Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Holly learns to ride a bike!

As of today, Holly can ride a two-wheeler! After a few sessions earlier in the summer that yielded mixed results, we took her up to the paved track on Saturday, at which time she picked up the ability to stay balanced and ride in a straight line -- she just couldn't start or stop very well. Yesterday, she and I went back to the track along with Holly's friend Samantha, who is almost exactly her age and very similar to her in terms of developmental skills, and they both practiced until they were both riding nearly flawlessly.

It was such a pleasure to watch both Holly and Samantha develop these abilities literally before our eyes. On the one hand, Samantha's mom -- my friend Nancy (coincidentally, I have lots of friends named Nancy) -- and I were so proud of their intensity and their courage in persisting until they could do what they set out to do, and we're both excited at the thought of future bike rides sans the tagalong attachment we've both lugged along behind us for the past half-decade or more. But we also commented on the vicarious thrill of imagining what it must feel like to develop such a remarkable ability as riding a bike. So soon after acquiring the skill, we take it for granted. Even Tim has commented on the curious fact that he doesn't need to think about balancing on a bike; as soon as you learn, it just happens effortlessly. But remember that initial feeling, a combination of balancing and soaring? The sense of "I can't believe this is possible...and I can't believe I'm the one doing it?"

"It would be like if we suddenly developed the ability to fly," I commented to Nancy. "Doesn't it seem like it would be that same kind of thrill, that sense of liberation from the usual constraints of gravity?"

I'm so happy for Holly, but I also learned something from my part of the equation. Rick did the heavy lifting, the early biking lessons when he had to hold her up, dash behind her and catch her as she fell. I didn't get involved until she could balance on her own and really just needed help with lift-off. But what I learned during the two days I spent helping her learn to start and stop was eye-opening in its own way. I kept offering her advice: "Make sure your front tire is facing forward. Pedal fast so you pick up some momentum. Get your pedal in ready position before you start." And she kept shrieking at me, "Stop telling me what to do! Let me just do it my way!" At first I attributed this to anxiety; she was frustrated wtih how long it was taking so she needed to vent the frustration by lashing out at me. But then I started to see it as something else. Maybe she was right. Maybe she really didn't need my advice at all. Maybe my advice wasn't actually going to help her learn any faster than if she just figured it out for herself.

After all, it wouldn't take too many launches with the front tire turned at a sharp angle before you realized that the process worked better with the tire straight, and it probably wouldn't take too much trial and error before you realized that pedaling fast made balancing easier. So maybe it wasn't just the need to yell at someone; maybe Holly really wasn't benefiting from my suggestions. Maybe this was something her own body needed to figure out on its own, physically, viscerally, not through my explaining it to her. And that may be a lesson that carries through at other times too, times that I want to explain things to her and she wants to just live through them and figure it out through trial and error.

Years ago, when my niece Phoebe was five or six, I remember accompanying her and her father, my brother-in-law Bob, to the cul-de-sac behind our house so that she could try out her new in-line skates. At first, her attempts appeared to me to be disastrous. Not only was she slipping and crashing and tottering and tumbling; she yelled at her father at every possible opportunity. "This doesn't seem like it's working very well," I commented mildly to Bob, but he was wiser. "Just wait," he said. "This is exactly how Phoebe picks up every new skill. She attacks it, you think it's never going to come together for her, and she takes out her frustration by yelling at me. Then all of the sudden...." And as he said those words, we both saw Phoebe gliding toward us, then accelerating, turning, and coming to a picture-perfect stop. "Like that," Bob finished.

I'm not sure I want to always be the sacrificial lamb in this scenario. I'm not sure I'm willing to be shrieked at by Holly every time she needs to learn a new skill. But I'm still delighted that she's biking now, and I'm wiser to the fact that my long-winded explanations of what she should do were useless to her. I gave her the opportunity to try -- I pumped up her tires, strapped on her knee guards and elbow pads and brought her up to the track -- and then she ultimately figured it out on her own.

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