When she turned four, she got her own bike for her birthday. It’s pink, has Hello Kitty all over it, and had training wheels. She took to it right away, dragging me out into the street to watch her ride, showing off when she made it up a hill, proudly displaying her helmet and the flashing pink light on the front.
The other kids in the neighborhood, however, don’t have training wheels. They all bike faster than she does. (They’re also all older.) So she announced she was ready to take the training wheels off. I told her it would be harder, that she would need practice. Will I be able to go faster? she asked. Yes, I answered. I can keep up with the other kids? Yes, after you’re used to it. So it was decided, when she turned five, we would take the training wheels off.
A week after her birthday, I took her to a level parking lot of a church near our house, unscrewed the training wheels, and told her all she had to do was pedal.
I have never seen another human being so not able to ride a bike.
Any bystanders watching would be forgiven for guessing that my child had never before sat herself on a bicycle of any kind. She could barely bring herself to put her feet on the pedals. She couldn’t push herself forward like she had every other time she’d ever sat on it. She asked me to give her a push, which I did, but the pedals didn’t ever make it 180 degrees before she threw her feet down to the ground.
The tears started immediately. She never fell down; she didn’t try enough to even lose her balance. The tears were accompanied by exclamations of the impossibility of her ever biking and some implicit condemnations of herself for failing to ride.
I tried to reassure her that it took some time and practice. Keep at it! I encouraged her. You’ll get it, it takes practice.
Why can’t I ride it now? she wailed. What’s wrong with me? I’ll never do it! I never want to ride a bike again! When will I be able to do it?
Ten minutes of that, and I told her to pack it up, we were going home.
She was so impatient. Where on earth could she possibly get that from?
Once we’d both cooled down a little, she whimpered that she wanted me to put the wheels back on and that she would try again when she turned six. I told her that it took practice and patience. Remember when you were trying to learn to walk? I asked. She nodded. No you don’t, I said. But if you did, you would remember that you fell down. A lot. Because you weren’t born knowing how to walk; you had to learn it. No one is born knowing how to ride a bike; everyone has to learn.
She asked, When you were a kid, did you have to learn how to ride a bike?
Of course, I said. Everything I do I was once not good at. Playing guitar, cooking, driving a car – I had to learn all these things. You had to learn to walk – and to eat, and dress yourself, and use the potty. But you learned, because you did them over and over. No one does anything perfectly the first time, sweetie.
She nodded, but I don’t think she believed me. I can’t blame her; nobody believes that shit. We all expect to do it right the first time, and every time after that. Who among us is ever really a student? As an educator of adults, I feel like I spend more of my time trying to convince my students that it’s okay that they don’t know things than I do actually imparting any skills or knowledge. Perhaps that’s what education truly is at its heart: creating a safe space for a person to accept herself not knowing how to do something.
If so, I didn’t do a very good job of teaching my child to ride a bike. I was just as wrapped up as she was in seeing her do it perfectly the first time. Because, you know, riding a bike is easy for me. You just do it, right? Exactly like all the other things I learned to take for granted. Maybe the reason that none of us give ourselves permission to be learners – to truly not know something and still love ourselves – is because it is rare to be in the presence of someone who communicates that same kind of acceptance.
Subsequent bike rides have been a mix of different techniques on my part. Letting her practice without training wheels while I hold her up; putting the wheels back on but raised so that they don’t touch the ground; lots of positive affirmation when she does well; even more reassurances that she will get it one day. But the biggest change I made is working to let go of my own impatience. If I let my own ego as a parent get too tied up in how quickly my child learns to ride a bike, what will I do when she starts sports? Or brings home her first report cards? Or takes up a musical instrument?
More than anything, a child needs her parent to recognize her imperfections and still clearly love her. And to offer that to my child, I really need to offer it to myself. Which is still a work in a progress. Some days, when it comes to being patient with myself, I still need the training wheels on. But I will stick with it. I can’t parent perfectly, either, no matter how much I expect to do it just exactly right the first time and every time. I’ll stick with it, which sometimes means trying enough so I’ll lose my balance. That way I can give myself – and everyone else living in my household – the grace to not know what we’re doing all the time.