In the seaside Croatian town where I grew up, we dove into the sea after sprinting from a wooden dock, or jumped in from the rocks dotting the coastline. When determined to create a bigger splash, we climbed pine trees, then swung off their branches before catapulting into the Adriatic.
I visit my hometown of Dubrovnik most summers during my yearly vacation and, much to the tourists’ amusement, local children still use the same tree-jumping techniques. There is no lifeguard in sight — I didn’t know what a lifeguard was while I lived there. I look at these kids darting from tree limbs like monkeys and feel the sting of nostalgia. I was one of those kids, learning to take risks and test boundaries.
My daughter is 4 years old and we live in New York. Here in the United States, much of her water fun is limited to gated playgrounds with carefully controlled sprinklers.
My neighborhood’s “spray pad” has limited hours during the summer school break because a lifeguard must be present at all times. A sign measuring close to her 42 inches is bolted to the gate, the capital letters sternly warning anyone who approaches: NO running. NO food. NO sneakers. The last time we went there, her four-inch plastic bucket did not make it inside, because the lifeguard added “no toys” to the list.
I complain under my breath about how excessive these rules are. The country that refuses to regulate guns and rifles is controlling children’s play in a colander-like enclosed area, where not even a puddle can form. The sign shouts instructions about ratios (maximum of three children per one adult) and “appropriate swim attire” (no basketball shorts, cutoff shorts, T-shirts or tank tops). It reminds people not to enter with diarrhea, as if I’d want to splash around in public in my bathing suit with my preschooler if either one of us had the runs.
My daughter, minus her yellow bucket, is permitted inside just before the lifeguard cuts the line off. The maximum number of children has been reached. Her hair is barely wet by the time the first whistle goes off. The lifeguard sits up in his folding chair, wags his index finger sideways at a toddler boy in blue swim trunks with a picture of a shark. “No running!” he yells. The boy stops, gives his mom a concerned look.
Like all parents, I value children’s safety above all. As a ship captain’s daughter who grew up a rock’s throw from the sea, I’m aware of the dangers of water — its unpredictability and force, its ability to render us powerless. But I find the spray pad’s rules over-the-top considering water can’t accumulate in such a small space dotted with drainage holes.
Soon, the sprinklers are turned off. The lifeguard is due for a 15-minute break. He ushers the kids out, locks the steel doors behind him with a metal chain. Moms and nannies wrap children in hooded towels. They drip with water, press their little toes on the rubbery floor to make footprints.
Being a Croatian parent in America is, in many ways, parenting between the extremes of two cultures. In my Croatian hometown, which I left at age 13 when it was on the verge of war, the city has yet to fix parts of a decades-old rail hugging a pedestrian path, where little ones could slip under and tumble on the rocks below. Cigarette butts dot the surface of one playground; another has broken equipment with rusty nails sticking out.
Meanwhile, in my adopted hometown of New York, I spend 10 minutes signing forms before my daughter can play with puzzles and dolls for an hour in an indoor cafe. I have initialed more waivers, disclaimers and permission slips in the past four years than the previous three decades combined.
At play spaces and children’s birthday parties, employees bark rules about socks, shoes, snacks, sharing, water bottles, name tags, lines and indoor voices. Even as an adult, I can barely keep up with all the instructions. During a visit to a public pool, I rehearsed the rules with another mom as our line inched closer to the entrance gate. I made it past the stages involving lockers, dress codes and showers, but was reprimanded in the final round because my daughter’s 12-ounce water bottle was orange, not clear.
Regardless of how many cultures are involved in child rearing, I imagine many parents are trying to strike a balance between safety and freedom. We question whether we are too soft or too hard on our kids, whether we are helicopter parents or free-range parents. We wonder if our sons and daughters should be more careful or more independent.
My husband is American and our daughter is a product of two cultures, as am I. I lived in Croatia until I was 13, but have spent most of my adult life in New York. Like many immigrants, I straddle multiple countries — building my family and career on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, while feeling the motherland’s nostalgic pull from the other side.
Since becoming a parent, the stark contrast between these two worlds has come into sharper focus for me. As I shift from one place to the other, I adjust my parenting from Croatia’s at-your-own-risk mentality to America’s rigid rules-based system. In Dubrovnik, I may warn my daughter to be on the lookout for that rusty nail jutting out of the seesaw. In New York, I admit to her that some rules don’t make sense.
As a parent, I strive for equilibrium, but what happens when our societies haven’t found the middle ground? I want my child to learn to follow rules, but I think it’s also important that she learns to advocate for change and speaks up when rules should be challenged. I work in human rights and understand that not all policies serve their purpose. Some have been dismantled for a reason, creating more justice and freedom in the process.
I hope my daughter notices the disparity between these extremes and finds a place where she can feel both safe and liberated. A place where she can find her comfort zone. A place that feels like home, or that she can help turn into one.
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