Several years ago, just before our son turned 4, we decided to buy him a bike for his birthday. His group of friends were all biking (albeit most with training wheels) and he’d made a passing comment one time as a side note that maybe he’d like to ride a bike.
We jumped on that like it was the truthiest truth he’d ever spoken. We immediately started looking at bikes (Ninja Turtles!) and bike helmets (Ninja Turtles!). My husband put together that little bike days before Finn’s birthday and we shoved it in the back of a closet. Every time the door opened, the strong smell of new rubber wafted out and I was sure Finn would try to find out what that smell was and our secret would be up before we could surprise him. But he was only about to be 4, so he remained blissfully oblivious to the glorious surprise hidden behind the closet door.
My husband could hardly contain his excitement on the morning of Finn’s birthday. In our minds, this was the moment he went from being a Little Boy to a Big Boy with a big boy bike, doing big boy things, biking around with his friends and laughing and having an awesome time. Childhood dreams coming true right before our eyes! In my fantasy, there was a soundtrack of Hollywood music with big crescendos as he biked down a hill, came careening around the sidewalk, hands in the air like Lance Armstrong.
We sat him on the coffee table in the living room and had him close his eyes tight. Four-year old excitement made him wiggly but he kept his eyes squeezed shut and my husband practically skipped up the stairs to retrieve the bike. This was the moment we’d been waiting for, the big reveal of the big kid bike we were so sure our son was dying to have. We set the bike in front of him, all shiny and Ninja Turtle-y and smelling of rubber and the promise of glorious summer afternoons to come and told our fresh little 4 year old to open his eyes.
His face fell. “Why did you even get me a bike?! I don’t want a bike!” There were almost tears (on all 3 of our parts). The great Ninja Turtle bike that we were convinced our son would love turned out to be a bust.
It turns out that our son wasn’t being ungrateful, he was scared of that bike. And he was totally not ready for it. Sure he put on a brave face once or twice that summer and tried it out, but we couldn’t let go of him, even with the training wheels. When we hung out with our friends, he was totally content to ride around on his low to the ground, 3-wheeled Big Wheel. He didn’t care that all of the other kids were biking circles around him, he was just happy to be part of the crowd.
Except, you know who cared about that? Me. I looked at all of those kids on their big kid bikes and I thought, “He’d have so much more fun if he’d just give his bike a try!” I’d push him to get on his bike; he’d wobble, he’d cry, he’d beg me not to let go and my frustration would mount. Why wasn’t he trying harder? Why didn’t he just trust that he can do it? Why are all of those other kids riding their bikes, and Finn avoids his like it’s a death machine? I know he can do it! I relinquished bike teaching to my husband, I told him I didn’t have the patience for it; I didn’t want to argue with a 4 year old on the sidewalk in front of our house. I didn’t want to have to push that bike home from the park – again – while he dragged his feet next to me, pouting the whole way home and refusing to get on his bike.
This went on for years. We put the bike up in the garage for the winter, thinking the following summer he’d be bigger, more confident, ready to get on that bike and ride with his buddies. But spring came, and then summer and still he refused to ride his bike. He happily drove his Big Wheel to the library. When we needed to bike to swimming lessons last summer, I put a 5 (almost 6) year old and a 1 year old in the bike trailer and I biked them on the trails to the high school because we had to get there and my son refused to ride his own bike. 70+ pounds of combined kid weight behind my bike on the hills of Two Harbors caused some pretty intense feelings of resentment. Why couldn’t my kid just get it together and ride his own bike?!
I decided, on a particularly hot day after a very sweaty bike ride to the high school for swimming lessons, to let it go. What kind of mom pushes her kid repeatedly to do something because she wants him to do it not because he wants to do it? And why did I want him to ride his bike so badly? Because all of the other kids were doing it? Because his life would be so much more fulfilled and rich if he was biking to the library or to swimming lessons on 2 wheels? Or was it because I felt like I needed to “keep up with the Joneses,” to prove that my kid was just as good, just as advanced, as the other kids because he’s meeting this imaginary bike-riding milestone just like everyone else?
Nail on the head: I wanted him to ride his bike so that I felt like I was excelling at parenting because “all the other kids” were doing it. Except, my kid is not all the other kids. He’s stubborn, sure, but he’s also very cautious, quite sensitive, a little bit of a perfectionist, and he does things when he’s good and ready and not one moment sooner.
When we got home that afternoon, I told my husband we were going to forget about the bike for the rest of the summer. I’d leave it in the garage and if Finn brought it up or asked to ride it, we’d get on it and practice, but if he didn’t give it a second glance, no big deal. We spent the rest of the summer riding around on that 3-wheeled Big Wheel. I embraced his fast skills on the hills, I encouraged him to ride around the block when we took our afternoon walk. And he did not get on that Ninja Turtle bike for the rest of the summer. When we put his bike up in the garage last fall, I thought maybe our boy was just not a biker. Maybe biking was not going to be his thing.
Last week, when it was clear that the snow was gone for good, I suggested that we pull his bike down and head over to the parking lot a block over to practice biking. Finn resisted at first; he had a reason (read: excuse) as to why he didn’t want to get on his bike, my favorite being that his legs were too, too dehydrated and needed to rest. I didn’t push it and finally, a few days later, he asked to go to the church parking lot and practice. You can bet I dropped all the things I was doing and within 5 minutes we had walked that bike over to the church parking lot. After a few false starts (him), and some deep breathing exercises (me), he was biking wobbly circles around the parking lot, which led to biking down the sidewalk; which turned into taking a long bike ride over the weekend. Literally, within 3 days he figured out he could do it – not me nagging him that he could do it – and now I can’t get him off of his bike. He was good and ready.
There’s a lot of trust that goes into biking – trusting that your legs can propel you, that your body can balance you, and that the road will rise up to meet you. There’s also a lot of trust that goes into parenting – trusting that our patience can propel us, that we can balance what we know our small humans can do with what they are ready to do, and trusting that while the road of parenting will be full of twists and turns, if we are patient, it will always rise up to meet us just where we are.