Tree climbing

Defiance! The indifference of Croatian Dads

Before growing into my role as a father I had a very stereotyped view of Croatian dads. To me they were men characterized by indifference. I saw fathers at the park whose lack of interest in what their child was doing bordered between nonchalance and negligence. Their kids climbed wildly, they threw rocks without consequence, they broke many of the playground’s social mores. And the dads just seemed kinda of like jerks who were too-cool for school to be bothered. That was how I saw Croatian dads until I became one. Now I understand. Now I know what we are doing. And our conscious lack of concern is vital to the healthy development of our children, Croatian society, and the country.

A Croatian father’s apparent disregard for parenting, especially while at the playground is actually a crucial step in fostering his child’s development. Without it our kids would be messed up for life! See, our insouciance is actually the counterweight to the overwhelming, unobstructed anxious attention our wives and mother-in-laws (punice) direct at our children. Before becoming a parent in Croatia, and before moving here, I had always imagined parenting in the Balkans was quite careless. I don’t know why, but for some reason I assumed Croatians treated parenting like they treated time, either with dispassionate scorn or the most minimal level of concern. Of course the exact opposite is true. Croatians, especially the lady folk, are crazy about their kids’ well being. In fact, Croatian mothers and grandmothers have three overriding, constant concerns about their kids: 1) Food. It is believed that a child will starve if not fed frequently, very frequently. 2) Clothing. It is believed a child will freeze to death if not clothed adequately. 3) Danger. It is believed that a fall from any height, no matter how close to the ground, can easily kill a child or at least inflict grave injury.

OK, yes we all need to eat and we all need to wear clothes, but the maternal instinct of a Croatian mother or grandmother believes starving and freezing to death can turn on a dime (or a lipa?). A sudden uptick in the breeze OH MY GOD PUT ON A JACKET! Sitting on a cold curb, regardless of the outdoor ambient temperature, YOU ARE GONNA GET INFLAMMATION OF THE KIDNEYS, BLADDER, OR BRAIN! Not wanting to eat something after eating an hour ago: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE OF MALNUTRITION! (PS: this fear of malnutrition is intensified given your child’s refusal to eat whatever food comes from your wife’s hometown or region, i.e. blitva and fish.) Thus, the playground is filled with fear-stricken women clutching jackets and hats, holding out extended snacks, chasing after a motley of children.

After the kids have eaten and put on their jackets they usually like to climb on things. The mothers and bakas (grandmas) are there to remind them that they will fall, saying repeatedly as if it were a mantra: Ćeš past. Ćeš past. You’ll fall. You’ll fall. I feel like the life of a Croatian kid (and actually this nannying can last until you are in your 30s) is to be continuously harassed about the dangers of not eating, not wearing enough clothes, and taking unnecessary risks.

We, the fathers, bring the balance. I love my daughter and would hate for anything to happen to her, but when we go to the playground or to Zrinjevac I fight those initial instincts to tell her to be careful. I try to be as hands off as possible. What may look like my cool indifference is actually a sign of my utmost concern. By letting her challenge herself or deal with playground squabbles by herself, I feel like I’m teaching her the skills to negotiate life’s bigger obstacles. The ones that will inevitably come and for which I know I cannot always be there.  I find that I’ve begun to trust her and her judgement. She tells me when she is hungry, she tells me when she is cold.

My daughter has even started trying to climb trees. In her attempts to climb to a new height I imagine the influence of my behavior echoing back to me from our uncertain future. She reaches for a new branch, looks at me and asks: “Daddy, are you scared?”

“No.” I say. Not at all.

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