Written by Rosemary Strembicki
As the plane taxied to the Florence terminal I noticed two families with babes in arms standing by the fenced runway waving as the plane passed; moms, grandmas and grandpas passing the time entertaining their small children in the middle of the afternoon. Or should I say madri, nonne and nonni. After all, it is Italy, the land where children are cherished and the extended family is more the norm than the exception.
The streets are crowded with strollers and the markets are filled with families with hatless young babies dangling from their mothers' hips in the sunshine. And today I saw a dad holding his young son on a motorbike showing him how to beep the horn and flash the lights while his mother, carrying a small baby, laughed. There seems to be a casual attitude about raising children in this city. I spoke to a young working mother who told me that she imported her mother from South America to help with her young son because with Italy's economy both parents had to work and daycare was too expensive. She said it's a common practice for Italian families to rely on grandparents to help raise their children. "How can you trust a stranger?" she asked.
Having grown up in a household with grandparents living upstairs I know the feeling of security of never having a stranger for a babysitter. There was always a relative to step in to help. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were our social circle and overnighters with cousins were frequent occurrences. Even with four children, my parents were able to go out with friends almost every Saturday night without worrying about finding or paying for a babysitter.
How many of us, today, are lucky enough to have that support? And if our relatives aren't nearby where do we go to find it? When I moved 1000 miles away from my family with two small children I found it in a neighborhood filled with families. Most of the moms were lucky enough to be home when their children were little and if they weren't we relied on each other and shared babysitters. But it can be so easy to lose sight of our children's needs when life gets busy.
It's very easy to identify the American students in this international city, especially the girls. Most are wearing short shorts and cropped tank tops, their hair is long and flowing and they travel in groups. The Italians will tell you that they're easy targets for local men looking for a good time. They're trusting of strangers and often drink too much when out with their friends. They need to be educated by school personal and police officers during school orientations on how to dress and behave in order to stay safe and not be victimized.
It makes we wonder what it is about our American culture that produces children who are so unprepared to meet the world. We have the means to provide them with enriching experiences all over the world but not the tools to keep them safe. Are we too disengaged and tending to our own lives instead of offering them the structure and security that the extended family offers? Or are we modeling unconcern for others and disrespect for cultures different than our own? Are we sending them the message that they are precious commodities that don't have to make any concessions when interacting with strangers?
Who is raising our children? Where do they get their information on how to present themselves and interact with others? Are we each doing enough to have a positive influence on their behavior and guiding them according to the values we've identified for ourselves?
Every parent has to make decisions that will impact the development of their children and every parent will make different decisions. It's not up to me or anyone else to tell parents how to do it. But we need to be mindful of those decisions and be present when making them. When we let strangers take the lead without the knowledge of what they're teaching or how they're influencing them we take the risk that our children will grow up very far from our expectations.
Raising children in extended families is getting harder in our culture. But we can create a similar environment by taking great care in choosing teachers and caretakers that share our values and philosophies of child rearing. People who love children and can provide safe and secure environments where they are free to explore and learn about themselves. People who understand that emotional wellbeing is as important as physical wellbeing and have a good understanding of our children's temperaments and how to handle challenging situations with them when discipline is necessary.
It takes time and effort to find them but when we do our children will have the opportunity to grow into the adults we imagine them to be. Maybe like us, maybe not but happy with who they are and safe from the influences of those with other agendas.
You can contact Rosemary or view more articles and video topics at http://www.aplacetoturnto.org