As an English mother married to an Italian, discussions on which country to raise our children and how to parent arise regularly. Italy and the UK definitely have very distinct parenting styles.
I remember at my son’s baptism him being held up to the Italian congregation like the cub in The Lion King, and a room full of people we barely knew were in rapture.
There’s no doubt Italians and Brits do things differently. So what can we learn from each other, and who’s got it right?
Photo: Kristie Prada
It takes a village
When I had my first child, friends and family in the UK popped in to see us a few weeks after the birth. They gave me space to get used to my son’s arrival. When they arrived I did everything: made drinks, snacks, washed up after they left and hosted as if there was no additional little person sat next to me the whole time.
Back in Italy my boy was swept out of my arms straight away to parade around the cooing relatives. I was told by a zia (aunt) to sit down and people pottered about bringing everyone a caffè and anything they needed.
One aunt actually offered to have my son for a month! Clearly I didn’t accept, but it shows how many of us in the UK raise children by ourselves, and in some areas (though not all) we have lost that sense of a village raising a child.
Photo: Kristie Prada
Breastfeeding can be an explosive topic in the UK. Many women are asked to sit in restaurant toilets or leave if they need to breastfeed their child. In Italy it’s considered the natural way to feed a child and women do it in public without so much as a raised eyebrow.
When it comes to dining, Italian children eat the same as their parents and meals are taken together. When eating out the menu is the same for both age groups, you just request a child’s portion – although the size of it will still be plentiful!
British children unfortunately tend to eat from a children’s menu, which is often ‘something’ with chips, though there are campaigns looking to change these to healthier options.
The best thing about dining out with children in Italy is that no one minds you’re there. I love this, as especially when you’re a new parent, feeling like you can still leave the house and go for a drink or meal makes all the difference. It’s quite empowering when you’ve had no sleep for a week!
On the flip side, I remember the days when I was child-free and would like to be able to hear the person talking opposite me when I went out for dinner – so there is some balance needed.
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
The traditional British idea that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is less followed now in the UK. However, there is still a feeling that children should have maturity beyond their years and always behave impeccably. You feel this pressure the minute you enter a restaurant and other diners watch to see if you are seated near them!
Having good manners or ‘essere ben educati’ is held in high regard in both cultures. But Brits love a prolific use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and politeness to be demonstrated through rehearsed sentences such as ‘Please may I be excused’, ‘May I have…’ or ‘Please could I…’.
Italians tend to express politeness through respect for elders and the ability to socialize with all ages appropriately. In Italy, a child is always seen as a child: while treasured and valued, they need to consult elders for decision making and permission. This extends into adulthood in a way that you don’t see in the UK and is not always positive.
Raising independent children is so ingrained in British culture I’m not sure we even realize we’re doing it. We want our children to learn everything quicker and earlier than ever, from feeding themselves to tying their own shoelaces. By the time they go to school age four, they should be able to dress themselves completely to aid teachers who can’t help them during PE lessons.
Photo: Kristie Prada
In Italy this competitiveness is not fostered in the way it is in the UK. Children are helped with tasks for as long as they need it and this is not seen as falling behind. Children go to school the September after their sixth birthday. However, state schools are far less well equipped than British schools. It’s not uncommon to have to bring in your own pens, paper and toilet roll!
La mamma and mammone
The stereotypical overprotective Italian mamma definitely exists – most noticeably, I think, when it comes to feeding and health.
Mammas show their love for their children, especially the boys, by cooking their favourite dish and fussing. There is great concern if their young adults are eating well and enough, if they are wrapped up warm or might catch a cold from some non-existent breath of air. An Italian mamma will never let you wear nothing on your feet. Even in the house you have to have your ciabatte or slippers on.
Mammone are the mother’s boys of Italy. Mothers adore their sons, as do most mums everywhere, but in Italy it’s taken to another level. Unfortunately, in the past mothers have done everything for their sons. They go from being taken care of by their mother to being taken care of by their wife. This is diminishing a bit as culturally it becomes less socially acceptable to be incapable of looking after yourself! But Italy has a long way to go yet and the mothers are just as much to blame.
Kristie and family. Photo: Kristie Prada
As you can see it’s hard to decide which country has aced parenting. We can never decide where is better for our children. The UK pre-Brexit has more opportunities for young adults, but Italy is a wonderful place for young children to grow up. For now we keep visiting both – and eating plenty of fish and chips, then tiramisu!
Kristie Prada is the founder of website Mammaprada, where she writes about raising bilingual children and Italian culture. Originally from leafy Berkshire, she now lives in Greenwich, London, with her husband and two bambini. They spend part of the year at Lake Como with their Italian extended family.
To learn more, visit Kristie at Mammaprada.com.
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