By Patricia Winton
An Italian television program called S.O.S Tata, based on the American show Nanny 911, offers some uniquely Italian views on childrearing. In one memorable show, the stay-at-home dad can’t cope with two small children behaving badly. He feeds them dinner around five PM and has them tucked into bed before his professional wife returns home from work. The parents enjoy a relaxing evening alone.
The Tata identifies this practice as the root of all the family’s troubles. She modifies the household routine by having the children stay up much later and participate in dinner preparations. The children set the table although one is so small that she can only manage to carry one plate at a time from the cupboard to the table, with dad’s help. In this scenario, the meal preparation takes much longer and the children stay up much later, but the Tata approves. Like most Italians, she believes that children must not live separate lives.
And in Italy, children are central to almost all aspects of daily life. People seek children’s opinions and respect their ideas. I often see a grandfather accompanying his granddaughter to school, for example. When they exit the building, he’ll ask, “Today should we go this way or that way.” The child usually ponders for a moment and chooses a route, which they follow.
Children are included in conversations. I remember observing a couple of women conversing on a subway platform in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. One of the women had a small child in a stroller in front of her. The child was struggling to remove her sweater, grunting with the effort. The adults paid no attention. That would never happen here. The conversation would include all three people.
Adults make children feel important. I recently walked down the street behind a woman pushing a stroller. An acquaintance approached and bent down to talk to the child, saying “Ciao, how are you, Elena,” before standing upright to greet the mother. A three-way conversation ensued. When the man took his leave, he reached down to caress the child’s cheek and say “Ciao” again before shaking hands with the mother.
In Italian restaurants, children accompany their parents—even to the most elegant ones. The waiters fawn over children, often bringing them a special treat. If there are few children, a waiter might even pick up a child and take her into the kitchen for a quick tour (and a sample of the dessert to come). The idea of an "adults only" restaurant is unthinkable.
Family includes multi-generations, and family occasions include everyone. At these events, everyone gathers around the dining table; children aren’t sent to separate children’s tables. At anniversary parties and promotion celebrations, children are on the guest list. Children, not just flower girls and ring bearers, attend weddings and receptions, too.
Do Italian children misbehave? Absolutely. Do Italian parents chastise their children for that behavior? Definitely. But Italian adults don’t expect perfection from their children. They expect them to run and jump and get dirty, and they provide ample opportunities for these activities.
As a result, Italian children grow up with oodles of self-esteem. Sometimes the result produces behavior in adults that can seem self-centered. People hate waiting in lines and push through crowded streets as if they were empty. But in a strange way, it also produces a generosity of spirit that continues to be passed to the next generation.