This is my own personal attempt to get my head around how the two cultures differ, especially from the viewpoint of life with children. This post will thus deal with an issue which is rather close to my heart, seeing as I am an English father of a small child who is likely to be brought up in Italy.
Although ‘culture‘ is quite a short word, behind it lies an exceedingly complex concept.
Our culture gives us, often, the way we think and reason. If you have never lived for a length of time in another country, or you are not someone who has extensive dealings with foreigners, you will only have a vague idea of what cultural differences actually are. Before I came to Italy, I was in the same boat.
Before I go on, let me say that on the surface there are similarities between cultures. Like most people around the world, Italians get up, go to work, get home and go to bed and then rinse and repeat this process in much the same way as everyone else all over the world does.
Lots of Italians would rather not work at all, much in the same way as lots of English people would like to avoid work. Both countries have lottery and pools schemes which have always attracted millions of people hoping for a get-rich-quick solution to allow them to escape the routine drudgery of life. Not much difference here then.
However, when you start scrubbing away the thin veneer of daily life and start taking a closer look at family and parenthood, you start to notice some differences, or at least I think you do.
As most of you will know because lots has been written about this, Italians regard the family as being one of the most important units in their lives. English people, on the other hand, seem to regard families as a not so pleasant, unavoidable, fact of life. At the moment I’m referring to families in the sense of all close relations.
One of the major differences between Italy and the UK which I have noted is in attitudes to children.
Italians and Children
I would say that many women in both countries seem to have a semi-automatic longing to have children almost as though it were a type of psychological need. Men in the UK, on the other hand, are not always so keen to get in the family way. Many English fathers suffer in silence whilst putting up with their parental duties. When pushed, though, they will often admit that children do provide them with a lot of pleasure, although it’s often not too clear whether the pleasure outweighs the pain or vice versa.
Cars Better than Kids in the UK
A English father I know very well indeed once said that if he had not had kids he would have had a nice fast car instead. A good car for the father concerned would have been a much more acceptable alternative to children.
Another chap I knew in the UK bought his wife a cat to try to take her mind off wanting to become a mother. I don’t know how that story ended!
A group of men I used to hang around with in the UK, long before I became a father, spent their time trying to escape from their families so that they could do something more interesting instead.
Good Kids are Hard to Find!
I ran a section of a youth club for a good few years in the UK, and I had groups of up to 30 boys and one or two girls from 8 to 18 years of age in the club. In all the time I was involved with the youth club, I only came across one child who seemed to be the sort I would have liked to have had. This experience made me decide to leave the fatherhood thing to my brother, who was, in my eyes, a much better candidate for the parent thing than I. In those days, having a child was not part of my plans.
As a possible consequence of reluctantly entering the world of fatherhood, fathers in England seem to do their utmost to impress on their children how important it is to be independent and how unnatural children are if you they do not leave home at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is not just the fathers that encourage their offspring to leave the family nest. Most UK children really like the idea of living alone, or at least not really alone, alone, but living away from home. Often English children will leave their town of origin and probably never return there. This is especially true of university graduates, but is not always the case with people not lucky enough to end up in further education.
Some people, of course, are happy with their lots and going or staying in the area where they grew up in makes no difference for them. There are always exceptions to any rule.
In Italy, lots of people want to stay in the areas where they were born. Those that do leave tend to long for the day when they can return.
The Italian Way
Now, as you may have been expecting, let’s take a look at Italy. Here, despite the fact that the country has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, if not the world, children are viewed through completely different eyes by the men of the country. Kids are doted upon and many dads just wouldn’t want to be anything else.
I remember one Italian guy I met who seems to do nothing other than devote all his time to his son in the evenings and at weekends, another did the same for his daughter. One bloke went out and spent €800 on a baby suit for his newly born little one.
Oh, there are ructions and arguments in Italian families and teenagers cause plenty of problems too, but many will still have a nice new scooter to run around on and the latest trainers on their feet.
Italian parents do not really encourage their children to leave home, quite the opposite.
The announcement of an Italian friend of ours that she was off to live with her boyfriend was greeted by floods of tears from her mother and dissuasive comments from her father.
I’ve read articles about children in Italy staying at home until they are well into their thirties, only to finally move out once they get married. Now where do you think many of them move?
Well, sometimes it is a flat next to one of the in-laws or above or below them, or at least in the same apartment block. Other times, it is a flat which is within walking distance of the in-laws.
More adventurous Italians may actually manage to find a flat on the other side of their town of birth.
A very senior manager at a major multinational here in Milan, who I taught once, told me that it was nigh on impossible to get Italians to move from one town to another. Nobody wants to leave friends or family. I still don’t see any real evidence that the situation is changing.
To tell yet another story, I know of a chap who moved up here from the south of Italy, but could not get his wife to move. This chap is now divorced, but spends much of his free time going down to the other end of the country to see his young son.
I trust you have got the picture by now. For Italian fathers, children appear to have great significance, particularly if they happen to be male, in which case they will continue the family name.
Mothers also seem to love their sons in what sometimes seems to be an almost unnatural fashion. Perhaps it is because they are not treated too well by their husbands?
The Italian for ‘mother’s boy’ is ‘mammone‘ and it is in common everyday usage. You also hear the word ‘bamboccioni‘, literally ‘big kids’, which refers to adults who are treated like children by doting parents.
Mothers will often smother their little sons with affection and often interfere once the lad is old enough to start seeing potential partners. And Italian men who have been doted upon by their mothers often expect wives to dote upon them too. This does not always go down too well with Italian women, and has, I know, led to the breakdown of marriages.
Allergic to Independence
Another examples of Italian parents finding independence scary, is that parents in Italy will cry when they see their little ones, male and female, go off on their first school trips, or so I read on another website recently. Being a parent is different here. Not all fathers are quite so devoted and not all mothers dominate their children, but there are many more parents who do this in Italy than there are in the UK, of that I am sure.
Discipline is Different in Italy
Kids are not disciplined as much here as in the UK. And 2 and 3 year olds go to bed just about when they start to collapse with tiredness, which is around 9:30pm or much later. It’s different from the UK where very young children are often in bed by 7pm.
Englishman and Italian Woman = Sparks
What happens when you throw a rather reluctant English father in with an Italian mother? Well, you get sparks, flames, and some eruptions. Life in an Italo-English family can be somewhat volcanic at times!
My other half was not too impressed with the way she saw English people bringing up their kids (not that she has seen much). She thought the English method was too mechanical and that the child on the receiving end seemed to be rather staid and sad. This does not bode well for my hopes with regard to imposing some Anglo-Saxon ways on my son and heir.
The road, sorry, that should perhaps be tunnel ahead, seems rather long, and so far, I have not been able to see even a glimpse of any light.
As my better half commented, ‘E così’. ‘That’s the way it is.’