to be honest, grandparents, for parents are rarely around to be seen.

Children are never talked to as small individuals but the sort of attention they get resembles more the type you’d give to your favorite pet. As pets, they are kept on a leash and constantly reminded of the imaginary dangers they could run into if they, simply, live. The bush they are climbing could break, and let them fall down, injure their spine and end up in a wheeling chair for the rest of their life. They can’t swim in the lake because it harbors a monstrous dragon, ready to eat them alive. They can’t run too fast because they could have a heart attack. I have personally heard all of these things.

Motherhood is less a choice than a chore. The main Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has produced a web mini-series, aired a few weeks ago, which was widely praised: “Una mamma imperfetta” (An imperfect mum). It tells the story of a 40-something mother and her best friends, juggling work, home and kids and basically trying to hide from their life in every single episode. They giggle when the perfect mother (which means decently dressed, actively involved) has a hole in her tights and they line up every friday morning in evening black dresses to stalk the handsome dad of the school. Grandparents and fathers always save the day while mothers are constantly too exhausted to interact or even educate their brats.

I have already written about the outlandish arrangements of the average Italian family, where parents outsource child-rearing to grandparents while they are apparently too busy living their forever-teenager life.

Nowhere else I have witnessed so clearly an innate lack of accountability. A child is constantly lied to (as in the horrific lake monster story), officially for safety reasons, and whenever he breaks the rules he’s justified by his brainless child status, which usually continues to provide an alibi till teenage.

From time to time, the neurotic Italian parent will yell at his child for some trivial reason. Preferably in a crowded place, so that everybody can listen to his show of paternal authority. The humiliated child will listen quietly, then turn his back and start doing whatever he was doing wrong all over again.

No one is ever taught the simple relations of cause and effect or the meaning of being responsible. Would you teach your dog about responsibility, when you can keep it out of troubles by walking him on a tight leash?

Then people wonder why the vice president of Italian Senate can call a black minister “orangutan” and then refuse to resign, as a naughty child refuses to apologize for his pranks.

42 comments

  1. I couldn’t help but think of Indian parenting / grandparenting and the role of ayah’s or maids in raising kids in my part of the globe. There is a stark contrast between flights in Canada where there may be kids but howling tantrums are minimal. The moment we got to the Jet Airways plane from Toronto to Brussels which then continued on to India, we were back in the land of Indian parenting greeted by a chorus of screeching precious little darlings.

    I could go on more – suffice it to say – like you, I believe parenting and adult behaviour are obviously linked.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. It s funny that you name India for last year I did some research on behaviors and social architecture in different countries and found out impressive similarities between India and Italy, though I didn t read anything specific on parenting. What I found most unexpected? Apparently Indians, like Italians, never answer invitations till the very last minute, just in case something better comes up for them. And I have been told that Indians switch on their mobile phones already during landing and jump on their feet and literally struggle to get off planes first. Something I only saw in Italy 🙂

      1. The plane thing happens in China too. I’ve been body checked enough times to protect myself when trying to get off a plane!

  2. all so SO true. I refer to Italy as the Granny state but for different reasons.
    It is such a shame that a country with so much can achieve so little and do so badly.
    The Italians lack discipline and like the easy life a little bit too much.

    1. SO true Miss Fanny P. Living in Italy since ten years: the worst mistake of my life. Simply screwed everything. The problem is: most stereotypes aren’t stereotypes, but simply the reality. I fully agree with you: Such a huge potential and such a lack of will to get the things done in a clean and ordered way. It’s a mental issue: until the population does not change points of view, habits and attitudes to a better (northern) way of thinking, Italy will just remain a garbage dump. A nice and designed garbage dump, but still a garbage dump.

      1. Hey, you know what? you can always leave and go where you think people behave more properly or in a northern way as you say! If you don’t like Italy we are certainly not happy to have someone who doesn’t like us and would probably behave in a disrespectful way to us and to our nation. At least we are polite enough to have welcomed you here and not to call your homecountry a garbage dump! Go back home or wherever you want!

