His Name Is Luca: When Over-Parenting Becomes Child Abuse

The mother and grandparents of an Italian boy are being charged with child abuse for their smothering, overprotective love, drawing attention to the problem of overinvolved parents in Italy and elsewhere.

The story of twelve-year-old "Luca" would be extreme in any country. According to Jeff Israely of Time, his parents divorced soon after he was born, and his dad wasn't allowed to see him for nine years. His mother and grandparents seem to have kept him essentially on lockdown, letting him leave the house for school but not to play with friends, do sports, or even go to church. They sent him to school with snacks precut in bite-size pieces, and apparently did so much for him that he was "physically and psychologically stunted." His lawyer, Andrew Marzola, says, "He didn't know how to run. He had the motor skills of a 3-year-old child."

Luca's mother and grandfather have already been convicted of child abuse, and his grandmother is still facing charges. It's a complicated case, given that the family is charged not with neglect but with overinvolvement, with harming a child by trying to help him. Is it really child abuse if your parenting techniques damage a child's ability to live in the world? Don't many parents unintentionally end up doing this?

These questions may have larger implications for Italy, which is facing an epidemic of mammone, or mama's boys. A number of factors contribute to this supposed problem. Ethno-clinical psychologist Henriette Felici-Bach claims that, "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." And Italian culture and history may encourage an especially strong bond between mother and children because of Catholicism, economic insecurity, and a long string of weak governments that forced people to rely only on their families for support. 37% of Italian men between 30 and 34 still live with their mothers, and economist Enrico Moretti says, "Italians, unlike parents from most other countries, like living with their grown children."

The case of Luca — and of older mammone, if they are in fact rampant — seems to illustrate the pitfalls of the kind of closeness with parents we discussed yesterday. But why are men more likely to be affected? Israely doesn't really discuss this, other than to point out that Italian women are "statistically less susceptible" to being "hyper-coddled." Maybe that's because daughters are less favored in Italy than sons, or because, as we see in American commercials, it's less acceptable to be childlike and incompetent as a woman than as a man. While women in America are certainly expected to look like teenagers forever, and sometimes to behave in ways that are cute or juvenile, it's not really considered that charming for us to fail to pick up after ourselves. In America as in Italy, men may get more of a pass in this area.

So could Luca's case go to trial in America? Israely makes the obligatory gesture toward American "helicopter parents," saying, "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." But being blamed for these problems isn't the same as actually causing them, and it seems much harder to prove that an overprotective parent actually hurt a child than that an abusive one did. And where would we draw the line between merely ill-advised parenting tactics and actual abuse? Helicopter parenting may not give kids anorexia (I'm especially skeptical on this point), but as Felici-Bach says, "If you don't let your child discover the world, it can do real harm." However, the solution to this problem, at least in America, probably isn't in the courts.

In Italy, A Mamma Accused Of Doting Too Much [Time]