author bio


Josip Novakovich

When you are a parent, you experience childhood all over again, and you inevitably compare your child’s and yours. I am sure I would find great differences in the childhoods of two of my kids and mine even if mine had taken place in the States, like theirs, on account of different technological and urban set-ups some forty years later. My childhood took place in one location only, Daruvar, Croatia. My children’s, to begin with, is taking place in several locations, mostly in the States. I have a strong sense of home and they don’t. Moreover, I was a low-maintenance child. My parents let me run into the yard in the morning, called me to have lunch, and let me out again. I didn’t require lessons, toys, or extra rooms. I was a cheap kid, and a superfluous one—there were six children before my birth, and two died.

Space & Safety

In the middle of the day, I could run away from home into the forests outside of my hometown, Daruvar, and stay there without causing any alarm. My brother, a friend of his, and several other kids and I often stayed in the forest for almost a full day playing Robin Hood, or Tarzan, or cowboys and Indians, or Germans and Partisans. If my brother and I didn’t show up by midnight, my father and mother would be worried, but before eleven, the only reason my mother expressed alarm at our absence was that the dinner would not only get cold but also spoiled.

The town in which we grew up was totally safe, and even if it wasn’t, we weren’t aware of threats and neither were parents. So, for example, sex offenders and child molesters weren’t a topic. In a way, pedophiles were in demand as we didn’t have much sex education. If you needed to know anything about sex, you could find some old men to help you out. My father’s assistants, who made wooden clogs, introduced me to the concepts of erections, semen, pubic hair, and so on, and it never crossed my mind nor theirs that there was anything abusive or nasty; and actually, not even now does any of it strike me as such. Once, in a park, an old man called me to his bench and described to me what his favorite position in sex was. I didn’t understand the picture he painted in words so he made a drawing for me. It seemed totally bizarre but I remembered it, even years later, as something mostly humorous and curious, certainly not as abuse. I suppose if an old man were stopping boys in the park in the States to explain sexual positions he’d be treated as a molester. The old man didn’t touch me, and I suppose he was merely lonely, and maybe he didn’t have enough money to go to a bar and have sexual reminiscences.

That’s a little different from how the issue is treated here. My daughter goes to a well-protected suburban school. For a while side doors were unlocked and you could walk in, but one mother, having seen a program on child molesters, went online and found out that there were quite a few registered molesters in the five-mile radius. She alarmed the principal, and now the school is a fortress protecting the innocent from sexual predators. The kids may not even know why and from what they are protected but to me their entry to the school seems like a prison visit. They are always accounted for.

Are there more molesters per capita here than there were in the former Yugoslavia in the sixties? I am not sure. But there was a different urban design there. People didn’t move. Most people stayed put in the town in which they were born. In the southern-European style, people were nearly always outdoors. In a small town of 10,000, you’d have two-thousand people walking in the streets on market days and on Saturday evenings, sometimes 3,000 people would be out there promenading. Everybody knew everybody else, at least by sight. We had police on nearly every street corner. If you did anything strange, it would most likely be seen by someone. You couldn’t get away with much, and I think that if we had people with pedophile tendencies, they must have moved to large cities, or held their tendencies in check more than is the case here. There were benefits to a tightly knit police state, and one of them was, strangely, that most of us were freer than the American kids could be. No kids were kidnapped in our town—simply unheard of. Even years later, during the war in Croatia, in 1992, on a day when there were bombing raids announced, I saw children walking home from school on a country road through the woods. Three or four 8 year olds walked, apparently carefree. How is that possible, I wondered? I have been Americanized. I couldn’t let my daughter walk through the woods by herself.

If I wanted to play with a friend, I would simply walk over and ask for the friend. We had no phone, so I’d run over, to the other end of town, and ask, Is Boro free to play? His mother might gnarl at me, You again? No, he has to do his homework. Homework? Whoever heard of such a thing? I’d reply. But if he must do it, well, I’ll do it with him.
OK, come in then, she’d say. And we’d jump out the window into the woods.

While I had the freedom of medium-range space—the run of the town—I didn’t travel much, certainly not as much as my kids do. My son went to Paris with us when he was 2, to Russia when he was 3, and to Mexico when he was 4.  Later, he could circle all the capitals of Europe on the map where he’d been to by the age 9. I went abroad for the first time when I was fifteen, to Trieste, Italy. There were so many goods, motorcycles, and rock records that my eyes grew bloodshot by the end of the day from the virus of Western greed which attacked my eyes. I didn’t even believe that abroad existed until then.

