10 Oct 2012

The answer to that question is “it depends on what you mean”. If the question is whether children are welcome everywhere, the answer is yes. If the question is whether Tuscany and Italy have much to offer to families with children the answer is definitely no.

Is Tuscany child-friendly?

children in tuscany

The answer to that question is “it depends on what you mean“. And I guess this is true for Tuscany and Italy in general.

If the question is whether children are welcome everywhere, the answer is yes: Italy and Italians are very child-friendly. Children are allowed in practically every restaurant, bar, pub, museum, shop, etc. Adults-only weddings and events are practically unheard of. But the thing is, the average Italian couple has one or max two (if any) children, so it is not like you invite your friends and you end up with a playground.

I should probably mention a big difference between children growing up in the cities and children growing up in small villages like mine. Kids in Italian cities, like the kids in any other urban environment in the world, have little or no independence. You need to take them out to the park or to school, arrange play-dates, etc.

Children who grow up in a village like the one I grew up in essentially grow up in an extended family. Every child is looked after by every parent who happens to be in the immediate proximity. Children play in the street on their own from the time they are very young, walk to school alone, and are free to run around relatively unsupervised. There is always somebody to assist them if they need anything or to keep an eye on them. And it is not a burden: it is just the way it is. Children are a common good.  I must have spent more time at this or that friend’s home when I was a kid than at my own home.

(Photo by penjelly)

On the other hand, if the question is whether Tuscany and Italy have much to offer to families with children the answer is definitely no.

We spent a month in Canada in August, and, travelling there with our baby for the first time, we happened to look at familiar things with brand new eyes. There is so much for families there, both in terms of things to do – be it a visit to a museum, a walk in a park, or activities to fill the day – and in terms of facilities and accessibility. Most of what we saw could easily be “imported” to Italy, but that would imply a total change in culture.

In Italy, children are an “appendix” of their parents. They can join mum and dad wherever they go, but they have to be good and find something to entertain themselves while their parents engage in whichever activity they set off to perform. Or at least it used to be like that… these days I see parents literally being bullied by their kids… still, the fact that they have nothing to do in a grown-up world cannot possibly help.

Here are a few issues that I happen to notice more and more now that I am a mother and especially after spending some time in a country which, on the contrary, has much to offer to families:

  1. Italy is hardly an accessible country. If you happen to walk around needing to push a stroller, you will see what I mean. There are no ramps; sidewalks are covered in holes (or dog poop) or blocked by parked bikes and cars; buildings and stores have tiny doors or stairs and no elevators, etc.
    Two examples. They have recently rebuilt one of the paths in the village, expanding it and paving it… and they have rebuilt it with the same exact barriers which were there before, with the result that, if you have a baby or a disabled person in your household, walking to the top of the village involves a relatively long walk to circumnavigate the obstacles… If it is probably true and understandable that the local governments cannot afford to modify all the ancient buildings, but there are no excuses for new constructions.
    Pisa has some amazing parks, such as Le Piagge, Giardino Scotto and Orto Botanico. At le Piagge there are two levels: a gravel path along the river equipped with playgrounds and benches and the big tree-lined boulevard with sidewalks, fountains and the road. If you get to the level with the playgrounds and take a walk to the end of the path, there is no way to get back to the street level if you have a stroller, because for the entire length of the park, there are exclusively exits which involve tall, narrow steps. Last week, I had to ask a guy who was jogging if he could help me out as I was essentially trapped. Giardino Scotto has a lovely children’s playground and three access points, two of which inaccessible. The Botanic Garden has a step to get in and a revolving gate by the ticket office…
  2. People do not care if you are pushing a stroller or a shopping cart. Crossing the street with a stroller is an adventure. You can stand by the side of the road for minutes, and most cars will not stop to let you through. So dangerous… Also, it is not uncommon for people to smoke right in your child’s face while telling you how cute he is…
  3. There are no dedicated facilities. Very few places have changing tables in the bathrooms (in fact, the only one I can think of is Ikea…). Small children’s shopping carts as I have seen in Canada do not exist. There are no dedicated parking spots at shopping malls and other venues. There are no play areas in restaurants or bars, etc., except at McDonald’s (where you don’t want to take your child anyway…). There are no children’s menus, or children’s place mats with crayons or anything. But the quality of baby food will be far healthier and in general superior in quality or taste (people what do you feed your poor children in North America?! Watch that sodium!!!) Many restaurants do not have high-chairs. Children are just smaller grown-ups and are expected to adjust.
  4. There is nothing special to do with kids, with very few exceptions. Some cities like Pisa or villages like mine are lucky in that they have parks with children’s playgrounds but many other places have nothing. There are few theme parks, and even an idea as simple as a splash park is unheard of. And yet that would be one of the easy things to “import”, although I cannot see any Italian mother leaving her child to run wild in splashes of cold water at the faintest whisper of wind. In Marina di Grosseto there is a tree climbing park, scattered through the region there are some water parks, and here and there in the country there are theme parks such as Mirabilandia and Gardaland, but they are rare. Some museums (as Alexandra tells us this month) have child-friendly activities, but the interactive nature of North American and Anglo-saxon museums is non-existent. Museums are definitely hands-off, rather than hands-on. Truth be told, there are more and more associations who organize activities for children in the cities. Pisa is very good in that sense, but still, nothing like what you would find in the UK or North America.
  5. There is no support for families. Finding daycare is a challenge for working parents, so many people end up having to either quit work or rely on friends and family. We have no help in Pisa, and that shows in how little I have been blogging over the past few months!
  6. Houses are either small or unaffordable. Being able to afford renting an apartment with two bedrooms and an office is still a dream for us in Pisa. We both work, but the idea of having to pay 1200 euros a month is not particularly appealing or feasible. That’s why I am writing this post on my bed, in our 50m2 apartment!

