“Because he’s the ‘Daddy,’” said Diva, as she held up her tiny fingers to make air quotes. The Hubby and I were thunderstruck, not by whatever point she was trying to make, but by the fact that our 5 year-old was using air quotes. We burst out laughing, partly from shock, partly from nervousness as we both wondered: What have we created?
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you: kids come out of the womb with personality. You can try to channel their innate gifts and work with their temperaments, but you cannot actually change who they are for love nor money. Parents who try to make a child in their own image are doomed to disappointment and chagrin. (Just ask my mother.) The single bit of child-rearing advice that I’ve most repeated to new parents is this: Love the one you’re with.
Diva has been a Diva since she was born. She spent the first six months of her life wearing one of only two expressions: her brow furrowed as she eyed each new thing like someone sizing up an opponent; or her eyes sparkling, as she beamed a double-dimple smile that attracted the praise of complete strangers and seemed to net her endless freebies (in restaurants, in stores, even on airplanes). There wasn’t much middle ground in her personality, which was offered a hint about who she’d become once she skipped by crawling and started walking at 10 months. Since then, she’s always either been fully on or fully off. “On” means ceaseless running, climbing, dancing, singing, bouncing, or—in the quieter moments—directing whoever is nearest in elaborate pretend play scenarios. “Off” means sleeping so deeply that we can pick up her slumbering body (which may well have made a loop around her bed) and move it into safer position without her even noticing. Even asleep, she’s in motion.
That is all nature, not nurture. I’m not athletic in any fashion, despite my brief career in Little League as a player so bad the town let my coach assign me a fake position (deep right field). And my summers as the world’s most overweight lifeguard are now two decades behind me. The Hubby is a cyclist, which even he admits is the way nerdy guys make themselves feel butch and cool, but he not only plays no sports, he cannot follow the rules of any. But Diva could hit a baseball and kick a soccer ball by age three, and now claims to like basketball best, which is grand since she’s a beanpole. (Clearly, she got none of my DNA.) I still remember the moment The Hubby realized how sporty she was and turned to me, horrified, moaning, “Oh my god—are we going to have to go games?” (Yes, dear. Bring a book.)
Accepting her as she is and embracing that does not mean we have no influence on our own child. Nurture does actually rear its head from time to time, as in the case of her musicality. I started singing in public at age 5—my grandmother being the church choir director—and was a self-styled singer-songwriter all through high school, a budding balladeer who sang mostly about love or the coming apocalypse. I even went to college on music scholarship—a deal which lasted three semesters until the department finally noticed I wasn’t actually a music major. The Hubby is also musical: he plays piano and sings (in lusty, key-defying fashion) all the time: in the car or while cooking or doing laundry or at the beach or [fill in the blank]. Between us, we are perpetually making up lyrics to songs about the minutiae of our lives.
I am doubtful that there is a strand of DNA with a Sondheim marker, but this is where nurture kicks in: Diva has lived all five years of her life hearing improvised songs about the mail, her meals, the weather, the poodle’s behavior, and even her dad’s gassiness. The girl grew up in rhyme and you can tell: she’ll sing us her opinions and complaints, make up elaborate songs with hooks and refrains and bridges. If Daddy starts a song about kibble in the kitchen, Diva is likely to usurp my old role, throwing in her own verses from the dining room, and woe be to the dad who does not make the next line rhyme. This, I love.
But I am less crazy to discover how well we have modeled another behavior pattern: sarcasm. A five year-old does not learn air quotes from PBS—she learns them from listening to her dads as they mock politicians or fake people we’ve encountered (and who knows what else). And sarcasm comes with more than just hand motions. This girl can already say, “Fine”—air quotes implied—with such irritated fatigue that she sounds like a true pro. Until Diva began saying the word this way, The Hubby hadn’t realized how often he uses “fine” to mean “it’s not fine but I’m sick of discussing this so I’ll just give in if it means you’ll shut up.”
What can I say? We’re not cruel people and our hearts are not at all shriveled, but, really, sarcasm is pretty much like breathing for liberal northerners with advanced degrees earned in the irony-soaked 1990s, which may well have been the Golden Age of Air Quotes. That was the time period in which you could practically major in eye-rolling, with a specialty in double entendre, and graduate summa cum snarky. Parenting (not to mention turning 40) has helped dull the cutting edge we Gen X’ers once honed so carefully, but sarcasm is still built into the way The Hubby and I tease each other or wage arguments. And now it’s part of daughter’s vocabulary.
We had to hold a family talk about this around the dinner table (where most capital-T Talks take place). In so doing, we admitted that sarcasm isn’t the nicest way to express an opinion and that sometimes it’s downright hurtful. Diva, of course, leapt on this: it’s very exciting when one’s dads acknowledge that they’ve been misbehaving. Now that we have shared language with her to describe when she is being too mocking or rude, she can do the very same thing to us when we are. I guess this is progress: we’re all going to have to watch our mouths. We’ll see who learns fastest.
Hopefully, as nature and nurture battle to shape the girl who will someday be a fully-grown Diva, the things we do right will outweigh the things we do wrong. And when she looks back on her childhood, I hope she thinks it really was fine (air quotes not included).