It still strikes me as strange that such a mobile nation as America can keep kids on a leash so strongly. A kid can’t leave his parents’ sight anywhere, not even for a block in the streets of a relatively small town.  I know that is something new even for Americans. Forty years ago, kids could bike away from home but not these days. When I was ten, I could bike thirty miles away from home, to a cookie factory in Bjelovar, and there was no problem with that other than that my uncle, who saw me on a steep incline, came to complain to my father that I was overexerting myself and that if he allowed me to keep doing it I would no doubt develop a heart condition.



Our freedom was such that, for example, when my older brother Ivo, at age 11, wanted to see a soccer match in Belgrade, in a different republic, he told me to tell mother about it only when he was already gone. He went to the train station, bought a ticket, and went to Belgrade to root for Red Star in a big match. He couldn’t afford a ticket, but soccer hooligans, who were enthusiastic that they had such a young visitor from far away, got him in. They gave him a big Red Star flag, and he carried it in because nobody would stop a flagger. Ivo came home two days later, and that was that. My parents were upset and worried about him but not so much that they’d gone to the police. I admit that was a little excessive, even for Yugoslavia at that time, to just take off at the age of 11, take a train to another republic and hang out with soccer hooligans. Hell, at any age that would be excessive.

When I was 10, I was fond of movies, and I’d hop on a train and go to Zagreb and see five movies a day. I stayed with an uncle of mine, who was a truck driver for the Badel company, transporting bad wine and brandy all over the federation. I’d never seen the man without a cigarette in his mouth and a cup of coffee by his side. He laughed when he saw me and told me jokes. At the time, there were no ratings for the movies, and there was no pornography, but there were movies with sex. And, though I was not interested in alcohol, I could go into a tavern and order a glass of wine, which I did when I was eleven because I had read about sailors who drank wine. The old men in the tavern laughed at me for wanting to drink but they certainly didn’t discourage me.

And when I was 13, a man invited me to a bar and ordered three glasses of cognac for me, and nobody blinked. I got home at one in the morning and later had my first hangover. Well, I won’t say that that these liberties were all great. These days, not even in Croatia, could a kid just go into a tavern and get wine. My neighbor had to buy cigarettes for his mother when he was seven years old. He’d run to the kiosk in the center of town and bring home cigarettes. The same family had a large still for making plum brandy, and I was usually invited to these festivities where all the adults got drunk and considered it a good sport to let children have a few licks.

Considering what our generation and the next one did with the federation, I can’t say that the laxness of upbringing had wonderful results but I am not sure that it’s the laxness to blame but perhaps the other areas where there was no laxness.

My kids stay away from cigarettes, alcohol, etc. I am raising them in the puritanical spirit. My first contact with American Puritanism was in the First United Church of Christ at Milford, CT. I was a divinity student at Yale at the time (don’t ask why), and this was my internship, to be a temporary assistant minister. We went out into the country with a whole bunch of kids—ranging in age from 9 – 12. I was given a free hand to organize some activities, such as chess, badminton, etc., and to me it seemed a shame that a church retreat would pass without some kind of biblical activity. I organized a Bible quiz but I knew it was hard to motivate the spoiled kids unless I came up with something enticing, which I did, in a brilliant stroke of imagination: I would give a gulp of wine to each kid who got the answer right. The enthusiasm was unbelievable. The kids strained as hard as they could and I gave them a gulp each straight out of the bottle. It was a self-sacrifice on my part, too, since the bottle was my hidden treasure to deal with the tedium of bleached Christianity in retreat. Kids knew the Bible better than I had imagined. The minister walked in on our activity, and I proudly announced how well the kids were responding to the quiz. He was amazed that I could succeed in doing something that he’d tried in vain to do for years, but when he learned what my pedagogical method was, he freaked out. He said we should pray that nobody brought up a law-suit against us. The only defense we had was a Republican kind: ignorance. I didn’t know. Nobody had been knowledgeable enough to get tipsy on the Bible, and the stir caused by my purely biblical method of inspiring children stunned me. In my home church in Croatia, everybody was allowed to drink from the Holy Communion chalice. Usually very strong Zinfandel— of admittedly low quality and overly sweet— was served,; and after my Baptism, I was free to take a liberal gulp in the Communion. It never crossed anybody’s mind to question the chemistry of salvation. If it was good for 80 year olds, it was good for 12 year olds.

