I never learned how to ride a bicycle.
My parents weren’t negligent or anything. They’d mortgage the house (again) to support their kids’ weird, expensive interests. But I never asked them to teach me, and they never suggested it.
I didn’t feel deprived, either, because I couldn’t balance on a bike.
But then I had kids.
It’s hard enough to teach children something you know how to do. Potty training was agony, and I’m an expert at not peeing on myself. (I mean … nobody’s perfect.)
Now my children wanted me to teach them how to ride a bike, when I had no clue how to do that. I might as well teach them French or quantum physics. But parenting is one long experiment with getting comfortable outside of your comfort zone. So my kids got bikes, and I figured we’d learn by doing.
Turns out “learning by doing” involves a lot of bleeding.
In particular, my son fell a lot. And every time my kid toppled to the sidewalk, it felt like an indictment of my parenting. If I were a better father – if I’d bothered to learn this now crucial skill – my son wouldn’t have bruises on his arms and abrasions on his calves.
After each fall, he’d look at me – frustrated – and ask, “What did I do wrong?”
I couldn’t instruct, so I retreated into risk prevention. I tightened his safety wheels, told him to go slower, and suggested he wear elbow pads in addition to his helmet.
But here’s the thing about biking – and it may be the only thing I know about biking. You need momentum. If you pump the brakes every six feet, you’re going to fall. And the more you fall, the more you’ll pump the brakes. You spiral into self doubt. Soon another summer has passed, and you still have your training wheels on.
Of course, we all have to parent defensively sometimes. If we didn’t, our kids would all shove forks into electrical outlets. But our children don’t grow when we teach them to be scared. They might learn, but they don’t grow.
So this spring, my son brought his bike back out. By now, his training wheels groaned like Deebo’s clutch. I was nervous. He tried not to notice how nervous I was. Instead, he kept pedaling. He’d lap the block over and over – sometimes returning with a new bruise.
Then one day, he parked his Genesis in front of our house and said, “Dad, I think I broke my bike.”
I scanned his ride and realized he was missing one of his training wheels. I offered to go get it, but he said, “Dad, I don’t think I need it.”
I argued. He insisted. Finally, he offered to prove it.
He sped off – not wobbling at all. He was the most comfortable I’d ever seen him on his bike. After another lap, he convinced me to take off the other training wheel. We’ve never looked back.
Occasionally, the universe sends me a blatant metaphor. I needed to take off my own training wheels. Because sometimes, the mechanisms we use to protect our kids are what limit them.
In the end, I didn’t need to learn how to ride a bike. I needed to learn (or remember) how to let my kid outgrow me. It’s going to happen again and again as they get older. They’ll accumulate skills I never dreamed of having. And I don’t have to master French or quantum physics for them to learn. What I need is to encourage them (and, every so often, keep them from tumbling into a well.)
That was a difficult lesson to learn, but I’ll never forget it. Just like riding a bike.