Have you ever taught your kid how to ride a bike?
I was thinking about that the other day, and realized that it never ends…
The thing about learning how to ride a bike – or teaching your kids how to – is you first start them off in a stroller – you’ve got full control, they’re just along for the ride, they don’t even know that you’re pushing, they just know they get plopped into the stroller and show up someplace else.
Next thing you know, you’re pulling them in a wagon, or a sled – and they become aware of what you’re doing, and what it takes to move you around.
Eventually, as with all children, they want to do it themselves, so you buy or borrow a tricycle for them, and they can move around on their own. It’s at this point that the story changes, because you’re no longer in control.
Soon they’ll see bigger kids riding two wheelers, and they’ll want to do the same thing, so you get them a two wheeler – of course, with training wheels.
And the transition continues.
Remember how they’d ride with the wheels all the way down? – and then after awhile you’d sit there rounding off the nuts with the wrong sized wrench, adjusting them so they’d be a little higher – so they’d still have the safety of the training wheels, but would be able to balance a little on their own? Each kid learns at a speed all their own, and each kid learns at a speed that’s best for them.
But what happens on your end is that you help them as long as you can. You teach them to ride a bike, and then you hold on to the saddle, steadying them, helping to keep them from falling until you can feel in your hand that they’re not wobbling.
You hold onto the saddle until you feel their pedaling is smoother and steadier.
You hold onto the saddle until they’re pedaling faster than you can run.
And you know that if you continue to hold onto the saddle at this point, they can’t ride their bike. You will, quite literally, be holding them back.
And you realize in a split second, that you have to let go.
You have to let them go.
And to do that, you have to loosen your grip.
Your world changes in that next split second, as you let go of the saddle.
In that one moment, everything changes.
By letting go, you’ve said to them “I trust you”
By letting go, you’ve said, “You’re in charge now”
By letting go, you’ve said, “I love you, and will be here to help, but you’re the one riding now. Your success is up to you.”
If you hang on – your child will only be able to ride as fast as you can run – and that simply isn’t fast enough.
I’ve talked to several dads who taught their kids to ride bikes – and as I did, they all instinctively held their right hand down as if they were holding onto a saddle as they told their stories.
They knew the ride would be wobbly at first. That there would be falls, and Band-aids, and trips to the emergency room. There always are as your child starts to understand this new-found independence.
But in that first moment, that moment you loosened your grip, in the split second that you actually let go of the saddle, you relinquished control over them – you gave that control to them. And the control is everything… You’re letting them choose to succeed or fail. You’re giving them the freedom to win or lose. You, as you come to a stop after running alongside them, panting, see the distance between you grow as they ride forward with the excitement of youth.
And suddenly – their whole life flashes before your eyes as you realize that you’ve done this before – but you didn’t know you were doing it. You’ve celebrated their “firsts” – whether it was the first time, as a baby, they rolled over…
I remember that day with my son very well, used to be he’d simply stay where I put him. Then one day, I’d put him in the middle of the bed, and he rolled over, and off the bed onto the floor. He let me know about the impact at the top of his lungs…
- Or that first owie…
I remember when we had the little “child proof” (hah!) gate across the front door – from the living room to the front steps, and he was having so much fun bouncing and pulling on it that I didn’t get a chance to stop him before he fell out, and down the steps. His head hit one of the steps and within seconds he looked almost exactly like Worf from Star Trek. He cried so hard, and it hurt his head so bad, almost as much as it hurt my heart as I was holding him.
- Do you remember their first step?
- Or their first word?
- Or their first bite of “real” food?
You realize, as the thoughts drift through your mind, that inside every one of those “firsts” trumpeting in through the front door, there was a quiet “last” packing up its bags, and shutting the back door quietly behind it as it left.
You find yourself startled – “Would I have done something different if I’d known this was the last…” whatever it was… If you’d known it was the last bottle you’d ever give them, the last baby food you’d ever do the airplane thing into the hangar with that we all do as parents, or the last diaper you changed on them.
Would you change anything?
Would you do anything different if you knew when their last night at home would be? The last time you saw them?
Maybe it’s best we don’t know – because if we did, we’d be paying attention to that back door, when the front one’s important, too…
The thing is, this cycle repeats itself all through their lives.
Do you remember their first day of kindergarten?
