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‘Kids are adored here’: What being a parent in Italy is really like

Raising a family in any country other than your own brings added challenges and surprise. The Local asked international parents living in Italy about their experiences with everything from healthcare to schooling.

Becoming a parent is a monumental shift in life, even when in a familiar culture and surroundings.

It’s no mean feat, then, to have a child or move your family to a new country with different rules, norms and expectations – not to mention all in a foreign language.

But along with the challenges, there are rewards to making such a bold leap. The Local spoke to parents who moved to Italy to find out more about the pros, the cons – and the entirely unexpected.

Adult-centred but child-friendly

Richard Hough has been living in Verona for 10 years with his wife and two boys, now 13 and seven years old.

He’s seen both sides of the coin as his first child was three when they moved to Italy from Glasgow, Scotland, and his second son was born in Italy.

“The one born in Scotland still has Scottish characteristics when it comes to food and the weather. He doesn’t wear hats and scarves, much to the shock of Italians, and he loves British food like Heinz baked beans and ginger biscuits,” Richard says, “Our little one is much more Italian – he loves pasta and his nonna,”

Regardless of differing attitudes towards heritage, Richard says Italy is “a fantastic place to raise a family”.

“The climate, diet and lifestyle are all great for children. Verona itself is a really safe city to raise them and the fact that they are bilingual and bicultural really appeals to me,” he added.

Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

He also says that in his experience, Italians love children: “They are so affectionate towards them, they treasure children.”

It’s an observation echoed by Paige Latham, an American national living in Alessandria, Piedmont, with her husband and two boys, aged 12 and four.

“I feel like children are more integrated into adult life in Italy. When you go out to dinner, people bring their children along a lot more,” she says.

Like Richard, she finds that children are nigh on idolised in Italy.

“I think kids are adored here, people are more vocal about them. If someone sees them at supermarket, there’s always a kind word, like ‘ah, they’re so cute, so sweet!’ They interact more with kids and children are more noticed, more valued maybe,” she says.

The impression that children are highly important to Italians is a common thread.

Shirin Georgiani had her first baby in Ferrara, in the north of Italy, almost 18 months ago. After becoming a mum she says she noticed that children open up conversation with everyone.

READ ALSO: Italy heading for demographic ‘crisis’ as population set to shrink by a fifth

Mostly old people would stop me on the way somewhere to coo and ask if the baby was a boy or girl, what’s his name, and to ask if he was good. There were constant questions, such as asking, ‘does he sleep well?’ and unsolicited advice on parenting,” she told us.

Since recently moving back to London, she’s noticed the cultural differences even more: “At the same time as feeling like having a baby makes you public property, everyone was endearing. Maybe because there are fewer children in Italy and are precious… they are the centre of the universe in Italy, whereas nobody cares in the UK!”

Different parenting styles

The culture in which your child is born or raised has a huge impact on not just them, but how you’re expected to be a parent too.

According to the parents we spoke to, there’s also the flip-side of the adoration towards children – and that’s the judgement of your parenting.

“It’s a cliché but true: Italian kids are much more mollycoddled than Scottish kids. They spend less time outdoors in winter, so old ladies would come and tell me off if my children were what they deemed inappropriately dressed,” Richard told us.

He also spoke of the near obsession with monitoring a child’s temperature.

Any Italian mum knows the precise temperature of their child at any given time. You’ll hear at the school gates, ‘Giovanni is 37.5C!’ And I’d think 37 what?

“In our household we didn’t even have a thermometer. That’s changed since Covid of course, but it’s different here – we just used to get measured from the back of your mum’s hand on your forehead.”

Considering how much he noticed Italians’ warmth towards children, Richard says he was surprised that the country isn’t set up for them.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP

“I was first quite shocked about the lack of changing facilities in bars and restaurants. Nowhere had decent changing facilities – or a child-friendly menu. I took that for granted back home,” he tells us.

“It has changed in the last 10 years, but at the beginning, we couldn’t even get a high chair and the child had to just sit in your lap,” he adds.

Paige also notes that there’s less infrastructure around children in Italy compared to the US.

“Babysitting isn’t as common – in the US, you’d get a babysitter and most people use them. Here, I don’t hear about anyone using babysitters,” she tells us.

“I don’t like that side of parenting in Italy. If my husband or I need personal time, we take turns. We tag team. If you’re a single parent, that could be a huge challenge,” she adds.

Shirin also notes “very different parenting styles” between Italy and the UK, as well as differences when it comes to official advice.

In the UK, I was shocked at some things the nurse was saying. I was advised not to feed him to sleep and that he doesn’t need milk anymore,” she says.

“I was told I’d become a sleep crux for him and needed to change the sleep associations he has. Sleep training and all that ideology is something I never came across in Italy: the health advisors there never pushed the idea of getting him out of our bedroom or holding the baby less.

“I can’t imagine a nurse saying there’s a sleep and feeding routine to stick to in Italy. In the UK, they seem in a rush to separate the children and make them grow up,” she adds.