So if you are thinking of taking your family to Italy for a vacation or as a life project, you should be aware that your kids will be most welcome everywhere (if they are well-behaved), but your life might not be as easy as back home.

(Photo by Gary73)

A couple more things: perfect strangers might scold your children if they do something they are not supposed to do. That is common and generally accepted. You will see some people give their kids a good spank or yell at them if they seriously misbehave. Regardless of what you think about it, it is quite common and also generally accepted. Of course I am not talking about people seriously hitting their children – that is unacceptable everywhere – and of course I am not saying anybody would touch your children (also unacceptable and absolutely not done with strangers, but I have been seriously “reprimanded” by friends’ parents when I was a kid on more than one occasion, and my parents were always ok with it , just as other parents were ok with my parents disciplining their children when at our place or under their supervision).

And one last thing I wish would have found somewhere before leaving for Canada: if you need diapers, go with Pampers Progressi or Pampers Baby Dry, which are nothing like the Pampers Baby Dry you have in North America (read “thin as paper”). We couldn’t manage to keep Liam dry for more than 3 hours!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

italy travel blog roundtableThis is the fourteenth post in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Here you can find the posts of the other bloggers who participate in the roundtable. Our topic this month was “children“:

Comments

  1. Gloria,
    thank you for your insights on a really intricate matter!

    As an expat mom in Tuscany I don’t have a problem with my kids being scolded by Italians (at least it isn’t always me). But the thing that is rather weird to me, is how often I – in my function as a mother – have been told off by total strangers. Most of the times it’s about things like not dressing my children responsibly, or for the fact that I don’t shut them into the house with rain or a strong wind blowing (signora, ma non può farli uscire con la tramontana!). Luckily I like outspoken people (as you’ve said before on this blog, one has to in Tuscany).

    But public criticism of parenting aside, I think life with children in Tuscany is bliss. At least in the countryside, where we never seem to be able to do all the things with them one could do (some of my favorites can be found here: http://www.mapitout-tuscany.com/p/kids.html).

    But maybe most surprisingly, in regard to childcare I couldn’t have fared better – thanks to Italy’s school system! In Switzerland kids start kindergarten in the year they turn five. For the first year they stay on only for two afternoons; the year after they can stay for 3 or 4 afternoons but they still have to come back home for lunch. Any childcare before the age of 5 has to be organised and paid privately. I’m just adding this to cheer you up a bit, or at least, to make sure you’re not contemplating emigrating up north (-:

    • Ciao bella, no we are not going anywhere. I just wish we had better daycare options. :)

  2. I really enjoyed all of the Roundtable blogs on kids in Italy. Gloria discussed many very valid points so I want to share my experience as a visitor. We brought our 3 1/2 yr. old granddaughter to Italy in May. She is very vivacious and smart for her age. She will remember chasing pigeons (in San Marco, Siena, Milano) eating gelato and playing in playgrounds. I could not believe how every town we visited had a playground!! She loved eating at the restaurants, especially the dolce!! At a VERY nice restaurant she was given a booster chair, colored pencils and paper and the chef prepared pasta with butter and cheese just for her AND came out to speak with her when we sent “complimenti al chef”. I think Italy for 3-8 yr. olds is perfect!!

