I recognize that I view 1970s style parenting through a nostalgic 1970s Instagram filter. But I can't help but wonder if parents had less guilt when the only books on how to parent had instructions like "What to Do If Your Child Is Choking." Today a similar chapter would be entitled: "Why Your Child is Choking and How it Will Effect His or Her Psyche."
I pretend to take American parenting theories with a grain of salt, but secretly I hold them close and try to incorporate them into all my parenting choices so that I don't fail. It doesn't matter if the instructions are contradictory. At least one of them has to be the Right One. For example, I fully accept that parents must make all the child's choices for them so that children suffer no negative consequences due to their actions. I equally accept that it is important that we allow our child to call all the shots because making choices for a child is bad. And that the only children who are happy in life are the ones left outside to play in the dirt with a stick. But first one must trim the stick with safety scissors so that the child doesn't poke out their eye. And a good parent will also have the dirt tested to make sure it has no lead or Red Dye #40 should their child wish to ingest it.
And at the latest Back-to-School/Open House night, it became clear that even while living abroad, we are Americans at heart and we bring with us this collective cultural parenting know-how.
As the various faculty presented topics throughout the school, we took notes. We nodded sagely. We wrinkled our brows to show We Were Paying Attention while in reality we were bookmarking teacher's gifts on Pinterest.
The Italian moms entered late, if at all. They stood in the hallways talking and laughing, eating the school-prepared panini and drinking coffee and sparkling water.
In between presentations, the Americans grabbed and discarded cups of water like athletes running a marathon. We knew that our child's education depended on our ability to claim the center seat in the front row.
During one such lecture, the music teacher explained what the curriculum would look like for the students this year, played a few selections from her last performance on Broadway, and then asked if there were any questions. Of course we had questions! How would she know our child was a prodigy waiting to be discovered if we didn't show enough interest to ask questions? Every American arm waved high: "My daughter isn't bringing her instrument home every day! How can I wash it?" "My son didn't get a solo for the fall concert; will he be getting one for the Christmas performance?" "Is there extra credit?" "How many hours each night should my child be practicing for music class?""Why did last year's class get to sing four songs and this year's only gets to sing three?"
I won't share which question was mine, but I will tell you that it was completely valid.
"Did you see the music teacher?" one Italian mom asked me as I raced by on my way to attend a lecture entitled "Gym Class: How to Make the Leap from Badminton to The Ivy League".
"Um, yeah," I fumbled for my Power Point print-out to share with her, which she politely ignored.
"Why?" she asked. "Why do we meet the music teacher? What does that tell us?"
"Um...the dress code for the music concert?" I guessed.
She took a bite from a peach and shook her sadly. "There is no reason! The children wear what they wear. There is no reason for these meetings."
I placed my hand over my quickly sketched diagrams of various outfit choices for the fall concert. Such a relaxed attitude had to be a ruse and I for one was not going to be tricked into giving away my genius ideas for sartorial perfection.
During the library technology speech, we applauded when the librarian explained that books could be borrowed from the library. We murmured with excitement when we were shown how students could use a color-coded stick to mark the place of a book they had removed from the shelf while browsing. With the stick marking the place, the students could easily re-shelve the book without having to use the call letters or the alphabet. We typed "buy color-coded sticks to practice at home" on our i-phones.
"Any questions?" asked the librarian.
For some reason she seemed not to see the sea of extended American hands and focused on the languid wave of a bangle covered arm. "Yes?" she asked.
"When do they get to write with the..." the bangled arm woman broke-off and looked around for help with the English word.
"La penna!" another Italian told her eagerly.
"Yes, yes!" agreed another.
"When do they get to write with pens?"
The librarian seemed confused. "They are writing with pencils-" she tried to explain.
Another Italian shook her head and clicked her tongue, "Oh, they will never use pens!" All the Italians nodded in agreement.
Frustrated with not being acknowledged when her arm was clearly still in the air, an American called out: "Will there be prizes if your child brings back their library book early?" We other Americans put down our hands, relieved that someone else had tackled the important question.
The librarian seemed equally confused by this. "Well, no," she said slowly. "But we do encourage the children to bring their books back on the day they are due.We haven't implemented monetary fines if the books are late, but if need be that is always something we can consider in the future."
There was a rustling of rapid Italian whispers and a woman asked, "Do they have to bring back these library books on the same day of every week?"
Two Italian women spoke over each other. "No, no, " said one, " they can save them and bring them back at the end of the year." "Oh yes," said the other, "I had to pay fines all the time last year because of the late books. How can you know when they are due?"
And while I wish I had something pithy with which to end this, I don't. But I suspect I'm gaining insight as to why the lifespan of the average Italian is longer than that of the average American.