Killing him softly with their love: over-attachment as child abuse

Or at least, that’s what the mother and grandparents of a 12-year-old Italian boy named Luca are being accused of by the boy’s estranged father:

…in an extreme case that has made headlines across the nation, a court has been asked to consider whether a mother’s love for her son — and that of his grandparents too — was so intense, it could be considered a form of child abuse.

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.

The Time article intimates that overcoddling mamas (though not usually to this extent) are common in Italian society. In the US, however, the Jewish mother is similarly stereotyped, and here in Israel, the Polish (or rather, Polish-Jewish) mother has the same reputation. Recent trends in parenting – “Don’t push the kid, he’ll do it when he’s ready”, for example – tend to lend an air of legitimacy to this kind of mothering.

Luca’s example is obviously an extreme one, and I certainly am not suggesting that every overindulgent mother is abusing her child. But overindulgence doesn’t do a kid any favors, either. It can be hard to find a happy medium between loving your children and wanting to do for them, but also allowing them their space and set appropriate limits.

Nearly 12 years and 3 kids later, this Jewish mother is still searching for that balance…


9 Responses

  1. Fascinating article, but I’m kind of bothered by the implications of it being brought up on a blog that’s meant to be about the problems with the AP movement. It’s as though you’re trying to link these extreme practices to AP, when in fact they have nothing to do with AP. (When the AP movement can get their focus off the extended breastfeeding-babywearing-cosleeping triad for long enough to notice that older age groups exist and assure us that, yes, of *course* AP isn’t just about those practices, they’re actually very much into encouraging independence in older children.)

    I also note that, really, none of us really knows for sure what’s happening in this particular case, which still seems to be under appeal. I’m wary of believing everything I read in the papers.

    • I haven’t seen a lot of encouraging independence in older children among the AP set, actually – the idea seems to be, as far as I can tell, that if you practice AP on a kid in infancy, they will make the leap into independence all by themselves as a result of the ‘secure base’ given to them early on.

      That said, you’re correct that the kind of over-indulgence mentioned in the article is absolutely not AP – though as Nancy pointed out, there is a common thread of whether the parenting is for the child or for the parents. What I was thinking of when I chose to blog about the article was the myth of the vulnerable child, in Luca’s case taken to extremes undreamed of by the AP crowd, I think.

      • I don’t know about the AP movement as practiced, but in intervention studies aimed at improving children’s attachments, they do mention fostering independence. The Circle of Security program frames the two most common insecure attachment styles as opposites in encouraging independence – parents of avoidantly attached kids encourage kids to be independent while rejecting the child’s attempts at closeness, while parents of resistantly attached kids encourage the child to be close while thwarting the child’s attempts at exploring. In contrast, parents of secure children are said to follow their child’s cues, offering closeness when the child is upset and encouraging exploration when the child is calm.

  2. Here’s the thing… AP (or any set of parenting orthodoxies) should NOT be a movement. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with AP if that’s what works for you and your child but when it becomes a life style politicized and a movement, it’s a problem.

    Why? Because when this intimate details of how people raise their children become a matter for public curiosity and discussion, it creates a horrible climate of insecurity, self consciousness and judgement that sets parent against parent.

    There comes a point when, despite of the superficially “child-centered” language, it’s not really about kids any more. It’s about what other people make of a parent who does or doesn’t do X. It leads people to be overly cautious and overly protective – not because their kids can’t handle things but because of what the consequences would be for THEM. Think about the phrase, “I’d never forgive myself if anything happened.” It’s a little Freudian slip in a sense because it betrays that it’s really not about emphasizing which a child who is hurt or killed. It’s all about YOU.

    If you think I’m being over the top, just think about it and listen to what parents say. How many times is it about “I” or “Me”? It’s not that parents are narcissistic any more than we’ve ever been. It’s just the current parenting culture.

    All this is why I LOVE Free Range Kids. It’s not just another parenting lifestyle – not “free-range parenting”. It really is about giving children opportunity grow into the architects of their lives.

    So no, these styles of child-rearing shouldn’t be movements but Free-Range KIDS most definitely should be. And the sooner the better

  3. I actually kind of like it that this case it made its way to the courts. I especially think that keeping your kids sheltered from any activities or friends outside of school is a form of child abuse and just bad parenting. And creepy. I’m kind of surprised parents this overbearing wouldn’t just home school.

    Interesting article!

  4. Assumed casuality. Is he this way because of the overprotective adults or are the adults this way because of who he is? I find it odd that his physical development is impacted. I know that kids who haven’t had full freedom of movement typically catch up very quickly when given the chance. For example, a toddler living on a boat who doesn’t learn to walk or climb stairs until 15 months when the parents dock for 3 weeks. And then he is walking and running quickly. Wouldn’t his time at school allow him normal physical growth?

    • Yeah, I’m wondering if this might be a child with some sort of undetected disability that is being blamed on bad parenting. What if the kid has mild autism, or some sort of learning disability such as dyspraxia?

  5. 30 years later…
    My partner’s children have grown into helpless adults. They can’t do anything for themselves because they never learned to. They feel entitled because their mother has always treated them that way. But, the world doesn’t care or think that they are special. They are both lost unhappy people and mom is still trying to fix all of their problems. Every failure they experience is a knife in my wife’s heart and she is devoid of happiness.
    Don’t think that this can happen to you? JUST KEEP ON DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND TALK TO ME IN 30 YEARS.

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