Leo in the Sandbox, Nico in the Tree

Nico in his favorite perch between two branches of a Roman Pine Tree at the Villa Glori Park in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas.

Part III – Leo in the Sandbox, Nico in the Tree

Although I am against fruit loops at Mass, I have a typical American belief in allowing kids a fair amount of liberty, unlike the French and Italians. Pamela Druckerman told the story of how she learned from a French Mom how to speak to her son Leo sternly and decisively so he would stay in the sandbox instead of escaping from the playground so that she could enjoy her chat on the park bench. Her story brought back memories of my years spent at the Villa Glori Park near my home in Rome with my three children. Near the playground there was a tempting Roman Pine tree that leaned out at an angle, went up for about 25 feet and then forked into two separate branches. My son Nico figured out how to shimmy up that tree and nest himself comfortably between the two branches where he could enjoy a bird’s eye view of activities below. Every time we went to the playground he went straight up that tree. I was scolded over and over again by other parents and grandparents who warned me sternly that he could fall and break an arm or a leg, that he was risking his life up there. Some other mothers told me I was setting a bad example by letting Nico stay up there because it made their children want to try. I steadfastly refused to call him down remembering how much I had enjoyed climbing trees as a child. Without feeling any need to discipline, I was able to relax and enjoy myself sitting on the park bench with my Mamma friends.

The regular tree-climbing scoldings were not the only ones I received. I was admonished by other mothers for letting my children take off their shoes and run barefoot in puddles in Rome after a rainstorm. “They will catch a fever!” was the most frequent comment, and letting them go outside with wet hair, “They will get sick!”

My feeling is the French children can stay in their sandbox, and the Italians may never have the thrill of climbing a tree, but how will they get confidence in themselves, become free-spirits, risk-takers and independent thinkers? I wonder if Steve Jobs’ Mom kept him in the sandbox when he tried to run out the gate. How about Amelia Earhart, did her Mom let her climb that tree? Certainly learning patience, respect for others and delayed gratification is useful but demonstrations of courage, creativity and willingness to accept challenges should not be squashed.


17 thoughts on “Leo in the Sandbox, Nico in the Tree”

  1. Oh, Trisha! What a lovely post. As soon as I saw your son in the tree I thought of Italo Calvino’s novel “Il Barone Rampante” . Then I had to laugh when you said he enjoyed his bird’s eye view of life on the ground. Thanks for the morning smile.

    I could not agree with you more about letting kids do what they will, (obviously within the constraints of safety, the law and morality) I applaud you for sticking with your idea and letting Nico hang out in the tree. I have no doubt he will be a stronger, more self-reliant person for his adventures in the tree.

    1. Adri – I should have mentioned Italo Calvino’s “Il Barone Rampante”. My daughter Chiara loved that book. Wouldn’t we all like to escape into a tree sometimes and get away from all the irritating people and pressures around us. I have a beautiful Roman Pine just outside my bedroom window and sometimes when I am worn out with trying to be a good working Mamma I lie on my bed and daydream of climbing out on its thick branches.

  2. Trish…I so agree with you! I have grown children now, but they certainly had opportunities to “go for it”. There are times when they tell their tales of adventure that , recited all at once , it seems that they were living in constant danger…they love to give this impression especially for my benefit! All 5 aqre self confident and fun. p.s. I had a favorite maple tree I climbed daily for years. It took me up about 35 feet!

  3. Oh you have a an umbrella pine right outside your window?!! That’s incredible!

    By the way while I’m trying to jumpstart a photography business I’m working as a nanny (and I usually love the work) I adhere to a (sometimes) balance of firm adherence to rules and compromises when it counts, with lots of run around in rain puddles and get muddy and soaked, have fun, make a mess, be creative, lick the ground once in a while freedom too! I don’t want them to be baby automatons! I love this article.

    1. Yes, I have several umbrella pines right around my apartment building. I love them. My husband always worried that one of the pine cones is going to fall and bonk one of us in the head and kills us. I always thought he was nuts until a pine cone fell one day and broke the windshield on his car. Still, one can’t live worrying that something is going to fall from the sky and kill you. The pines are gorgeous and I love them.

      In response to your earlier message, I will be at the Vatican Monday morning March 5th for a story I am doing on the restoration of the Colonnade. We are supposed to go up on the colonnade and film the restorers cleaning off the Bernini statues. If you are at the Vatican, give me a call on my cell. I will send my cell number to you on your personal email.

  4. By and large, Turks seem to let their kids run wild; oblivious to how they might be disturbing/annoying us English. Other Turks in the vicinity smile and indulge them too! ‘Terrible!’ I say, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child!’ Funny thing is (and I don’t understand this at all) they seem to grow up to be really nice, well adjusted young people. :-D

  5. Marie Di Benedetto

    I love your stories Trisha, as they often strike a note in my memories of my year in Abruzzo with my Italian born husband and my two little Italoaustralians.

    Luckily my children had an Abruzzese dad, who was from all reports among the most daring of his age group, and whose exploits were at times hair-raising.
    Take cliff climbing, after sneaking out of the classroom of la Signora Angelina, who was one step away from retirement. He returned to class with a bunch of flowers plucked off the cliff-face and gave them to Signora Angelina who didn’t even ask him where they came from!

    So my children rode their bikes, climbed trees, caught toads, wore their Australian thongs (flip-flops to the rest of the world I think), even went bare-foot at times. And kept a pet snake in the back garden.

    Poveri piccoli Romani wrapped in cotton wool!!

