Our oldest took his first bike ride without training wheels this weekend.
He’s 9, which is old for that step I guess, but our house isn’t the most conducive to practicing bicycle riding and he had never been particularly motivated to pick it up, so it was no big deal … this year, though, he and little sister have the bug and we’ve been going to the local soccer field and doing laps in the parking lot.
(By the way, and just as an aside, the build quality on kids’ bikes is garbage. It feels like we can hardly go five minutes without a pedal unscrewing itself (seriously, what engineering genius threaded it so that it spins WITH the natural pedaling motion instead of AGAINST) or the chain jumping a tooth on the gear and falling off (that one I *might* attribute to the sprout’s bombastic way of “crashing” when he wants to stop…. he’s not exactly gentle on the machine).)
So we’ve been going out for several weeks, and they’re gaining in confidence, like they do, as he’s riding on the training wheels. And the training wheels are … they’re this double-edged sword, right? They keep you from losing your balance and falling over entirely, but they also inhibit the natural function and physics of the bicycle. (It’s impossible to take a sharp turn at any speed greater than a crawl, because on a bicycle you have to lean into the turn, and … well, the trainers don’t allow you to lean.)
This is the training wheels problem: they allow you to do a thing that you may not yet have the skill to do, but they don’t give you the full experience of the thing. If you lean on them too long, they actually stop you from getting better.
And I’m watching, and he’s getting surer and surer of himself, and I’m watching, and on this last pass around the parking lot, the trainers don’t touch down on the ground even once. So, okay, it’s time for those things to come off.
I tell him so.
I’m not ready, dad. I still need them. I’m gonna crash. I can’t keep my balance yet.
“You *are* ready, kid. I watched you ride a hundred yards without using them… you just can’t feel it. You’re ready.”
I’m not, dad. Please don’t take them off. I need to use them for a few more weeks.
This is where parenting gets weird, because you want to respect the kid’s wishes, and what’s a few more weeks? If it’ll make him feel better, what’s the big deal? But you also know things the kid can’t know — namely that these things are doing him more harm than good at this point — so what do you do?
In my case, I tell him.
“Nah, buddy. Next time we come out here, those things are coming off.”
He thinks it over.
Okay, well, if you’re going to take them off next time, can I try just once without them, with you helping me?
“What, right now?”
As the cool kids say these days? BET. I’ve got the ol’ crescent wrench in the van. I whip them thangs off lickety-split. His eyes get big as they clatter to the ground. (I don’t bother setting them down gently; I let them fall dramatically, and allow them to make a ton of noise, because I’m theatrical like that.) I walk the bike over to him.
“All right. Hop on. I’ve got you.”
Don’t let go, okay?
And here’s the lie every parent in this situation tells their kid: “You bet.”
He starts to pedal, I give him a little push, and immediately let him go. He takes off like a shot, loops around the parking lot. I jog to keep up, but it’s never in doubt; he’s 100% dialed-in. He zooms. He leans. He doesn’t crash, not even close. And from there, it’s a total reversal of energy:
Did you see me? Wasn’t that awesome? Did you see how fast I went? Were you watching me lean? I didn’t think I could do it, but then I did it!
This is not exactly a subtle metaphor. It gets re-used all the time, nowhere so heavy-handedly, or adorably, as in Onward, the most recent Pixar film to make me cry. Ian, the younger brother, is learning to use magic, but he lacks confidence along with knowledge. His brother, Barley, knows all about magic but can’t use it. The two need to cross a chasm, and this can only be accomplished by means of magic, so Barley convinces young Ian to try out a levitation spell with the assurance that he’ll keep a rope tied around the young man’s waist, just in case the spell fails. Well, the spell works, and the rope runs out of slack and comes untied, and Ian makes it to the other side entirely out of the safe grasp of his brother… and realizes, safe on the other side (okay, he falls a little bit because movies gotta complicate everything), that he didn’t need the support at all.
And this is the way, right? We use these safeties to teach kids how to do things, and then we slowly take the constraints away. This is education 101. Heck, it’s even how we do bowling with little kids now: those bumpers on the sides of the lanes? They’re just training wheels to keep you from throwing a gutter ball every time you take the line, to give you the kick of knocking some pins over, that dopamine hit to bring you back to the line and throw it a little bit better next time, until you don’t need them at all anymore.
We use training wheels, like we use all safety constructs, to keep ourselves from crashing too hard when we’re learning a thing… but who’s there to tell us when to take them off? When you learn new things as an adult, most of the time you’re learning them on your own. And maybe you put your own “training wheels” in place to one degree or another.
But if you want to really ride, you have to take them off sooner or later. Because we all know that riding a bike with trainers on isn’t really riding a bike. Somebody riding a bike with training wheels is capable of so much more.
Where, in our lives, are we relying on training wheels without even knowing it?
And what would we be capable of, if we just had somebody to take our training wheels off?