  3. I totally agree with your view. I’m Italian, I’ve been living as an expat in China for many years, where my kids were born and raised. I’ve relocated to Italy recently and my views on Italian motherhood are finding daily confirmation in what I see going around me. I would also add to your comments how ‘complaining’, a well established national discipline in Italy, applies to kids and to the hardship of motherhood! During my years in Asia I have never met such a complaining attitude except for the Italians, better if performed in a loud voice and public space.
    Another thing I real find ‘dangerous’ is this thing that many mums tend to talk about their kids strengths and weakness in front of the kids and with strangers. There is this “mia figlia è così, mio figlio è così” attitude I find pretty dangerous. Anyway , this is not to say that Italian mum are bad, the just bring their own cultural traits in the motherhood experience the same way the French or Chinese mum do.

  4. It really has to be tough being an expat with multple lives and a deep mid-thirties crysis…As I can see, ranting (the typical Italian form of venting out frustration) is still strong with you. Good girl.

    Now, I just have to check if the cookie monster is gonna eat my daughter’s feet.

    An Italian parent (and a rather proud one)

    1. Dear Fabio, thanks for your comment. I am really relieved to read that you don’t identify with my description. Italy strongly needs more parents like you to educate the next generation. Keep up the good job!
      And by the way, living multiple lives is what most women do. Nothing to be proud or ashamed of, just reality. As many readers kindly shared, 30s are a delicate time in a woman’s life and I am sure your partner will have her take on the subject. Have you discussed it yet?

      1. I’ve raised two boys, young men now. I’m American and have been living in Italy for over 30 years. My in-laws live on the ground floor of our house and they watched the kids while I and my husband were at work, until they went to nursery school. Although it was by no means an easy thing to do, as the years went by, I found that the advantage of living at such close quarters generated a deep relationship of respect and love between the older and younger generation. It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of this arrangement and had an absolutely positive influence on them. I wouldn’t have it any other way

        Of course in my lifetime I’ve had my share of watching incredible scenes, like the time, at a first communion party, when I actually gawked as a mom whipped out a hair dryer because her son was sweaty…and the amazing thing was that this woman was a doctor… That being said, I have to tell you that as an Italian american, I find your article to be offensive and facetious. I agree with those who have pointed out the abysmal difference between anglo american and Italian juvenile crime rates. There are plenty of things wrong with Italy, one of which is the fact that young people are not given opportunities to work and have rewarding careers. The truth is, most Italian youth who go abroad are extremely successful and are a source of bittersweet pride for this wonderful country that is going through a hard time right now-but sooner or later we’ll come out of it.- Una mamma italo-americana…and proud of it!

  5. I am really sorry that you’ve met so many bad mums and parents. Amazingly unlucky I’d say. Because all of those I know are nothing like you describe them in your post. A small and humble suggestion: I bet you can do better that talking stereotypes.

    1. Hi Angela, thank you for your contribution. It’s funny that you mention stereotypes because I limited myself to describe what I saw during my annual Italian holiday(s) and to comment on the very popular web tv series by Corriere della Sera. The script, which was brilliant in its genre, pictured itself a stereotype of Italian mothering style. That stereotype, warmly welcomed by thousands of Italian viewers, is somehow scary to those, like me, who’ve been abroad for a long time.
      For what concerns different styles of mothering, I wrote a comparative little post:https://ottominuti.com/2013/05/27/little-expats-i-or-the-thousand-and-one-correct-ways-of-raising-your-offspring/

      1. Well mentioning a TV series is not exactly staying away from stereotypes… and, btw, yes, I saw yelling mothers and fathers also in France, US and Germany (just to mention the one I lived in).

        Also, I commented a few days ago… where did my earlier comment go???

      2. Hi GGG, thank you for your contribution. This is the first comment I receive from you. In my opinion TV, as papers and magazines, is often a good barometer of changing times and popular culture.

  6. Cervantes wrote that: Every man is as heaven made him, and sometimes a great deal worse. By this I mean that there are good and not-so-good parents in every country around the world. Britain has the highest rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies in the world, explain that one to me in this day and age … Explain the unspeakable behaviour of young Britons on the rampage after getting themselves stupefyingly drunk, week in week out, throwing up in the streets etc. Didn’t the parents parent these kids enough? What?

    1. Thank you Josephine for the beautiful quote but I am afraid the point isn’t to state which country produces the best mothers (since excellent individuals exist of course in any corner of the world) but to analyze common behaviors and current cultural references (as the mini-series).

