February 28, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Parenting Italy

By |2018-03-21T18:54:07+01:00March 23rd, 2013|"Notebook"|
Modern Italy is not Renaissance Florence.

ith a general election quickly followed by the arrival of a new pope, Italy and the Vatican have been on front pages of newspapers the world over. These are local events (Italians think they own the Vatican), but their international repercussions seem to make non-Italian media become what Italians call invadente; sticking judgmental noses into local matters.

Foreign commentators, particularly German, British and American ones, act and sound like finger-wagging parents. They know best and — of course — any nagging is intended solely for Italy’s own good.

Really? Well, if foreign commentators want to be parents, perhaps it’s time to see how they rate according to best practices of modern parenting.

Good parents raise children with a “growth mindset.” Stanford psychologist Carol Dwek showed that children who succeed at challenges are those who have a growth mentality. That is, they attribute their success to “growable” qualities that can be acquired or increased such as hard work and persistence, rather than “basic” or innate qualities such as intelligence, which are fixed.

In addition, studies that compare praise for basic qualities such as “you are beautiful” or “you are smart,” to praise for actions such as “you worked hard” show that the former actually decreases self-esteem and undermines performance. Children who receive praise only for fixed qualities become fragile and easily discouraged by failure. People with a fixed mindset prefer documenting their innate traits to developing them. This sounds a lot like how Italy boasts about its large share of UNESCO-protected monuments, which they fail to care for.

What sort of parents focus constantly on a child’s beauty and ancestors?

Rhapsodizing Italy’s cultural patrimony and its history — fixed qualities if there ever were ones — is inevitable in any commentary on Italy. Being perplexed about the contrast between Italy’s beautiful landscapes and artwork and its other problems — exemplified by former Economist editor Bill Emmott’s film “Girlfriend in a Coma” — is like praising a student for being intelligent and then wondering why his grades keep falling.

The better parent might remind Italians of the things they actually do well or obstacles they have overcome. In reality, most Italians are hard workers and actually do pay their taxes. With sheer hard work, Italy transformed itself from a feudal, agricultural society into a modern, industrial one in one generation. It took most western countries two centuries and some nasty revolutions to accomplish the same.

Good parents know that children often assume the identity that others give them, even if it’s a negative one. There is a huge difference between telling a child “you are stupid” and “you did a stupid thing.” Reinforcing Italy’s downsides or the Vatican’s negative identity only convinces them that they are thoroughly bad and that change is hopeless (that fixed mindset again). Yes, Italy has high rates of corruption and tax evasion. Yes, the Vatican has allowed for abuse. But these are things they’ve caused, not necessarily what they are.

Parental attention is a child’s biggest reward. To a child, bad attention is better than being ignored. Like animal trainers, good parents must be careful about the behavior that receives attention. Extra care should be exercised with publicity hounds such as Silvio Berlusconi or Beppe Grillo, for whom it is important to be noticed — no matter why.

Legitimize unattractive or anti-social behavior with attention or acquiescence and guess what happens? It gets repeated, whether it’s bacchic partying, public temper tantrums or insults and interruption – witness Berlusconi and Grillo. Bad behavior is embraced because it works; it gets attention and keeps its perpetrators from being forgotten or ignored.

Good parents manage expectations. They know their child’s strengths and weaknesses and don’t project their own ambitions and needs on their children. Seeing children as the unique individuals they are instead of what their parents want them to be is the best way to encourage achievement. Modern Italy is not ancient Rome or Renaissance Florence. Stop comparing it to these impossible models.

Another important principle of parenting is to look at yourself. In his 1987 book “The Good Enough Parent,” Bruno Bettelheim cited a Scandinavian study of juvenile delinquents that suggested a major predictor of delinquency was hypocritical parents who preached one thing but did another.

David Mills, barrister and former husband of Tessa Jowell, British MP and cabinet member (under Tony Blair) is among those convicted of taking bribes from Silvio Berlusconi (£350,000). British tabloids may criticize Berlusconi and the ownership structures and allegiances of Italy’s media, but their practices can be considerably less transparent than those of Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire. Italian newspapers freely mix opinion and news stories, making no pretense of doing otherwise. Anglo-Saxon journalists, who pride themselves on keeping fact and opinion on separate pages, can’t seem to put their own feelings aside when reporting on Berlusconi and Grillo.

So, despite its parental tone towards Italy, the foreign press is hardly a perfect parent. But as beloved British pediatrician Donald Winnicott once said, the important thing is not to be a perfect parent, but a “good enough” one.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."