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”.
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.