Friday, May 6, 2011

The Little Engine Whose Mom Hoped It Could

Over the past week or two, Holly’s interest in biking has caught fire. Early in the season, she cast aside her beginner’s two-wheeler in favor of Tim’s larger, outgrown bike, delighted by the extra power its greater size and number of gears gave her. Since then we’ve taken about a half-dozen rides a mile or so up and down the road.

Yesterday afternoon she asked again to go for a bike ride. Holly was in the mood to try something a little more ambitious than our usual aimless jaunts, and I wanted to see what she could do, so I suggested we ride into the town center. It’s a little less than three miles, and not a difficult route, though the last mile is along a fairly busy road. But it wasn’t yet rush hour.

The ride into town went well. Holly pedaled steadily and cheerfully. At the general store in town, I bought her a cookie, and we sat out on the store’s porch while she ate it.

The ride home was more difficult for her, though. I think she just burned out. She whined and fussed and eventually cried about how hard it was. She stopped often to rest.

I knew I had myriad options for how to handle it. I could be a cheerleader, trying to boost her spirits by emphasizing how well she’d done on the ride already and how I was absolutely certain she could do the rest. (I wasn’t.) I could cajole, urging her to give it her best shot. Or I could do the opposite: point out she had agreed to the ride, she had already made it one way, and she needed to be a good sport and push herself a little to make it home.

If one of these was the right answer, I certainly didn’t know which one. So I didn’t do any of them. I just rode behind her, listened to her complaints, told her in as objective way as possible – neither cheering nor cajoling nor scolding – that I was fairly sure she could finish the ride, and waited it out.

The last third of the route is the easiest part. Once we reached that section of road, she stopped whining and wiping away tears; she coasted along and seemed to cheer up. When we arrived home, I knew once again that there were all sorts of approaches I could take – making a big fuss over the accomplishment; pointing out that she’d overcome the challenges and triumphed; trying to make an object lesson out of the fact that we’d completed the ride we set out to do.

But again, I opted for none of the above. Just as earlier in the ride I’d figured whatever strength Holly needed to finish the ride had to come from within her and not from me cheering, cajoling or scolding, once it was over I believed her sense of pride and accomplishment also needed to come from herself and not from me. So I told her I was glad we’d gone for the ride, but we didn’t discuss it much further than that. We went inside and started getting ready for dinner.

This was just one of the many times that I knew I had a lot of options but I simply had no idea which one was best. All of those approaches are tacks I’ve taken at some point in my parenting history, and I know each one sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

But it seemed to me no matter what that I couldn’t go wrong by stepping back and letting Holly’s own inner voice guide her: first in telling her she could probably complete the ride, and then in making her feel a sense of pride in having done it. The Little Engine That Could didn't have a mother engine urging her along either; the strength came from within.

Holly had cheered up to her usual self by the time we sat down to dinner. She was tired by bedtime, but not unhappy. There are so many approaches to parenting challenges. It’s hard sometimes to remember that sometimes the best approach is no approach at all. I don’t actually know where Holly found the motivation to finish the ride, or how she felt once she had. We just went along with our day and didn’t have much discussion about it. But however she did it, my guess is she’ll be able to draw on the same method again. And that surely beats any amount of praising or cajoling I could possibly muster.

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