In Italy, a Mamma Accused of Doting Too Much

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In the idealized picture of the American heartland, baseball, mom and apple pie feature prominently. The Italian version? Soccer, spaghetti and, yes, la mamma. But in recent years, the folkloric image of the doting Italian mother has been joined in the national consciousness by something a tad less idyllic: the mammone, or mama's boy, the hyper-coddled son (daughters are statistically less susceptible) who grows up so attached to his home, and to his mamma in particular, that he never really becomes independent or a self-sufficient man.

The stereotype is not far off. A disproportionate number of Italian men enter their 30s — and in some cases their 40s — still completely reliant on their mothers to do their cleaning, cook their meals, iron their clothes and keep a roof over their heads. According to a survey published last year in Psychology Today, a full 37% of men from the ages of 30 to 34 still live with their mothers in Italy.

Still, the worst that these Italian mothers can usually be accused of is doting too much and not forcing their sons to grow up and do their own laundry. Now, however, in an extreme case that has made headlines across the nation, a court has been asked to consider whether a mother's love for her son — and that of his grandparents too — was so intense, it could be considered a form of child abuse.

The case centers on the overprotective mother and grandparents of a 12-year-old boy known only as Luca in the northern city of Ferrara. Prosecutors say the three built a wall of protection so high around the boy, it stunted his development. The boy's mother and grandfather have already been convicted of child abuse and are appealing the verdict. The grandmother appeared before a criminal tribunal earlier this month to face a similar charge. All three defendants have denied any wrongdoing, and the child has remained in the mother's custody while the case is being adjudicated.

According to the evidence presented by prosecutors, Luca was not allowed to play with other children, go to church, participate in sports or leave the house before or after school. The boy's teachers said he was sent to school with his snacks already cut into bite-size portions for him. Investigators say the teachers noticed that he was both physically and psychologically stunted from such around-the-clock doting. "He didn't know how to run. He had the motor skills of a 3-year-old child," Andrew Marzola, the lawyer representing the boy, told the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Considering the eternal debate in Italy over the country's supposedly overly sheltered mammone, the case has garnered widespread publicity. But the boy's plight doesn't exactly fit in with the national stereotype of an overprotective mother and her son — it's far messier than that. The parents divorced soon after the boy's birth and the father claimed that he wasn't permitted to see his son for nine years. Concerned about the child's welfare, he finally contacted social services and prosecutors opened an investigation into the mother and grandparents.

Of course, parents who hover over their children, watching every move they make, are not limited to Italy. Modern society is producing ever more overinformed, overanxious and overprotective parents, blamed for causing or exacerbating all sorts of problems in their children, from learning disabilities to teenage anorexia. "If you don't let your child discover the world, it can do real harm," says Henriette Felici-Bach, a child psychologist in Paris. "In these cases, the parent must be cured as well. If a mother is acting this way, it is because she is not well, she fears something that does not exist."

Felici-Bach specializes in what's known as ethno-clinical psychology, which focuses on the effects of cultural origins on human development. She says there are very clear differences in the approaches to child-rearing from one country to the next. "In Germany, children are educated from early on to [execute] a task on their own from beginning to end. In southern [European] countries, children are dependent on what people tell them to do. Southern societies have preserved an independent way of raising children, resisting the modern educational practices that encourage independence at an early age."

And Italy in particular? "It can be extreme," she says of a child's attachment to casa and mamma. This extra-close relationship between Italian mothers and their children is thought to have its origins in the economic and political history of the country. For centuries, the Italian peninsula was a poverty-stricken place with weak governments, meaning that the family was the only source of protection and economic support for people. More recently, psychologists and economists believe the mammone problem is rooted in the economic precariousness of a debt-ridden nation that has been in gradual decline since its post–World War II boom. Religious values are still strong too. Until the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church explicitly encouraged a family structure based around a working father and a stay-at-home mother.

According to Italian economists Enrico Moretti and Marco Manacorda, who have studied the phenomenon, the issue also comes down to culture. They've found that some Italian parents will actually pay their grown children not to move out. "Italians, unlike parents from most other countries," Moretti says, "like living with their grown children." Felici-Bach's experience with her Italian husband, though, is slightly different. Born and raised in Rome, he left home for good at 20. But, as it turns out, John Felici has an English mother.