  7. As you probably know, Corriere della Sera published a translation of your post. THey didn’t even manage to get the translation right. In their article it’s the “perfect mother” who stalks the handsome dad.

  8. Oh, I can totally relate to you – and don’t believe that you could live in Italy without seeing this (maybe stereotypical, but true) way of parenting – it is so evident everywhere around us. And it ends up making mammoni and other individuals who don’t revolt against an unfair political system.

  9. I am a far-from-perfect Italian mum (my son is 2 years old) and I have to say that since he was born I have stopped seeing the world as it probably is: I see endless dangers! So I might well be guilty of over protecting him, for sure. Other than that though, I don’t think what you write is necessarily the norm. It is just as stereotypical as any other overly positive stereotype you mention. Where you see over protection, lying and not teaching to be responsible, I see total carelessness and disregard of dangers in foreign mothers who let their kids do whatever covered in dirt. I accept that though, because every parent raises his/her children according to their culture. Different cultures different values.
    However, it is true that I sometimes see mothers talk to their children like I hope I never will talk to mine. Screaming, humiliating in public places without taking the time to explain things is hideous. My mum never treated me like that though.
    Neither did she justify all my mistakes, another attitude that I agree is very common now. I am a teacher and I am often more worried of the parents’ reaction to my criticism than the kids’ reaction.
    However, saying that no one is ever taught the simple relations of cause and effect or the meaning of being responsible and generalizing as horribly as you are is simply wrong, plain false and just as offensive to many good and loving Italian mothers as the hideous comments about our Minister of Integration.

    1. Dear Gloria, thank you for taking the time to write such an articulate comment. I appreciate it. The concept of responsibility is a complex one and my point of view (which is of course subjective, as I am writing a blog and not a manual)is that in Italy it is poorly developed and taught. The Calderoli incident was just an example, the most recent one at the time of my writing but a very effective one as well. In countries of established democratic culture, you always pay for your mistakes. It’s a tough and sometimes unfair rule, but it’s a rule none would dare to discuss. That is not the case in Italy, where we have dozens of examples of public figures who keep their position after a scandal. I believe that politics are a mirror of society and that lack of accountability is a treat fairly common among Italians. There’re exceptions, and those exceptions make me happy to be Italian but the mainstream I am afraid is pretty different. Or it looks different out of national borders. (Then we could discuss about perception and reality 🙂

  10. I would like to stress that it did not strike many of us less than it did strike you. And there are plenty of people who find the ethic relativity that reigns in this country absolutely appalling, me first. And I will try to make sure my son knows that some things are bad and other things are good, always. It is however not true that other democratic cultures are much better (not sure which ones you are referring to, but I am sure they have their dark sides too). They will have other hypocritical aspects.

    It is the criticism of little cultural idiosyncrasies glorified to the level of (your of course) truth that I find disturbing.

    If we start listing things we don’t like about the way youth is raised in other cultures we are never going to get to the end of it! Different cultures are different and beautifully so because they embrace different lifestyles and different values (the role of grandparents, the over protecting, etc). Why should it be worse to raise a “mammone” rather than a child that will leave home at 17, call you maybe once every 3 months, go leave thousands of miles away from you and put you in a home during the last years of your life?! Most Italians will see Anglo-American family history like that. Is that flattering?! I know there is more to that, and that every culture will have positive and negative sides to family life, and I find this one way criticism absolutely unacceptable.

    Of course, this is also only my opinion, and I appreciate the time you took to reply and also you publishing my “side of the story”.

  11. Generally speaking, Italian mums today are spoiled narcissistic brats who are concerned about their own well being than caring enough about their children and how they treat them. These mothers have been raised by their own parents as self centered princesses who are totally self absorbed with themselves and of serving their own needs. They have their token children to dress them up and look fashionable but then eagerly pawn them off to the state where they sit all day long in classrooms, often until early evening (this includes mums who don’t even work!) so that they can be free of the stresses of being with their children. Hopefully, the next generation of mums will be made up of responsible and self less women who are less preoccupied with themselves and more concerned with nurturing and giving love to their children.

    1. And yet most of them choose to remain close to their families… (don’t you accuse us to be all mammoni whatever you believe that means?) It must be because we forge their weak minds and force them into loving being with us by being careless and self-absorbed creatures. Seriously, what kind of women (or people in general) have you met people, and why are you living in Italy if you despise its society so much?!

