Friday, August 1, 2008

A Tale of Two Riders

Two weeks ago, P and I admitted some parental panic to each other. We were invited by some new friends to their pool club for a swim and casual dinner. The boys were most excited to get into the water, but C and S became instantly dismayed when they learned that they couldn't go in with their noodles (against pool rules). F, happily strapped into his floatie vest, didn't mind in the least so walked right down the stairs and bobbed away for the next hour, swallowing a fair share of pool water. However, the twins were sort of panicked. They had grown comfortable in the water-- or so we thought. It turns out that they had grown comfortable with the idea that their long orange and pink noodles were buoyant and would actually hold them up in water. Without them, the boys had no confidence that they could actually float. The grabbed at P and me. They grabbed at the wall. Their two new classmates dove and splashed around them, but the boys could not even begin to imagine that they could swim.

This event suddenly became significant for me. My boys can't swim. We had done some swimming lessons, but clearly, P and I had not been on top of it enough. Heck, the truth was that they hardly spent any time in water in the past two summers. How were they supposed to learn to swim without spending time in the water? And while we were going down that road-- the boys couldn't ride bikes or catch a baseball or a myriad of other physical things I was doing when I was six, that kids around us seem to be doing. Suddenly, I became panicked. What have we been doing as parents?

Well, we had been reading tons of books. We'd been visiting art museums, attending concerts, taking music lessons (S- guitar; C- violin), hanging out doing science experiments, solving Sudoku puzzles, attending art and farm camps. What have we done? Are we setting our boys up for Geekdom? Would they be able to relate to their peers at school? Would they become social outcasts-- those quirky, arty types who often aren't celebrated in the first, say, 18 years of schooling?

I shared my fears with P. He had begun to feel similar parenting doubts. So what to do?

This afternoon, P emerged from the basement with the boys' bikes SANS training wheels. He invited S to join him across the street at the local park, a space with a large enough grassy area and few enough trees. They set off as C and I started to tackle writing the birthday thank you notes (that's not geeky, just properly mannerly). Twenty minutes later, a sweaty and triumphant Sam came running back into the apartment. He had done it! He had ridden his bike-- by himself.

P was pretty thrilled as well. "It was one of those magical dad moments," he explained. He described how he held the back of S's seat as S pedaled and got his sense of balance. After a few runs, carefully and quietly, P removed his hands from the seat and off S went. He was riding the bike all by himself.

"Come on, C, it's your turn now. Let's get your bike helmet. I'll grab your bike. Let's go!" P was excited to repeat the experience with C.

C didn't jump from his seat. He started hedging. He start hesitating. "I don't think I will try it today," he told his dad. A discussion ensued. C was scared. He was anxious. He didn't think he could ride a bike by himself. No, he would wait to try until he was sure he could do it. P began to coax C a bit stronger, gently pushing him to think about trying, assuring him that he would hold tightly to the back seat. He could be trusted. Come on, give it a try. You need to practice in order to learn.

A reticent C relented. He strapped on his helmet. An eager and excited S wanted to keep riding so asked me to go over as well. F joined in the party. When we got to the park, I wanted C to have the same one-on-one time with his dad so the two other boys and I went off to the side. I was thrilled when I saw S push down the pedal, raise his other foot from the ground, and take off riding. Magical, truly!

And then I turned to watch C. It didn't seem to be going as smoothly. There was clearly more discussion happening. C was wiping his eyes. I couldn't stand it. I walked over. C had become increasingly anxious, convinced that he could not ride. He would never learn. He would get hurt. He just couldn't do it. "Yes, you can," P encouragingly countered. He talked about how it could be scary, but he was sure that C could ride a bike. C climbed up on the seat but soon panicked. More tears. More words of defeat, despair.

It was heartbreaking to witness. C standing there with red eyes, convinced that there was no way he would ever learn to ride a bike, too afraid of failure to even try, utterly stuck by insecurity, panic, perfectionism. And there was S, happily tooling around on his little blue bike, so thrilled to have figured this riding thing out, trying to master turning, riding over bumpier ground, playing chicken with trees. And that was joyous to watch.

Parenthood: magical, heartbreaking, joyous, painful. It was all playing out in that moment.

Ever-patient P didn't give up, kindly cajoling C, logically explaining the things C had mastered so far in life-- crawling, walking, running, reading, and on and on. Things that took some practice but he had learned. P talked about the rewards of just trying. C still was not convinced. I decided to give something a try. I asked him to sit facing me and to say the words "I can ride a bike" with me. He did, and we said them again, and then again, hoping that by saying the words he might believe them. I then tried a visualization exercise with him. Maybe if he could see himself riding, he would be convinced that he could. He went through it all with me, even laughed when I asked him to picture himself pedaling the bike and then Dad removing his hands and seeing himself ride off. "See, I know you can do it! You saw yourself do it!"

"No," C countered, "I only actually saw myself sitting on the bike."

I guess we could have given up. We could have left it there. It was one of those tough parental moments. We wanted to be encouraging and supportive, but not too pushy and overbearing. Where's the line?

In the end, I am happy to report, C got back on the bike. He trusted P to hold him upright. He pedaled a bit. He put his feet down. He tried again. And then again. And then at some magical moment, P did lift his hands, ever so gently and carefully from the back of the seat, holding them just to the sides of C's hips. And there was C, riding the bike. BY HIMSELF.


Jennifer said...

I'm crying. What an amazing moment. For both boys and for you. That's so great that C was able to trust you enough to keep trying and he succeeded!

(And if it's any consolation, I didn't officially learn how to swim until I was 11 !)

deborah said...

sara - this is awesome! YAY C! and what wonderful lessons for all of you - your boys will grow up to be brilliant, sensitive, well-read AND they can still be athletic if they choose to be. :) i think that you guys are amazing parents - that you have done an excellent job of finding that balance between support and pushing a little bit when needed. and the patience! kudos to you both for that - i hope that i can find half that patience when it will come time for W to do things like learn to swim, ride her bike, etc. what a great moment - and i'm so glad you documented it!

Andrea said...

Congratulations S and C! That is a big accomplishment (I won't even tell you how old I was when I learned to ride a bike). And congratulations to you and P for being such patient, understanding, supportive, well-rounded parents (not geeks)!

Isn't that a great metaphor for parenting--you look ahead and you think you can't do it, you hedge, you lean on the training wheels, you cry a little, and at some point you just push off and coast (a little distance, until you fall off and try the whole thing again!)

Terra said...

What a great story. I remember the absolute magic of balancing on a bike the first time. C and S an F will have so many great childhood memories!