Thursday, May 27, 2021

Born with a Personality

Yesterday my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia hit our neighbor’s car. We live on a steep street and she was parked nose up the hill. Our neighbor had pulled in behind her very close. Lucia was giving me a ride to a friend’s house so I was in the passenger seat. As we buckled in Lucia complained loudly about how close the neighbor had parked.

“How am I supposed to get out of here?!!!,” she half-whimpered, half-barked.

“Just take a deep breath and go step by step,” I said in my calmest voice. Nothing I say these days is right so I have to be judicious in any and all advice I give.

I watched Lucia put one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas. She slowly released the brake and pushed hard on the gas. But she was in reverse. Our car rammed loudly into our neighbor’s car behind us. Lucia looked at me with terror in her eyes. I instructed her to put the car in drive and go forward a few yards and then go check if there was any damage.

Our neighbor, hearing the crash, came outside and looked at her car with Lucia. Lucia was very apologetic, spoke directly to the neighbor and comported herself like a responsible adult. Miraculously there was no damage to our neighbor’s car. I got out of the car and joined Lucia and our neighbor. The three of us stood in the street discussing our ridiculous parking situation. Each of our households currently has three cars and our little part of the block is like musical cars, all the cars rotating into different spots, some spots more desirable than others. 

Our neighbor asked Lucia which spot she preferred. I know Lucia has a favorite. It’s the one she’d just crashed out of. But instead of telling our neighbor what her favorite was, Lucia just smiled and said, “I don’t care. Whatever is fine.”

I’ve been trying to encourage Lucia to say what she wants, to speak up for herself with her parents, in school, and with her friends. She only has two years left at home and I feel the pressure to equip her with self-advocacy skills before she’s off in the world on her own.

When we got back in the car we checked in. I asked Lucia if she was okay to drive? She said she was; it seemed like she’d put the fender bender behind her for now. I was surprised. I would have been in a semi-acute panic attack if I’d hit the neighbor’s car. I likely would not have been able to drive calmly after such an incident.

Before Lucia started the car I put my hand on her thigh and said, “Lucia, you just got asked which parking spot you preferred, a perfect opportunity to say what you want, and you didn’t take the opportunity. Why?”

“Mom,” she said sternly, “you wouldn’t have done that. You wouldn’t have said which parking spot you preferred.” And she was right. I would have done the exact thing she did. My years of being accommodating in the face of confrontation had taught her to respond the same way.

The experience got me thinking about how much our modeling as parents affects our kids. And how much it doesn’t. My friend Jamie always says, “Our kids are born with personalities.” And I think she’s right. There are elements of Lucia’s personality that have always been there. She’s radiantly calm in the face of many stressful situations — shots at the doctor, a cavity being filled at the dentist, getting her nose pierced, taking tests at school, singing a solo in front of three hundred people, and now I know, after hitting a neighbor’s car. She’s always been like that. She was born that way.

This may be my biggest lesson as a parent — that much of who my daughter is and who she will become is out of my control. I can teach her things like writing thank you cards, looking people in the eye when you make a toast, being thrifty, and making a delicious salad. And now I know I’ve also taught her to be a pleaser. But her essence, her true nature, is hers alone. It is something she was born with and will carry with her throughout her life. 

My greatest wish for my daughter is that she be happy and healthy, that she feel at home in the world and at peace with herself. As a parent, my job is to be a teacher and a guide. This car crash experience reminds me that I am also a student in this role as parent. 

From Lucia’s fender bender I understand that I have taught Lucia some good things and some not-so-good things. She’s learned to be responsible— to talk to the neighbor and apologize. And she’d learned to evade hard topics, like being direct about your preferred parking spot. 

I have always been a worrier, responding to stressful situations with an anxiety-filled panic response. Watching Lucia stay calm in the face of her mini-car-crash-crisis showed me that I haven’t taught Lucia everything I know. Thank god for that.

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