  12. Italian children and their parents are just like children from any country, the only difference is they get to live in Italy, this may contribute to their sense of entitlement. My own children have a half German, half Irish father and a mother of English descent. I have to say, I’d rather my husband parent with his Irish side. Everybody has fun with an Irishman and problems are hidden deep inside where they can’t be taken too seriously, or totally ruin your day.

  13. As usual generalizations don’t help..there are some parents like the ones you describe there are many different parents who give gradual responsibility to their kids, they have a open critical and constructive dialogue with them. You lack analysis on the Italian situation: why so many parents leave their children to the grand parents? Is it laziness, inability or need due to the lack of structures or effective welfare (Italy is Europe!) policies?
    And again sorry but I don’t think the American approach to the idea of family should be taken as an example, being the Americans the first to envy our passionate concept of it.
    As said, generalizations don’t help; a little more of observation, analysis and objectivity (chronically lacking to young expats) may help instead.

  14. Hi ottominuti,
    this is a trick I use, that maybe you’ll find useful:
    generalizations are dangerous, and usually lead to bad thinking;
    so every time you are saying something about a group… stop,
    and think twice, because you are probably wrong;
    you have to be sure that what you are saying applies to every single element of the group,
    so usually you end up shrinking the group until it contains only a few elements… or just one.

    This is particularly true with groups of people,
    where the “norm with the exception that confirms the norm” is clearly misleading,
    since every human being is different in so many ways.

    Just my 2 cents Giovanni

  15. If there is one thing I learned by living in many countries is that stereotypes are true.

    I remember my Erasmus years in Barcelona where Dutch students were having lunch on the terrace at 12 (waaaay earlier than everyone else), eating their home-made sandwiches as good cost-conscious Dutch people. Germans came after them, always at the same time, ready to go to the next class. A bit later came the italians, they were so noisy everybody could hear them. They were waving hands while speaking and chatting up passing-by girls. Spaniards only arrived at 2pm, later than all the others, short, dark hairs and talking very very quickly.

    Did I say that all Dutchmen are stingy? That all Germans are organized? That all Italians are noisy and that all Spaniards are short? Not at all! I know chaotic germans and rigorous italians but in general these stereotypes apply.

    Another stereotype is that italians are passionate people. Well just look at people’s comments (mostly italians) on Twitter, Facebook etc… following this post: it is either “I love it, this is soooo true!” or “Who is this lunatic who dares criticizing us?”. Of course there are well thought reactions, but they are limited.

    Ottominuti did not write that all italian parents are neurotic, nor did she say that all italian mothers outsource education to their own parents. As for every other nationality there are some common traits that just cannot be ignored.

  16. To me, it seems a quite superficial analysis that does not really consider the transition time from a more a family-based society (yet individualistic one) to a more modern one based on a more oriented American style (working longer hours, changing city for job opportunities, etc, etc.).

    This is not to say that some observations are false, but they are totally taken out of the context. Although I can agree that the future Italy will depend on how we form the new generations, you are simply omitting that Italy is a rather elderly-people-run country – as matter of fact. In a context like this, in which also family and natality policies have been neglected since ever, what would you expect more or different? The “kids” may have to reach 28+ to start to have the first REAL world responsibilities.

    I would like in fact to hear your opinion on the American motherhood and family style, in which often personal relationships are de facto not built or developed at all. Not to use stereotypes, but for personal experiences, many times these “well-regulated” societies form perfect and observant citizens, who unfortunately know how to behave only when the state and government rules are defined for them, and they really lack the more personal judgment capabilities, which I believe, are instead formed in the way we educated kids. Indeed, it is not uncommon that when rules do not exist, either a new rule is needed or people start behaving legally but rather unexpectedly, like they did not have a mother and could not take advantage of her experiences…

    Of course, parenting is not always an easy job, but claiming a cultural bias itself for bad parenting or bad motherhood seems very superficial. Illiteracy and unpoliteness do not have nationality or country. The fact that the country resources are often invested on old people (or simply to maintain and old and inefficient system), and not on education, research, and to modernize the country (looking at the future!) is the real problem, and very likely the root cause of the behaviours your are reported. But, as you are neglecting this context, I believe your analysis is quite naive and essentially based on personal and stereotypical experiences…

  17. Thanks God in Italy the concept of responsibility is developed and taught, that’s why we haven’t so many teenage moms, leaving the school at 15 years old, growing up a child alone or with their parents if lucky, while this happens in many countries such as USA and UK….

