From the rolling hillsides of Tuscany to the cobbled streets of Rome, there's plenty of natural beauty to find In Italy. Maybe that's why Italian parents are known for their love of all things beautiful, as well as their relaxed attitudes towards kids and their strong extended families. Read on to learn more about Italian parenting traditions.
- Life is a celebration. Italians are known for their love of good food, family and art. Children are encouraged to develop an appreciation for beauty and aesthetics through trips to art museums and other cultural events. Forget flash cards, drills and a whirlwind of after school enrichment activities—learning is its own reward and Italian parents aren't interested in creating super babies headed for Ivy League schools. If you're feeling overbooked, take a page from their parenting book: Relax, take a deep breath and enjoy simple pleasures with your kids, such as a walk in the park or a lounge-around weekend.
- Fit children into your world. In general, American parents tend to compartmentalize their time with kids, and cater to their interests and whims. At other times, tots are shipped off to daycare so parents can have adult time. Not so in Italy. Children are included in every aspect of life, and expected to fit in and make a contribution. Life in Italia is multigenerational, with kids, parents, teens and grandparents living and working together. Children of every age are welcome in shops and restaurants, where shopkeepers and waiters happily chat with them. Visit a restaurant at 9:00 at night and you'll find extended families eating and talking—nary a crayon or booster seat in sight. The next time you want to chat with your friends, don't cave in and leave when your little ones want attention. Instead, invite them to join you in everyday activities.
- Emphasize fresh foods. Forget chicken nuggets and microwave meals—Italians love to cook, and love to eat. Food is seen as an integral part of life, worthy of spending time on. "We didn't have any frozen food in the house," says Arlene Howard, an American expat who raised her children in Rome. "All vegetables were always fresh and dessert was always fruit ... sweets were a sometimes treat only during holidays." Store bought baby food? No chance; genitori simply purée whatever happens to be on the dinner table for their little ones. Focus on fresh foods to avoid extra salt, fat and sugar found in most processed dishes.
- Mealtime is family time. Eating together is a priority in Italia—no grazing throughout the day or chowing down in front of the TV. Meals can last two hours or more and include plenty of lively discussion. Don't bother with portion control either; Italians worry about their kids not eating enough, and keep baby scales at home to make sure their bundles of joy are gaining weight. Even when you're strapped for time, rearrange your schedule for a quick meal (and bonding session) with the family.
- Bundle up. Giacoma Balli, an Italian now living in San Francisco, says mammas worry a lot about the cold. "Italian moms obsess about cold and believe you get sick from a gust of wind," he reveals. "No sleeping with wet hair, no going outside without rain boots and no cold milk." And children must absolutely always wear an undershirt. Do they take this frigophobia too far? Perhaps, but consider this: Dr. Harley Rotbart, author of Germ-Proof Your Kids and Vice-President of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado and Children's Hospital Colorado says although the common cold is caused by a virus, getting cold lowers your immunity so you're less likely to fight off the virus. You probably don't need to warm up every glass of milk or insist on galoshes, but a sweater on a fall never hurts.
- Family involvement. Italian moms are known for their warm, involved mothering, which can border on over protectiveness. Kids aren't allowed to walk around town alone, but are escorted by a parent or older sibling says Balli. Parents want to know what kids are doing and thinking—all the time. Children are encouraged to live at home until they're married, or even longer. You may not want your 25 year old living in your basement, but the idea of a weekly family get-together helps to help establish a close-knit bond is definitely appealing.
- Gentle discipline. Parenting styles vary from region to region in Italy, but in general, most parents take a casual approach to discipline. Howard says, "Italian parents never spank—for any reason." Instead, they guide behavior mostly by example. For instance, wine is served with every meal and children are allowed to taste it starting at a young age. Kids can legally drink in bars at the age of 16, but rarely get into trouble with alcohol. One reason may be because Italians don't make drinking a prohibited activity. Instead, they enjoy life and practice moderation. Harsh discipline can backfire and cause rebellion, so teach by example instead. Treat kids with respect and ask for the same in return.
Italian parents may not have all the answers, but they certainly seem to enjoy life and their children. The next time you're dashing frantically from soccer practice to Spanish lessons to violin, take a cue from the Italians, slow down, stop to smell the roses ... and taste the manicotti!