Growing up “Italian”: Are we giving our children roots and wings?

The children of Italian parents also know a wooden spoon can do a lot more than just stir a boiling pot of tomato sauce. Think back to when you were a child. How were you scolded or punished? How were you praised and rewarded? Were your parents’ parenting techniques effective? How do yours fare?

The debate of immigrant parenting is all the buzz right now, thanks to a new book by Amy Chua called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She argues that “Chinese mothers are superior”, and explores how not only Chinese parents, but immigrant parents are stricter, more demanding of their children and more effective parents than North American moms and dads. Do you agree? To delve into this debate, Panoram Italia sat down with two Italian-Montrealers who were raised “Italian” to become hugely successful in their respective careers and who have the same hopes for their own teenagers as they guide them into adulthood in this modern Canada.

Here’s who shared their take

Marianna Simeone: is a perfectly trilingual journalist, broadcaster, businesswoman, and community activist. She was the first woman to be the executive director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, before delving into the world of television and radio. Her work has earned her the prestigious knighthood status; she was inducted as a Knight in the Order to the Merit of the Republic of Italy. Simeone was born in Montreal, and grew up in St. Michel. Her parents were born in Benevento, in the region of Campania. At 50, Simeone is the mother of two teenage boys, Alessandro, 18, and Massimiliano, 16.

Franco Taddeo: went from working as a library assistant at McGill University to becoming a stand-up comedian. Taddeo is now one of the most popular comics in the country, performing his routines that focus on what it’s like to grow up ethnic. Born in Montreal, his father was from Avellino and his mother from Caserta – both in the Campania region. At the age of 45, Taddeo is the “uncool” dad of 18-year-old Justice and 17-year-old Luca.

PI: What did it mean for you to be raised “the Italian way”?

MS: We lived like we were in small-town, rural southern Italy. It was the 1960s in Montreal, but behind my doors, it may as well have been a small town in Italy. We only spoke Italian, only ate Italian, only read Italian newspapers and literature, only watched Italian movies, and listened to Italian music. And we never saw it as a problem because in St. Michel, that’s how everyone else lived too. On my first day of school, I didn’t speak a word of English or French – only Italian. And it was the same for the other 32 kids in the class.

PI: What traditions came along with that?

MS: Sunday was a must: my dad was gung-ho on going to mass. It didn’t matter how tired you were, or if you wanted to sleep in. You were getting up and going to mass, and then we had lunch. And every Saturday, at 9 a.m., I had to clean the house – come hell or high water. Our time was spent going from one Italian kitchen to another. We made sausage together, prosciutto together, wine together. That was our calendar. I never went to clubs. For Halloween, I wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating. And I still think about that to this day. For my father, he thought of it as, “My daughter doesn’t need other people to give her things. I can give her everything she needs.”

FT: I had a curfew. I had to call home! And, I always had to be respectful. Answering back to your parents was not even something that you fathomed. We also grew up with the rituals of food. It was important to be home for dinner, and there was the whole concept of the frivolity of eating out. “Why would you want to eat out when you can eat at home? It’s cheaper, and the food is better!” They didn’t understand the social aspect to it.

PI: What were the core values growing up in your home?

MS: The values they instilled in me were outrageously good. The work ethic they taught me, and discipline, I would never change for anything in the world. It was all about l’educazione – come bisogna vivere, comportarsi. Our Italian parents taught us respect for our elders, and also respect for authority. I have a problem with this one, because they taught us blind respect for authority. Do what others tell you, and don’t question it. They never taught us to stand up for ourselves – always to bow. In reality, it’s okay to dissent. They just never taught us how. That sense of civismo… we don’t have that. Family was an important value, doing well in school, loyalty, and ‘La Figura’ (saving face). ‘La Bella Figura’ was so important. This is how we were raised.

FT: Faith was instilled in us, and the respect for authority. We were fearful of the wrath of our parents. And it’s not because it would elicit physical violence. It was that we were afraid to disappoint our parents. I am part of the first generation where my first language is not my parents’ first language. The trade-off of our parents coming to a new country was for us to succeed. The justification for all the sacrifices they made, and the loss of their heritage and history is our success. So, it is instilled in us, not disciplined in us.

MS: One thing our parents never gave us – and it’s through no fault of their own because they were in survival mode – they just did not counsel us on what to do in school… which studies to pursue. And we didn’t have the models. We had no examples and no contacts. I never had an aunt who was a nurse to talk to me about the health care system… or an uncle who was a lawyer who could tell me he had a bad day in court. We had to figure it out on our own. And it wasn’t even a question what we should be when we grew up. We had to go to school, get a job in a bank or as an accountant – something that would give you stability. FT: I was a single dad when I began being a stand-up comic, and I repressed it for years. My parents were embarrassed at first, and I understand now where that comes from: If it’s not a conventional job, they can’t relate to it. If they can’t relate to it, that creates fear.

PI: What’s your parenting technique?

MS: The first thing that comes to mind is: Oh my God! My mother was right! It’s interesting because my mom was born in 1936. Now my kids are in the internet era… and I am torn in between the two worlds. I remember how I was raised, and I didn’t turn out too bad. But kids have a lot to learn today because the world is changing so much, and so fast. I handle it very delicately. I draw a lot from the old, but I work very hard to understand the new. Before, everyone was confined to one kitchen. Now, I get home from work, one son is on Facebook, the other is on his Mac Book. Chi si parla più? I have to be “modern” because I want them to be a part of my life. So, I’ll often send them text messages during the day to keep in touch. There are advantages to technology – we’re in constant contact.

FT: Fusion parenting is like fusion food: I’m not sure how well it works. I would say that if there is a recipe, then taking 75 per cent of the way our parents raised us, and adding 25 per cent modern ideas is a good balance. The promise of this land is that we can have the best of both worlds. The beauty of the old world is that it instils timeless values like discipline and respect. We know who we are and that it’s a strength. Now, my generation of parents can open up the lines of communication. That’s what was missing. There was not enough communication. In my day, you only went to your father if you needed money, or discipline.

PI: What are today’s parents doing wrong?

MS: The best thing we can do for our kids is give them independence – not smother them and give them material things. We have to stop spoiling our kids, and make sure they are good citizens of the world, not just of the house. The other big mistake is not speaking Italian to our children. Besides the fact that it’s a patrimonial wealth, it’s part of our identity. The only way to stand up for yourself is to understand who you are. And to understand who you are, you have to know where you came from. So go to Italy, and meet the old man who knew your grandfather.

FT: My father always told me, ‘You are Italian by intent, not default.’ Our obligation is to be who we are by intent. In a mitigated way, we shouldn’t be scared to be tough. I love my sons, but I am not their buddy. I am their father… and they would describe me as being strict, even though I’m so much more lenient and progressive than my parents ever were. We need to engage our children in every opportunity.

written by Sabrina Marandola