Instruments of Play


My kids have had a thousand toys. Childhood is all about play, and hunger for play. A kid can play all day long. Our play in Croatia cost nothing. I made toys out of wood. As a clog maker, my father had a wood carving workshop and I learned how to use knives and adzes, and rasps, so I made my swords out of wood, and slings out of hide, bows and arrows out of young trees I cut in the park (once a forester chased me all the way home on foot to complain to my parents about my damaging the forest). I had only one teddy bear when I was sick, in a hospital, but I never got to be close to the teddy bear because we got a cat and I slept with the cat, who served as my creature comforter. I did get a little helicopter when I had my tonsils taken out (I learned early on that it pays to be sick), but I took it apart right away to see how it worked.
In terms of technological courage, I was a total coward compared with my kids. They navigated DVDs, computer games, and digital cameras since toddlerhood, adeptly and bravely. In my case, if I touched a camera, I’d be warned not to dare touch it again lest I break the precious apparatus. The warning sometimes took the form of blows to the head as technological goods were precious and mental conditions deteriorated inevitably anyhow, so a bit of concussion here and there would make no difference, and it actually might serve good ends: education and good manners (which is to say, fear of the Lord—the dictator Tito—and of anything important).

We didn’t have a phone or TV, so when I had to make my first phone call at the age of 16, I was all in a flutter and trepidation. I thought that unless I said the appropriate words at the right time, the connection would be lost and something terrible would happen—the post office might charge me extra, or take me aside for a lecture and public shaming. What a hick I was! My kids grew comfortable with phones at the age of one.

Reverence for the Aged


I may be wrong about this, but my impression is that I was trained early on to respect the elders and to stay quiet around them while they talked. They were a source of entertainment. As there was no TV in the house, my grandmother and uncles, whenever they visited, received full attention. I sat in a corner, in the second row, while in the front row around the table sat adults; and I listened, eager to hear everything about how they all lived, what strange things were happening in the world. An uncle, when he came back from Germany (the West) regaled us all evening with stories of how strange German bread was, how white, and how it could be stored in plastic sacks for days and still be soft and moist a week later. Our bread, which was practically whole wheat, struck us as inferior. Now, if an elder visits, my kids go to their rooms to play computer games, or go out to shoot arrows, or want to watch TV, but it doesn’t seem to cross their minds that they might hear anything interesting from the elders. We are all basically old farts to them, and no story-telling is expected of us. In fact, they don’t need the aged.

The American style of ghettoizing people according to ages starts early, with the attitude that only the peers matter. My kids are ready for college—to hang out with other 18 year olds, when they get there, and later, probably, to hang out only with other 80 year olds in retirement homes. In Croatia until recently there were no retirement homes. People stayed home with one of their children, and sometimes you’d have four generations under the same roof.



Kids these days have their teeth cleaned, straightened, and even root-canals treated, space-retainers inserted for the sake of the shape of the jaw, and of course, the braces if all that fails. Americans can be cesspools of vaginal and penal bacteria and viruses, but nevertheless their mouths will shine from a mile away. There’s this tremendous oral fixation in this country. When I was a kid in Croatia, kids were expected to have rotten teeth, the first set anyhow, and by the time the second set came in, usually it was too late to maintain a good oral environment. We were not a smiley culture anyhow, so visually it didn’t matter whether we could flash light from our mouths like friendly dragons the way American kids are trained to do. Actually, when I got to this country, my first impression was that there was something highly spacey about the people here—how the hell could they smile that much? And why did they have such large teeth? And so many of them? Did Americans bite? I’d never heard this expression before: have a dental day (meaning, smile) until my friend Steve in Cincinnati used it. Dental day in Croatia would be a cause for alarm. My kids brush their teeth with their electric brushes, and I must say, I envy them. They will not need to have a dental life they way I did. For example, in Novi Sad I had to have a triple root canal done, and the oral surgeons tied me to the chair with ropes and proceeded to work on me without pain killers. I had never experienced such pain before or after.



