I’ve been spending more time in Utrecht recently. Last time I was at the station, I was lured into the glass-fronted ‘Boekspot’ in the Hoog Catharijne mall. The boekspot is a free library swap-shop where visitors are welcome to pick up a book and leave behind ones they’ve finished. I found myself face to face with a book I’d intended to read years ago and had never got around to – An Italian Education by Tim Parks. It hopped into my bag.
While you might think Pamela Druckerman and Amy Chua invented the foreign-parenting memoir, you’d be wrong. Parks got there earlier, in 1996 to be exact. An Italian Education describes the way Italian families live and how they bring up their children, from the perspective of an English translator-writer married to a local and raising three kids. I found it interesting, enlightening and constantly entertaining. I’m also rather glad I read it after Rina and I had written our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. It sets the bar high, certainly in literary terms.
Early in the book, Parks broaches an issue I struggled with myself when attempting to describe Dutch character: ‘I have always been suspicious of travel writing, of attempts to establish that elusive element which might or might not be national character, to say in sweeping and general terms, this place is like this, that place is like that.’ And yet he comes to realize that places are different: ‘Once one has discounted individual traits, class attitudes, generation gaps, and of course the myriad manifestations of different personalities, still a substrate of national character does exist. The French are French somehow, the German are predictably German, the Italians, as I was slowly discovering, indisputably Italian.’ Parks decides to describe only what he knows intimately, his surroundings and his own experiences.
So how do the Italians bring up their children? Well, with ‘immense caution, inhibition and a suffocating awareness of everything, but everything, that can go wrong.’ Woe betide they catch a chill after a dip in the sea. Although protected and confined, children can be spoiled rotten and bribed without guilt. Babies are public property – everyone fusses over them. And nobody minds their own business in an Italian family with everyone arguing around a noisy dinner table. Naturally, Italians are food-obsessed: ‘spoon-feeding their children years after the English have stopped, just to make sure they have enough of everything. It’s almost the only issue over which they seem willing to stoop to physical coercion.’
A few more choice details: there is no word for ‘bedtime’ in Italian since children don’t have them. Parks bucks the trend by sending his to bed by 7pm, British style. Houses are to be kept pristine so playing is discouraged. Play in itself is tricky too. There aren’t many playgrounds and parks (or at least not in Park’s region) and schools don’t have playing fields. If kids want to play football, they have to join a local club. Dads are not considered trustworthy enough to look after children. There’s even a lullaby in which children sing their fathers to sleep rather than the other way round. Suffering from a desperate lack of sleep at the time of writing, the author describes this all with utter hilarity.
Italy’s cult of la mamma is probably its most famous parenting cliché. ‘But beyond diet and swaddling and coddling and funding, Mamma has something else to offer: a suffused eroticism.’ Parks mentions a grown man who still shares a bed with his! The obsession with mammas means that dads don’t need to feel guilty about time spent away from the home. Childcare is not their responsibility. ‘The whole mythology of Italian bourgeois life,’ the writer describes, ‘is the small-time artisan slaving (but creatively, in his own workshop) for the sake of his wife and children.’ Gender conditioning is rife. Little girls must stay safely in the shallows while boys are allowed to dive from the rocks. There is more, much more, in this book but I’m not going to summarize it all.
The funniest thing is his conclusion: children in Italy never grow up and become independent. Their parents continue to support them long after they have reached adulthood, subsidizing their rent and even looking after their children, so that now the situation has become absurd. ‘One only fears that if they (my generation) have to look after their grandchildren, they won’t be equipped for it, having had so little experience.’ And the book ends with an encore of the joke – no better place to grow up than Italy? No, no better place NOT to grow up.