Thursday, March 18, 2010

A bike ride, a fall, and a lesson

It was a case of felicitous happenstance that the kids had no school – a professional day – on what turned out to be a beautiful early-spring day, one of the first of the year. The sun shone and temperatures reached nearly sixty degrees. Tim went over to play at a friend’s house; Holly and I headed out for her first solo biking excursion, retracing the mile-long route via gravel footpath to the town Center that she had done many times on the tagalong attached to my bike but never on her own two-wheeler.

I was apprehensive. Holly developed her biking abilities last fall. First we practiced on a paved track, then in a nearby neighborhood with wide, flat, interlacing streets. The footpaths in our town are, by design, rough and unpaved, but this makes them challenging for small riders. The terrain is uneven and the paths wind a lot, so attention to both positioning and steering is critical. I wasn’t at all sure Holly was up to the challenge, but she insisted she wanted to try.

As I pedaled along behind her, it occurred to me that there’s really no way for a beginner to learn to ride a bike without falling a fair amount. No matter how much I coached her along, it was bound to happen. Bicyclists fall; it’s that simple. In general she seemed fairly steady and quite confident, but I knew it was inevitable that she’d take a spill at some point. There’s just no other way to develop biking skills than by practicing and trying and occasionally wiping out.

She did well heading up to the Center. On the way back, she started going a little too fast down a slight slope, lost control, and flew into the gravel. She skinned her knee and the side of her palm. She cried a lot. A police officer who happened to be driving by pulled over, lights flashing, to check on her, which I thought was very kind of him if a bit of an overreaction. For a moment, being a typical twenty-first century parent, I wondered if it was possible he’d say I was doing something wrong. Had I overlooked some obvious safety measure or allowed her in an area where she shouldn’t be biking? But he merely echoed what I had been thinking: Kids learning to ride bikes fall. There’s no way around it.

Holly and I sat on a stone wall until she felt well enough to stand up. Then she said, “I don’t want to bike anymore!”

We were just under a mile from home. “We can walk our bikes if you’d rather,” I offered.

“I want to drive!” she wailed.

I thought about it. Fetching the car wasn’t out of the question. We happened to be across the street from the home of a close friend of ours; I could park Holly there while I biked home to get the car, or I could ask her for a ride. We were also close to the library, and even though I know it’s not ideal on principle to leave kids at the library, I also knew she could rest unnoticed for fifteen minutes while I hurried home for the car.

But I also know how quick Holly is to flare up when she’s upset and how equally quick she is to calm down. Which made me suspect that if I didn’t leap in to find an elaborate solution to the problem – one that involved leaving her and her bike while I hurried home for the car and came back again to pick her up – she would soon get past the feeling that she needed a ride.

I fought the temptation to come up with a complicated solution, something that would assure that Holly would stop crying. I made myself refrain from trying to fix everything instantly. “We can’t drive; we don’t have the car,” I said calmly. “If you don’t feel like biking, why don’t we just walk our bikes for a while?”

I gave her a drink of water and dabbed off the drops of blood with a Kleenex. We started walking. After less than two minutes, she said in a very tear-worn voice, “I want to ride now.”

So we rode the rest of the way home. No more accidents; no more tears. And I had the satisfaction of knowing I’d had a chance to practice overcoming one of my faults as a parent: being too quick to try to fix things when they go wrong. I’d held back, made myself be patient, waited out Holly’s need to go home in the car. I’d suppressed my natural tendency to start making arrangements and devising solutions and generally being as proactive as possible to ensure that everyone is happy and everything works out. “We don’t have the car; let’s just start walking,” I’d said instead. And walking had worked. Walking had calmed Holly down until she was ready to ride again.

It wasn’t merely the age-old lesson of getting back on the horse – or bike – when you’re thrown off, though there was that too: certainly Holly ended the day feeling like a successful bicyclist rather than one whose first excursion had been cut short with a bad fall. And that’s an important one. But for me as a parent, it’s even more valuable to remember not everything that happens to the kids is a problem waiting for me to step in and fix it. This time, fixing wasn’t necessary; only waiting was needed. And waiting was exactly what worked.

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