The very first cultural difference that I can remember noticing was when my uncle threatened to hit me when I was around 10.
The question about whether or not one should be allowed to hit their children is a contentious one, even in countries like Italy. Some think that it should be punishable by law. Others think that it is the only way to get some particularly rambunctious kids to behave. Many are somewhere in between, not wanting to judge others on how they raise their kids. This post is not about that question, but rather on how I came to realize that the culturally accepted ways in which corporal punishment is practiced in my two countries of origin are starkly different, and that I was the only one who could stop a very serious misunderstanding from taking place in my family.
I was around 10, and I was (still am) a complete smart-ass. My Italian family thought it was adorable, and they were a little proud of what they saw as a sign of intelligence. My American family thought I was a little brat, as I did not automatically defer to authority figures, and still like to tell me how much of a brat I was to this day. At the time I was visiting my family in the States, and I was left alone in the house with my uncle and my little cousin. I cannot remember what I said or did, I remember simply being happy and laughing, and I was probably teasing my uncle in some way. What I do remember clearly was my uncle suddenly getting very serious, looking me dead in the eye and informing me that, although he was not my father, he was still my uncle and therefore would have every right to take me to the next room and give me a spanking. If I carried on like this, he said, he would have no choice but to punish me, by spanking me, and then inform my mother of my misbehavior.
I stared at him blankly. My little cousin was looking back and forth between me and my uncle, scared. He didn’t shout, nor raise his voice, nor look angry in any way, he might as well have been telling me what he planned to cook for dinner. This calm manner made the situation so much more creepy and humiliating to me. I left the room. I stayed in my bedroom alone until my mother got home. I never told her what he had said to me. It was the only thing I could think to do that would have deescalated the situation.
What you need to understand is, when Italians (and, from what I gather, most Mediterranean cultures) hit their kids, it is in a moment of anger. During an argument, or a fight, a parent might slap their child in the face. If the child is very rebellious, some mothers will take it upon themselves to beat their kids when they’ve done something very dangerous, in a moment of panic. Usually they feel guilty afterwards, and when the situation has calmed down there will be a discussion as to why they got that beating. Hitting children when one is calm is unheard of, and would be the first red flag that this child is being seriously abused at home. When I tell this story to other Italians, it shocks them. The idea that someone could schedule their kid’s beating is unthinkable.
In that living room 18 years ago, I was just as shocked. I had seen American movies, TV shows, and had heard from my uncle and other American adults about how they were disciplined as children, and I had gathered that this calm, matter-of-fact kind of corporal punishment was not completely unusual. My uncle is not a psychopath, he just believes that this was an option available to him to teach me respect. I understood this, looking at him, but there was nothing in the world that could have made me calmly allow myself to be lead into a separate room for a spanking. I would have fought him with every last breath I had, as viciously as if he were trying to throw me from the window. I knew that I would have never forgiven him for trying to subject me to such humiliation. I also knew that this would confirm in his mind that I was a complete and total brat. Unsavable, with no sense of respect. I knew that my mother would have been furious, and they may have never spoken again because of it. I knew that I had the power to prevent all of this from happening, because I knew that my uncle and my mother would never have understood each other’s perspectives on this, and so I left. We never spoke of it again.
Some of you, who have been raised with “when Dad get’s home I will inform him of your misbehavior and he will beat you accordingly”, will think I really was a brat, and I was being stupid. Others will be shocked that this kind of corporal punishment exists outside of horror movies. Others still will be confused as to how being calm and giving your child a spanking could possibly be considered worse than a hard slap in the face given in anger. What is important to note is that, when someone hits a child, the physical pain of it is often the minor point. It’s the way it makes you feel afterwards, the emotional part of it. Making a child accept and bow down to corporal punishment, that any parent could still be able to hit a child when the anger has passed, that is the part that the Italian culture cannot wrap its mind around.