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  • Making Your Children Italian
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Teaching children about who they are and where they come from is tough for anyone, but it's even tougher for the children and grandchildren of immigrants and ex-patriots. How do you teach your children about their heritage? How do you make your kids Italian even if you live oceans away?

    Born in the United States, my four-year-old cousin and goddaughter Amy is half Italian, half Croatian, and technically all American. But her Italian grandmother, Maria, is with her everyday, which might be why she sometimes sings the alphabet out of order and often speaks with an accent. For instance, she calls her cousin Marissa by the Italian version of her name, "Mar-i-sa." Some people think this is bad news. It's true that my little cousins, who are growing up around their grandparents, might have to go to speech class when they reach school age. But, overall, the time their spending with their Italian relatives is only a positive.

    Amy and her cousins already know about many traditions. My mom showed them how to dye Easter eggs with red onion skins, my father shares his presepio with them every Christmas, their grandmother Maria is already teaching them how to cook Italian dishes, and my boyfriend Antonio teaches them the virtues of Italian chocolates and children's games.

    Amanda, Amy's sister who is almost 8 now, sought information about her heritage for a school project. My mom ended up giving her a doll dressed in traditional "Contadina" garb from Ischia and then she dressed Amanda like the doll's twin for International Day. She still has the doll and the costume, but most importantly she knows a little something about the place where her Nonna Maria grew up.

    Of course, the kids in my family are exposed daily to the Neapolitan dialect and the universal Italian language through the voices of their relatives, music, and RAI International. Children have a much easier time than adults when learning languages, so it's best to start young. You'll be amazed at how much they pick up. There are some words that my little cousins say only in Italian. Whenever our relatives come from Italy, they say, "buon giorno," "buona sera," and "buona notte." The girls also love to call themselves ballerinas with an Italian accent and principesse.

    If you don't know the language yourself, there are many ways to make up for that. You can buy audio tapes or CDs that teach Italian to children. There are even computer programs that are highly interactive. You might learn a thing or two as well. If you'd like more information on traditions, you can search ItaliansRus or head to the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute's Web site. The institute offers online activities for children for almost every Italian holiday you can imagine.

    You are the key to unlocking the Italian heritage for your children. If you or your relatives grew up in Italy or know a lot about it, then you should share that information as often as you can. Storytelling sure beats the computer or tapes. You can talk with your hands and your accent, throw in Italian words, and you'll be sure to paint a picture in their heads that will last a lifetime.

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