The Italian healthcare system

One big area of concern around having a family in Italy is giving birth in another country and how alien or daunting that might feel as a foreigner.

Fortunately for any worrying mum-to-be (or dad), all the parents we spoke to were largely positive in their experiences of accessing antenatal care and the experience of labour itself in Italy.

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know about giving birth in Italy

Paige tells us that she used Italy’s public healthcare system for everything. She was living in Rome during her first pregnancy and says that the “care was good” and that all the staff were “very helpful”.

“As long as you make your appointments in time, you’ll get what you need done. The only thing I paid for were monthly blood tests and a gestational diabetes test,” she says.

Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP

The regular check-ups and scans impressed Richard too.

“The Italian healthcare was fantastic. My wife had regular blood tests and ultrasounds, you can’t fault the quality of it. Each child has a designated paediatrician too,” he tells us.

For Shirin, her rating of healthcare was similarly positive, even if she found aspects of it challenging due to being pregnant and giving birth at the height of the pandemic.

READ ALSO: ‘What it was like being pregnant during the pandemic in Italy’

Had I not been alone, I would’ve been really happy with the healthcare and the support I got from Italy. I only know it now that I’m back in the UK and have spoken to friends. The monthly blood tests and scans are a privilege that you don’t get here,” she says.

Medically I think there’s a lot of support and there’s more if you need it. I was even offered psychological support when I cried during one visit – but I refused it, I was just emotional!

“The prenatal courses were free and in-depth. Luckily, I could do them in person as restrictions started to drop. Face-to-face interaction did really help. You have a trained midwife for three hours a week to ask any questions you want about birth, breastfeeding and labour.

“You’d never get that in the UK. I felt I was looked after medically more than my UK friends. When I look back, I couldn’t fault the healthcare system. I can’t complain,” she added.

The aftercare got less of a glowing review, however.

“I felt the moment I stepped out of hospital, I was left alone,” Shirin tells us.

“I begged for support and one midwife came to the house. After that, it was all over the phone or online – and even then, I had to really go looking for it and only found out about any support through a WhatsApp group,” she adds.

Going to playgroup and school

Once the baby has arrived, parents have a whole new set of challenges to face as their little one grows up – and a lot of it does seem to rely on word of mouth and WhatsApp groups.

There’s a lot going on, it’s just not obvious, you have to ask. If you see someone in a park with a child, just ask. As a foreigner  you’re not going to know, so you’ve got to just talk to people and throw yourself out there,” according to Shirin.

Parenting in Italy can be such a positive social thing, but nobody is going to come knocking on your door,” she added.

Paige also had similar experiences and went along to mum and baby groups in Rome to forge a support group.

Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

“It’s lonely when you have little kids and you’re a foreigner. It’s important when you find a group of mums, as there’s someone to have coffee with and helps to keep your sanity – you feel less alone,” she says.

Richard was the one who took on a bigger share of childcare when they moved to Verona, and this threw up a different set of obstacles.

“The impression here is that parenting and bringing up kids is still mainly the woman’s domain. I was the only dad picking up children from scuola materna (preschool or nursery school). And at the park, I was the only bloke, but that has definitely changed in the past 10 years,” he tells us.

READ ALSO: How much parental leave do you get in Italy?

Other shifts over the past decade are attitudes to the balance between work and childcare. Richard says he encountered barriers when he asked for more flexibility with his teaching job in order to pick up his sons from school – and was refused.

But, he says, “things are changing” as people increasingly appreciate the need to be flexible.

As for schooling in Italy, the parents we spoke to noticed significant differences to the educational system they’re used to.

“I don’t know if Italian schools are better or worse. There are good and bad aspects – it is completely comprehensive, they cover so much ground in so much detail and in such a logical, precise way,” Richard says.

He adds that there is a focus on testing and homework – that also struck Paige about schooling in Italy.

Even at a young age, around eight or nine years old, her son was bringing home plenty of homework, she says.

Plus, in Italy, parents need to fork out substantial sums for textbooks, as they are not paid for by the state: Paige says she spent €300 on her son’s materials for this school year.

The fixation on academia also means that a lot of schools aren’t that interested in sports or social clubs, something that’s largely done outside school, Paige says.

The fun side

There is an element of sheer joy and fun to raising children in Italy, as the parents we spoke to attest.

Not least because, in some cases, it can actually broaden your social network.

Shirin says that finding your groups will really help stop you from feeling isolated: “Once you do cement in, Italian friendships are very loyal, true and genuine. It’s getting there that’s the hard bit.”

For Richard, raising his boys in Italy has been one of the best parts of moving here: “I used to love taking my little boy for a ‘babyccino’, to the library and the park. Enjoy those times, because they pass quickly.

“When I used to take him for a gelato – the mess he would make! But those were the moments to treasure. Looking back on it, those were probably the happiest days of my experience in Italy.”

What are your thoughts on parenting in Italy? How does it compare to raising a family in your home country? We’d love to hear readers’ experiences in the comments section below.

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MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

READ ALSO:

Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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