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?
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.
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.