Friday, October 23, 2009

Coddling and child abuse

Is coddling a child the same as child abuse? A case in Italy raises the question:

The case centers on the overprotective mother and grandparents of a 12-year-old boy known only as Luca in the northern city of Ferrara. Prosecutors say the three built a wall of protection so high around the boy, it stunted his development. The boy's mother and grandfather have already been convicted of child abuse and are appealing the verdict. The grandmother appeared before a criminal tribunal earlier this month to face a similar charge. All three defendants have denied any wrongdoing, and the child has remained in the mother's custody while the case is being adjudicated.

According to the evidence presented by prosecutors, Luca was not allowed to play with other children, go to church, participate in sports or leave the house before or after school. The boy's teachers said he was sent to school with his snacks already cut into bite-size portions for him. Investigators say the teachers noticed that he was both physically and psychologically stunted from such around-the-clock doting. "He didn't know how to run. He had the motor skills of a 3-year-old child," Andrew Marzola, the lawyer representing the boy, told the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Considering the eternal debate in Italy over the country's supposedly overly sheltered mammone, the case has garnered widespread publicity. But the boy's plight doesn't exactly fit in with the national stereotype of an overprotective mother and her son — it's far messier than that. The parents divorced soon after the boy's birth and the father claimed that he wasn't permitted to see his son for nine years. Concerned about the child's welfare, he finally contacted social services and prosecutors opened an investigation into the mother and grandparents.
Now, granted, this is Time. Despite the divorce situation which is clearly at the heart of the case, Time writer Jeff Israely manages to blame Italian culture, the national stereotype (based somewhat on reality) of the overprotective Italian mother, and the Catholic Church for this boy's plight. But aside from the oddly eclectic and discursive writing style of this piece (not at all unusual considering the source) a serious question remains: can coddling a child be construed as child abuse? Who determines whether a child has been overprotected? At what point does an outside agency have the authority to step in and interfere with parenting decisions?

I think that most reasonable people would say that some evidence of actual harm would have to be shown. If the boy in the Italian case really has had his physical or mental development stunted to a demonstrable level, that might constitute harm--but what should be the remedy?

Here in America, for instance, a ruling that finds evidence of child abuse usually results in the removal of a child from the home. But would that ever be the appropriate way to deal with a situation like the one described in the article? Would it not be more psychologically traumatic for an over-coddled child to be removed suddenly from his home and family than to remain in their care?

A more frightening thought is that if coddling a child could be seen as child abuse, in a culture like ours the definition of "coddling" might become very politically charged. Is it coddling a child to refuse to teach him or her about sex when he or she is six or seven years old? Is it coddling a child to prohibit television in the home, or to supervise his or her media usage? Is homeschooling a form of coddling?

It will be interesting to see whether this case in Italy is resolved in favor of the father, who alleges child abuse, or the mother, who may not (given that there are two sides to every story) be as overprotective as this story seems to indicate. Whatever the conclusion of the Italian court, though, I would rather not see a precedent established whereby involved, committed parents suddenly have to justify their efforts to prove that they are not "abusive" coddlers.


JMB said...

I haven't read the article but from what you wrote, I do think that denying a child, especially a son, a relationship with his father (assuming that the father is not abusive) is a form a child abuse. Boys need their fathers.

Lindsay said...

Practically speaking, many things might constitute abuse, but it would be unreasonable to try and enforce them legally.

Anonymous said...

In this brief description provided there is too much left to the imagination as to what form 'coddling' took place. If mind control, physical restraint, and stilling a child's natural desires of curiosity and interest on par with the Austrian father who contained a child in an underground 'cage', then surely there can be no argument about unnatural coercion. But, the traditional definition of coddling is pampering, excessive overindulgence, and treating gently. Nothing in those words to suggest unhealthy evil intent, nor to equate 'coddling' with 'abuse'.

From another perspective, in the apartment house where my young family lived for a short while there was a single mother upstairs that fed her baby sugar water. It was appalling to observe dental caries in what should'be been the little pearls of first teeth. And, I heard of another family who apparently allowed one of their children excessive dietary intake and the pediatrician threatened to charge the parents with abuse if they didn't take greater care in providing nutritional foods, and opportunity for exercise.

Question the role of trained teachers in a public school involved in daily education. Surely there was no input from them? How did the child reach that age and yet still have the physical conditioning of a 3-yr old?

As above observer, some issue with the father's involvement in the child's upbringing, in light of a new issue of 'overprotectiveness' as a form of abuse, as coddling. Wondering at male parent motives. (I mean, if the father is expecting the result is the decision when brought to court of handing the child over to him, then one should probably consider the father's motives.)

Melanie B said...

What I wonder is how you differentiate between correlation and causation. Isn't it also possible that the mother and grandmother "coddled" the child because he was developmentally delayed?

I have friends and family with children on the autism spectrum. They do treat their children differently, but it's because of the autism or Asperger's that they do so. Their care is not what causes the condition.

Likewise I have a friend who has a child with sensory integration issues who well into his third year didn't eat solid foods without gagging unless it was smoothly pureed with absolutely no lumps. I suppose someone who didn't understand the situation could say she was coddling him and causing his delay of eating solid foods.

NancyP said...

There are a lot of things going on in the Time piece. First, there is no mention of Italy's "group mentality" culture, in which schoolchildren are expected to join soccer clubs and other group activities after school. This child, for whatever reason, did not do this and would thus probably be seen by others as abnormal.

I took the time to read some of the Italian press coverage of this case and it turns out that this is the second time the father has taken the mother and grandparents to court. The first time, the mother and grandmother were convicted and the "overprotectiveness" eased somewhat - Luca went to school, saw some friends, went to church - per the mother's attorney, who also mentioned that the real problem was the relationship between the two parents.

I agree that cutting up snack foods might be taking things a bit too far (although I know American moms who do that for older children and have never been convicted of child abuse).

Without more information about the parents' relationship and motives, it's just impossible to tell what really happened or why the Italian courts decided to get involved. It's very sad, because the boy will be the ultimate loser.

I was heartily annoyed by the article, I must say, not only because the author blamed everyone but the father for this boy's problems (dragging the Church into it was completely gratuitous) but also because he interviewed an "expert" who clearly prefers the German approach to child-rearing (the no homeschool approach, I might add) to that of what she calls "southern societies" that resist "the modern educational practices that encourage independence at an early age." Felici-Bach, the psychologst quted in the article, blames the "extreme" attachment between Italian mothers an children for the mammone problem (sons staying with parents into their 30's) without addressing, say, the extremely high unemployment rate in many Italian communities or any other factors.

Italian mothers do seem overprotective by American standards - I should know; I lived there for five years and my son was part of an Italian-American Scout troop - but I met scores of Italian men and none of them were scarred or stunted by this loving protectiveness. Indeed, I relied on the Italian Scout moms who bravely went on international camping trips to look out for all our boys - because I knew they would. I loved spending time with our Italian friends and their extended family, because all the grown children came to every event and clearly enjoyed spending time with their parents, aunts and uncles. I wished (and still do) that more American families enjoyed being around each other that way.

This case shows the danger of judging a situation based on only a few facts. Where was Dad nine years ago? Why did he move to Lombardia, away from his son? What kind of actions took place after the first court case, and how was Dad involved?

I can't help but think there's way more going on, and that instead of blaming culture, fear and the Church for this boy's sad situation, the author should have done more investigation into the facts behind the court case.