    1. Marie — thank you for your comment. I do realize that my depiction of motherhood and child-raising in Italy is based on my experience in Rome which is probably quite different from raising children in the other regions of Italy. When my children were young my husband – a University professor- got a teaching job for three years in Macerata. I wanted to give up my job and try the experience of living in the provincia with my children. I figured I could make some money teaching English or use the time to try to write my book. Instead, he wanted me to stay in Rome with the children while he commuted back and forth (3 hour drive away). Gustavo adored Macerata, but never considered a minute moving his family there. So unfortunately I have never had the experience living in the provincia.

  6. I loved climbing trees as a child. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and freedom. Glad that Nico had his fun! I always went to work very early so that I could be home to take Helen & Lydia outside and enjoy their play. I think that kids need to be outside and use up that wonderful energy. In the US there is a general trend toward less physical activity and more homework.

    What I’ve seen here in the US is that kids are losing their recess time. When I was in Elementary School, we had about an hour per day of recess. Generally in two shifts (morning and then afternoon). We had a chance to get outside and play! In middle school we had “supervised play” because of course we needed to get out and use up some of our energy but were far too cool to have recess. We’d play soccer, basketball, and baseball. Often times a teacher would enter into the sport with us..rather than just standing on the side. It would have to be a really bad weather day for us to not go outside. This was in addition to gym.

    In contrast, my kids were lucky to get 20 minutes of recess in Elementary school and very little if any in Middle School. I feel that they had a lot more homework than I did and yet their classes are not as challenging (ie our Physics was at a college level calculus/trig based where as theirs was algebra based).

    What is “recess” like in Italy? Gym? Homework amounts?

    Thank you for the insights. I enjoyed the comparison between the cultural Mommas. I can see some of the influences in how my friends handle their children. I’m afraid that while I want my daughter to be polite and use table manners, I tend to be pretty causal about introductions (almost every child calls me Cyndy) and I prefer my Penn State sweats, sneakers and jeans to anything that requires hand washing or dry cleaning. To each their own:-)

    1. Cyndy, Thank you for your comment. I totally agree with you that kids really need their outdoor time at school. In Italy there is very little. Caterina, who is in 8th grade, goes to school from 8:15am to 2:30pm and then comes home for lunch. They get one break for a snack and often don’t even go outside to eat it. I don’t know how the teachers manage to keep a class of teenagers under control if they don’t get a chance to go outside and let off steam! My 16-year-old Nico plays water polo and has practice 5 nights a week. It is totally exhausting, but on the days he has to skip he is unbearable he is constantly trying to rough-house with his sisters — basically picking them up and tossing them around and driving them crazy. I remember when I was young we spent some much time out in various yards around the neighborhood with a whole gang of kids playing balls games in the summer, jumping out of trees into piles of leaves in the fall, sledding in the winter. We spent lots of time outdoors with friends in unorganized play and it was good for us. I think there is less and less of that all over the world which is too bad.

  7. Hey Trish!! Super cool blog!! Although I shamefully admit, this is the first blog I look into, as I am still neck-deep in my Mozzarella-Mamma days (Costanza is 10, My Nicolò is 8 and Riccardo is 5), I am actually not even sure that’s where I am supposed to write… ANYWAY, just to let you know, from an Italian Mamma trying to do her job in London and adjust to the Brits, I let my kids climb trees in Hampstead Heath, only to be told off because they could actually harm the trees by breaking branches!! Lots and lots of love from London!! Allegra

    1. Allegra, wonderful to hear from you. When you kids are older I think you will have to write a book about being a Mum in London where tree branches are more important then kids, not to mention dogs!! So glad you found my blog! Big hugs, Trisha

  8. More & more i think the Italians are stuck in time. Growing up in NYC in the 50s I was always warned about going out in the cold or wet and getting PNEUMONIA, much less a fever. Remember those old films where some young thing goes out in the rain and then quickly falls into a sickbed with pneumonia as a direct result? I remember when I was outdoors in the snow and some OTHER mother leaned out her window and asked if I had a sweater under my jacket. Even though I was only about 6 or 7, I remember thinking…what business is that of HERS? I was NOT cold anyway. And she was Jewish, not even Italian! We (today) would never think to ask someone else’s child what kind of layers they have under their coat…are you kidding? LOL!

    1. Barbara, Thank you for your comment. I think there may be quite a few similarities between a good Jewish Mom and an Italian Mozzarella Mamma. I think the woman leaning out of her window and asking you if you had a sweater on would be considered absolutely normal in Italy. I walked out of the swimming pool in our neighborhood the other day and hadn’t bothered to dry my hair and the man at the front desk started giving me a hard time. A grown man giving a grown woman who he doesn’t know a hard time because she is going outside in winter with wet hair. But this happens regularly, I just laugh it off. He meant it to be kindly so I took it that way, but I did not go back and dry my hair.

  9. Oh brother, the fever from getting wet! I have Italian women tell me, on a pretty regular basis, that I will get a fever (or worse) whenever I have wet hair in the morning. Mind, these are not women I know. I too am for letting kids run a little wild. I wish, though, that we had fewer organized sports in the States. In the sandlot you learn how to use consensus (and ostracism) to enforce collective rules, without adults hovering over and enforcing them. Great post.

    1. Thank you Zach. I have been scolded for walking around with wet hair, or letting my children go out with wet hair for years in this country. I’ve told people I remember going out to dinner in Vermont one winter just after taking a shower and my long, we hair turned into icycles and made a lovely tinkling noise. Everyone with me thought it was hilarious and it didn’t occur to anyone to tell me I might get a fever. It is just cultural.

      I also agree with you on organized sports. We were all much better off when we just ran out the backdoor and played with the kids in the neighborhood all afternoon. No appointments, no changing rooms, no formal games, no uniforms etc etc etc. Living in a city, my kids have gotten very little of the backyard play advantages.

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