The results of a study by sociologist Francesco Alberoni and a team of researchers from IULM university in Milan show that by age 10 (fourth year primary school) 77 per cent of boys and 83 per cent of girls have experienced "falling in love". The first experience of strong heterosexual attraction comes in the pre-school years, at age three or four, at around the same time that the child begins to make friends.
Educational psychologists interviewed 450 pre-school and primary school children from north and central Italy and discovered that experiences referred to by infants had much in common with those described by adolescents and adults. There was no difference between the way boys and girls described the experiences.
Visible signs do not surface until around age seven, when the child fears rejection and, as Professor Alberoni puts it, "shyness bursts onto the scene". Sweating, blushing, and increased heartbeat are the result. "At this age children still have a transparent personality," he says, "and they are unable to stage a seduction."
Professor Alberoni is well known to Italians. He has a front-page slot every Monday in the best-selling daily Corriere della Sera, in which he lays bare the vices of contemporary Italians, especially those which concern relations between the sexes - an unfailing topic of interest. The results of the survey have been hurriedly published in a volume entitled Primo amore (First love) which is already on the best-seller list.
But the study also sheds light on the distinction between love and friendship. At the age of 10 almost every child (95 per cent of boys and 92 per cent of girls) said they had a best friend. The definition of this best friend is quite different from that of the love object; he or she is someone you can trust, who doesn't give away your secrets, and who plays with you most of the time, while the beloved is the person you think of when he or she isn't there, who you want to be with more than anybody else, and who makes your heart beat fast.
Professor Alberoni said the idea for the research first came to him after a number of mothers had spoken to him about the boyfriends and girlfriends of their nursery-age children. Initially he thought that parents were over-interpreting, or that children were using adult language without understanding its meaning. The findings, he now believes, show that he was wrong.
Perhaps all this early experience in Italy's rigorously co-educational state system makes for a relaxed attitude towards sex later on. British novelist Tim Parks is an inveterate Italy-watcher and a colleague of Professor Alberoni's at the IULM university, where he teaches translation. In his book, Italian Neighbours, he is mystified by the fact that his students seem untroubled by matters sexual, and that couples form with the intention of cohabiting or getting married years into the future. Parks ascribes this in part to a reluctance to leave home. But perhaps the answer lies in love's torments survived years earlier in the scuola materna.