  18. Really??? Are you really talking about italian mums as if they are a sort of sept, acting altogether in the same manner, doing the same mistakes, parenting in the same way? c’mon. Be smarter and don’t generalize. Try to know what you are talking about before. there are plenty of different mums all around. (by the way the tv fiction you cited is so superficial)
    sorry if I am rude but I can hardly stand generalization, it just insults human intellect.
    an italian mum

  19. I find the post quite misleading and somehow even contradictory in the way it mixes-up many different aspects of the ‘italian way to parenthood’ (assuming such a thing even exists). Also, I am surprised by how, such an important theme is treated in such a superficial manner. I have raised two children, one of which in the UK and one in Italy. If anything, believe me, being a parent in Italy is a much harder excercise than in the UK. The historic italian reliance on “the family” (which nowdays, more often than not, just means “grandparents”) naturally engineered a society less oriented to providing a helping hand to parents. In this context, getting some help from the family is not a luxury, but a necessity – just because the world around you is much less children friendly than elsewhere. I think this gives much more perspective to the natural reliance of italian parents on granma and grandad, but, unfortunately, the point is completely missing from your post. The current economic crisis has made things even worse, since, proportionally, it hit the younger generations much harder than the older ones. This is another important point which is completely lacking from your post. This is not to say that Italy is perfect and italian parents are just fantastic: there a many things to improve and criticisms to move, but I think you completely missed the point. Finally, I find the parallel between ‘italian children’ and ‘pets’ gratuitous and offensive. I am sorry, but that’s plain bad taste and is not even worth a reply.

  20. Oh Well, from an expat to another expat, are we sure this is not just a way to release your frustration for not having grannies around to help you out? ‘Cause generalizations are dangerous and they cannot ever be true.
    For what I know, I have friends back in Italy who do care about their children’s behave and wellness, who make life-changing choices just to be able to be with their children. I also have friends where I live now who correspond to your description, but they do not have Italian roots.
    If this was just a way to gain popularity, well you just did, not sure how you came out though.

  21. I am an Italian teacher, ins secondary school, and work with children from 11 to 14. I must admit what you say is quite true. Rude and unpolite children and, worst of all, unpolite mothers and fathers. Families do not care about what their kids do at school, until something worng happens. and in that case resposability is NEVER their children’s, but ours. children are impossible to manage because parents are worse than their kids, and it is not just a question of mothers; i’d rather say that they share resposability for such behaviors half and half with fathers

  22. I have an American -Italian teaching collegue who feels the same way as you do. ( Chiara)
    In the end, all of this chatter is about peoples observations on the world they live in.. parenting, families, children, teaching, care giving, grandparents, stereo types, fiction, TV, media, reading, intellect, behavior, good and bad, criticism, and beliefs. Isn’t it amazing that we are all alive to obvserve, ineract, share and learn.? … thanks for writing the blog!!!! I really enjoying it, being and American mother and mother tongue English teacher loving and living in Italy for ten years now.. I see A LOT of what you have written about but, not ALL mothers, italian, american, chinese, french, ect,.. are this way. We are all different. I may choose to parent and teach in one way, you in another, and that is fine.. the beauty of it is in CHOICE. We are free to choose who, how, what and when we want to do something.. In the end, you have to pay the price if your choices are bad, …. Whose to say that a 16 year old american neo-mom high school drop out won’t have more success in life than a 28 year old italian mammona whose been coddled, and pampered and not let to live freely, or get dirty while she plays? Who knows where their lives will end up? Statistically we can immagine that the road will-might-could possibly be more difficult for the teen mom? Though it might be more difficult for the girl who wasn’t ever able to make decisions on her own, or lived with ‘ paura’ or fear of everything ( primarily getting dirty and making messes, falling down and mildly injuring ones self) ? The possibilities are infinite.. the most important thing is to take time to notice, observe, participate and listen in your childs life… If you are doing that, there’s a good chance that your child will do the same as an adult , and then in turn, behave that way with others..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s