What is life without clean socks? My kids have tons of socks. If a hole appears, a new pair is bought. In my case, I had darned socks, endlessly repaired. Not that I darned them myself—I was a brat, too; my mother did that.



I had few, and I read them for hours and days. They have many and read them rarely and briefly. I read books late into the night and slept late. That was possible as school took place in two shifts (to use the space at the school most effectively)—morning and afternoon. I attended school in the afternoon. In the winter we went home in the dark, through a park which surrounded the school, yet I don’t remember any incidents of harm done to any of us. At any rate, I could sleep late and needed that after the quiet hours of reading. My kids stay up to watch movies and they don’t like to get up early. The bio-rhythm is the same.

Drawing and Music


My daughter loves to paint but she is as messy as I was—so it’s too complicated for her to paint and she ends up drawing. Music—I had lessons with a military conductor who slammed me on the knuckles whenever I strayed from the pitch. He died of a heart attack and my lessons ended. Although my father was a phenomenally talented musician, I wasn’t, but both of my kids are. It seems music talent is like a recessive gene in a plant—it skips a generation. Of course, that can’t be quite true, considering the Bach family. Anyway, my son is swept into the world of music—he displayed a talent even as a toddler on our piano, and later got music lessons, first Suzuki, and then classical. He attends the Perlman music camp, wins competitions in his age group in Croatia and the Pittsburgh area, and clearly could have a career outlined already at the age of 12. Something so systematic seemed impossible in my small hometown. No kids from our town ended up in major soccer clubs, let alone concert halls.


I wonder how I ever made it out of the Socialist back-country, a little town, what people in Croatia would call Vukojebina (Wolf-fuck-ville) to raise such cosmopolitan kids—yet strangely enough, it’s hard for me to say that my childhood was less interesting than theirs, and perhaps I even have a bit of the old worldly arrogance to imagine that there’s decay rather than progress in how the young are raised here and now (even if they are mine), compared with there and then. Yes, isn’t that the usual prejudice of the older toward the younger, to see the decline of morals and of vigor?

By some measure, the kids are actually becoming more intelligent than we, the older generation, were at their age. That can be tested—they score better on the average on all sorts of tests such as SATs. The tests can be contested—the new generation studies for tests while they were supposed to be basically taken cold; that was the old approach. But one test has an objective and uncontestable measure—they are fatter than we were. And they are fatter probably because of the global Americanization of lifestyles.

* * *

A year has passed since my writing the above. In the meanwhile I visited Croatia and talked with a childhood friend of mine about the beauties of our childhoods, and he didn’t share my view. He said, “I wish you were right, but unfortunately, we did have certified pedophiles in our alcoholic town, and one of them was my uncle! You simply lucked out in not having any nasty encounters.” 

So obviously it’s hard to generalize, and I have to moderate my views, understanding that there can always be exceptions, but I will stick with some generalizations. When I read that American Pediatric Association recommends that children get one hour of physical activity a day, stating that hardly any children do, I remember that nobody needed to issue such statements in Yugoslavia when I was a child. If anything, the warnings went the other way.

I do admire some aspects of the new childhood lifestyles, such as the technological genius that pervades the new generations as well as the variety of activities which many kids pursue. My son is playing the cello right now, and he’s doing it much better than I played the violin, partly because children are treated as such precious individuals rather than as inferior members of the family as they were during my days when the idea of paying for a lesson was outrageous. Now not paying for lessons amounts to child abuse in the views of many parents. I certainly wish I had been tutored in music and chess and sports. Playing music daily does take discipline, so I can’t say that as a kid overall I was superior to my kids, but definitely that I grew up very differently.

I hope that there will be enough oxygen around so that when they grow up our kids can have kids who will be free to breathe and run. The kids of our kids will no doubt also have very different childhoods from our children. Let’s hope the human ecosystems last for us to see how childhoods change in yet another generation.


Author Bio

josip.jpg (3756 bytes)
Jeanette Novakovich

Josip Novakovich  is the author of April Fool's Day (2004) as well as three short-fiction  collections, most recently Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust (2005). He is  the winner of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts  grant, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. A resident of  central Pennsylvania, he teaches at Penn State.

See also 'Night Guests' by Josip Novakovich in TBR 53 and 'Spleen' in this issue