    • Thank you for your comments!so maybe it is better than I think! :)

      • I think it is a bit easier for visitors perhaps and we weren’t trying to negotiate too many places with a stroller. It helped that Michael and I are so familiar with all of the places that we had pre planned activities, scouted out where the parks were, etc. the year before. By the way, how does the school system work in Italy. Is the Asilo where they wear those little smocks? and what age are children there? Does elementary school begin with grade 1? thank you!!
        Bonnie

        • The school system is great. Scuola Materna is not mandatory but everybody goes (3-6 y.o.). Scuola Elementare is from 6 to 11 y.o. (5 years), Scuola Media Inferiore is from 11 to 14 (3 years), Scuola Media Superiore is 5 more years. Children must be in school until they are 16.

  3. My daughter is well passed baby stage but I love the fact that Italy doesn’t have grubby looking changing mats everywhere but people who love children. When my daughter was a baby a lovely official at Naples airport cleared his desk for me to change my daughter before boarding the plane and then protected her from public view. ( how much more gallant). restaurant owners would invite me into their private quarters to change her on a bed. I love Italy for her humanity.

    • Thank you! Yes, people tend to be very generous in that sense. It is very nice, you are right!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. It reminds me a bit of what I have read so far in the book Bringing Up Bebe about raising children in France. Here in the U.S., there are more “things” for babies and kids to do. The abundance of playgrounds and festivities for kids here in California is a good example. But I like that Italian people are generally so into kids. With Americans, it sometimes feels like the only people who enjoy being around your kids are the grandparents!

  5. Thinking about play areas for children in Italy I strongly agree with your statement “if the question is whether Italy has much to offer to families with children the answer is definitely no”
    I’ve just started a blog http://www.playgroundaroundthecorner.com because I’ve realized that in our beautiful country there is little attention paid to the areas reserved for children. After visiting with my little boy foreign countries (Canada as well) I discovered around the world play areas dedicated to children worthy of a visit. On the contrary Italian playgrounds are too often neglected, forgotten, queued in the list of urban needs. I can’t understand why in our country the importance of giving our kids proper play spaces, where they can grow, learn and socialize is not properly considered (http://playgroundaroundthecorner.com/2012/11/28/forgotten-playground/#more-150)

    • Great idea Mary! Thank you for stopping by!

  6. Cara Gloria, non posso che sottoscrivere quel che dici.
    I confirm what you say. Tuscany (but also Rome, Venice, etc) are not children-friendly. If you have to change your baby, you better go to a MacDonald’s as in Italian bars and restaurants you rarely find a changing table or even a high chair. No colours for children (in not-touristic places of course).
    I went in Austria and the situation was completely different: services, cares, public toilets and underground perfect for babies. And loads of activities (children museums, zoos, etc.) thought for them.
    L’Italia non è un paese per giovani (e tantomeno per bambini!)

    • Thank you for your comment Laura! I always read your guest posts on Alexandra’s blog (http://www.arttrav.com), waiting for my child to behold enough to enjoy Florence! :) buon Natale a te e alla tua famiglia!

  7. Dear Gloria,

    This is such an interesting post. I’ve addressed some of the issues you talk about in a new travel guide I wrote (a guide designed for families with children visiting Tuscany). I hope it’s OK if I mention the guide here, for the benefit of parents looking for such a publication, a guide which is geared specifically towards families (I couldn’t find a contact button, to ask your permission in advance).
    The guide is called “Florence & Tuscany with Kids”, and it features several family-friendly itineraries, tips and ideas, lists the best museums, attractions and sights for kids (from toddlers to teenagers), and is filled with kids corners, detective missions and activities. I’ve also listed the best adventure parks, horseback rides, cooking schools and horseback riding tours, because it is important, when travelling with kids, to take a break once in a while from all the sightseeing…
    On a personal note, I do a ree with a lot of the points you made. Visiting Tuscany with children does require careful planning, and understanding that the services available here are different from what others may be used too. Some medieval towns are quite challenging to tour with a stroller, for example, and some hugely popular Tuscan destinations can (and probably should) be skipped when travelling with kid..s. That is basically the reason I wrote the guide.
    All the best,
    Ariela

    • Thank you Ariela! Who’s the publisher?

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