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CHILDREN

Five ways being a parent in Italy is different from the UK

Parents moving to Italy might be in for a culture shock. Parenting blogger Kristie Prada describes some of the things that have surprised her about raising an Italian-British family.

Five ways being a parent in Italy is different from the UK
What can Italian and British parents learn from each other? Photo: Kristie Prada

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

Food

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

Discipline

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.

Independence

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.

Would you like to write a guest blog for The Local Italy? Get in touch at [email protected]

CHRISTMAS

Rome’s ‘Geppetto’ on fixing broken toys for underprivileged children

Frayed teddy bears and broken toy cars resurrect under the magic touch of Guido Pacelli, a modern-day Geppetto who works overtime so that Rome's poor and sick children wake up to a gift on Christmas morning.

Rome's 'Geppetto' on fixing broken toys for underprivileged children
Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

Armed with a screwdriver, a microscope and a small welder, “Guido Aggiustagiocattoli”, a.k.a Guido the Toy Fixer, has mended between 50 and 70 toys a day these past two months, in preparation for the festive season.

“The best present for me is when these children who have been through so much smile at me,” said Pacelli, a 68-year-old retired aviation technician from Italy's flagship airline Alitalia.

READ: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

Once up and running, the repaired toys are meticulously disinfected, carefully wrapped and labelled for the families. Salvamamme (Save Mothers), which hosts Pacelli's workshop in premises lent by the Italian Red Cross, then distribute the gifts to poor, migrant or sick children.

Pacelli remembers a Caterpillar tractor he repaired for a little boy. “He called me every day until I managed to repair it,” said Pacelli, a volunteer for the charity since an early retirement in 2011.

Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

“People leave batteries in and they oxidate,” he said, as he changes those of a green plastic electric guitar, extracted from a pile of soft toys, mini computers and wind-chimes for children.

READ: How Christmas dinner changes depending where you are in Italy

Nicknamed Geppetto — the creator of Pinocchio in Carlo Collodi's novel — because of his blue overalls and glasses, Pacelli plays an essential role in the charity.

“This toy was even sent by the manufacturer because it was faulty. I've mended it and now it will go to a child in a hospital,” said Pacelli.

20,000 toys a year 

“We distribute more than 20,000 toys a year,” said Maria Grazia Passeri, head of Salvamamme which also hands out food, nappies and clothes to families with very little means.

The products come from official organisations, hospitals or local parishes. Passeri, wrapped in a red shawl, said that she founded the charity 20 years ago to help “all these women who give birth in secret or go through horrible experiences”.

On distribution day at Salvamamme, mothers fill out forms and children amuse themselves amongst the piles of parcels ready to be sent and play with toys awaiting Pacelli's intervention, stacked in heaving piles.

Many former beneficiaries who manage to lift themselves out of poverty become volunteers at Salvamamme. Jonathan, a 29-year-old Argentinian, arrived in Italy 12 years ago without work or a family to start a new life. “I am very grateful, I will never forget the help I received.

All my free time I give it to the association,” he said. Anna Moticala has a family of five to feed, three of whom are children. She arrived from Moldova to Rome eight years ago and is unemployed. She is also grateful for the charity.

“I asked for a little help and they helped me enormously,” she said, above the sound of children's laughter as they play and gobble down a slice of Pandoro, a typical Italian Christmas dessert.

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