It was a hot August afternoon in Rome when my cell phone rang. I could see my husband’s name. He was calling from France where he was on vacation with the kids while I was working. I picked it up.
“It wasn’t me,” came the voice on the other end of the line. “I swear I didn’t do it. I am still here with the kids in France and I haven’t laid a finger on any of them, even if they are driving me crazy!” And then he burst out laughing.
“What the heck are you talking about?” I grumbled.
“You haven’t seen???!!!?? The Italian Face Whacker, arrested in Sweden for slapping his son across the face.”
And indeed it was so. An Italian man named Giovanni Colasante, on vacation with his family in Sweden, had slapped his 12-year-old son across the face because the son did not want to go into a restaurant with his family. Shortly after the slap, Giovanni was seated at the table, and the Swedish police came into the restaurant and arrested him. Physical violence against minors is illegal in Sweden. The Italian man spent three days in jail and had to pay a hefty fine (somewhere around 1000 US dollars). He was released to the Italian Embassy in Stockholm where he was obliged to stay until the court hearing.
Italians were shocked. A slap across the face of a misbehaving child is considered ok in many Italian households, and there was widespread outrage across the country over the Swedish mistreatment of this Italian father.
That evening I watched news reports with interviews with Italian parents saying some of the following:
“Ogni tanto uno schiaffone gli fa bene” – Once in a while a big smack is good for them.
“Uno schiaffetto, se e’ necessario, fa sempre bene.” – A little smack, if it is necessary, is always good.
Of course I was siding with the Swedes and the reason my husband called me was because it had long been a source of controversy in our marriage.
Even before Gustavo and I had children we had fought on this topic and we were not the only Italian-American couple to do so. My friend Jessica told me a story of how her husband Massimo—as a young teen- once received a very bad report card. When he came home from school his father was talking on the phone. Massimo nonchalantly handed his father the report card. Continuing the conversation, his father glanced over the report card and gave Massimo a huge smack across the face. None of this touchy-feely “let’s talk about your grades son.” Just a nice face whack and the teenager got the message.
I told Gustavo if he ever dared to slap any of our children across the face I would leave him immediately. I said only spankings would be allowed. Italians are NOT big believers in the Time-Out concept.
The tragic tale of the Italian Face Whacker is not the first time I have heard of a diplomatic dust-up over the treatment of children. Back in 1997 I was living in New York city when a Danish woman named Anette Sorenson was arrested after leaving her 14-month-old baby in a stroller out on the sidewalk while she was eating inside a restaurant. The daughter was put in foster care for three days. The outraged mother claimed she was keeping an eye on her child through the window and that leaving children outdoors is common practice in Scandinavia. Obviously Anette Sorenson was not aware that the streets of New York are not quite as safe as those in Denmark.
Once, during that same period in New York, my two-year-old Nico went through a period during which he refused to wear is winter coat, even in the middle of a snowstorm. (Actually at age 16, he, and his entire waterpolo team walk out of the locker room in the middle of winter with dripping wet hair, wearing t-shirts and open jackets and head outside. Apparently, it is cool to be cold.) So, back when he was two, another mother advised me to let him go out in the snow, wind and cold without his coat on. She explained, “just a few steps down the street with the snow and wind blasting his little face, he will be begging you for his coat.” She didn’t know my Nico very well. The first time I tried it the wind was whipping down Claremont Avenue sending up little whirling dervishes of snow. I went half a block walking with him shivering. I asked him if he wanted his coat and he said “NO!” as only a two-year-old can. So, I decided to put it on him forcefully. He threw himself on the ground, kicking and screaming, as I bent over him trying to shove his little arms into the coat. Mid-battle I heard a stern voice behind me, “Is everything alright here M’am?”. I looked up to see a great big New York City Police Officer staring at me. His cop car was double-parked, lights flashing. Nico stopped squirming, fascinated. In a flash, I grabbed Nico’s other arm, shoved it into his jacket, knelt down and zipped it up. Then with a huge, groveling smile on my face, I stood up, faced the officer and said, “Sorry, I was just trying to get my son’s jacket on.” “Oh, I see,” he said, but I am afraid he did not really see. Still, he didn’t arrest me.
So my advice to Giovanni Colasante of Puglia is that next time you are in Sweden and your teenager is being a pain, don’t bother with the face slap, leave him out on the sidewalk, he will be fine.