The elementary school our son went to kindergarten at had a “tea and cookies” get together for parents of kindergartners – it was accompanied by large amounts of Kleenex – as it was an entire herd of parents standing there realizing they’d let go of that particular saddle – and they didn’t know what to do with their hands anymore. The Kleenex solved that problem
What about their first time spending the night someplace else, when you weren’t the one to tuck them in?
I remember saying prayers with my daughter every night, and for many years, the last voice my son heard at night and the first one he heard in the morning was mine.
As a parent of youngsters, you often find yourself actively wanting this – you just want some peace and quiet sometimes – and what often happens is this:
It is quiet…
There’s no one skateboarding down the stairs.
There’s no one screaming about who’s hitting who.
There’s no one stomping through the living room like the bass section of a marching band of elephants.
You realize, about then, that you’re definitely not a single person anymore, you realize you’re not just a married couple – but you’re married – with kids – and you’ve become a family. And without that part of the family – something just feels out of balance, and it only comes back into balance when the kids come crashing through the door again. The exhaustion comes right in with them, but so does the joy of having them back.
Do you remember them getting their driver’s license? Heck, do you remember what it felt like to get in the passenger’s seat on their first drive?
With our daughter – driving wasn’t so hard, but parking was. I remember how hard she was trying to learn how to parallel park. She’d tried and tried and tried – and it just didn’t work… Out of frustration, she said, “This is impossible!”
And I, being the Ever Helpful Dad, said, “Here, let me show you.” She got out, I got in the driver’s seat, pulled up beside the car she was trying to park behind in her little $800.00 Mazda, put it in reverse, hit the gas, flipped the wheel hard right, then hard left, then hit the brake, and put it in park.
“See? It’s easy!”
She wasn’t convinced… At all.
And for years she would figure out ways to park without doing the parallel parking thing – until she got it, in her own time.
One day, a few cars later, and – actually it was father’s day a year or so ago, she came up and said, “I would have brought you a card – but I have something better.” And then she told me that she’d paid off the car she’d bought – all by herself. “I just wanted to thank you – because without what you taught me about money – I wouldn’t have been able to pay this off.”
No card could have been better than that.
In spite of the fact that she’d been living away from home for several years at that time, I felt I could let go of that particular saddle with a little more grace right then… With all of the challenges a young adult has in these times, she’s doing well.
The first time I let our son drive, we took my old Saab out onto an old country road. It’s a 4 speed on the column. I pulled over, said, “Okay, your turn” and got out – we did a Chinese fire drill, and the next thing I knew, after his stunned look of “You’re kidding, really?!”, he’d gotten us started – no bucking or stalling the car with its clutch that needs replacing. I was stunned. We were up in third at about 35 mph and I was still in shock, “Michael, that was incredible!” and Michael, ever the understated one, said, “Well, what did you expect? I’ve been watching you drive this thing for 16 years…”
That sentence alone is worth another story, and my mind was scrambled there for a while as I tried to handle the overload of that simple statement…
I taught him and I didn’t even realize it?
What does that mean – what else have I taught him without realizing it?
I taught him stuff I wanted him to know without realizing it – what have I taught him that I’d rather he not know?
Do I need to go back and try to undo things?
What would I undo?
How would I find out?
… while also helping him learn the intricacies of driving a 40 year old car with a tricky clutch and a freewheeling transmission.
What about their first date? – not the one where you drove them, but the one where they drove themselves, do you remember waving goodbye as they left? Do you remember wondering what kind of stuff they were up to? (only because of the “stuff” you got into when you were their age) – and speaking of “stuff – didn’t it scare the – uh – “stuff” out of you?
One of the hardest things/times that a lot of parents have gone through in the last week or so, is that first day of school after high school – when you all pile into the car and take your young one “off to college.” Your kid is just looking forward to being on his or her own, where you look at dorm rooms that seem way, way smaller than what you remember, and there’s so much more stuff in them now.
My first dorm room had a desk, a bed that folded into a couch thing, and a closet for my roommate and me. I brought in a 30 pound Remington Noiseless typewriter (yes, this was back in the days before word processors, but not by much, and yes, it was old then…) I remember that all the parents looked like foreigners. The day I moved in, I saw they all had puffy eyes that they wouldn’t acknowledge, the dads were sweating from carrying so much stuff up the stairs to the right floor, and the moms were flitting about all trying to do that one last thing to make things perfect before they’d have to admit that it was time to let someone pry their fingers from that saddle.
That ride back home from college – from dropping your first or last or any kid off can be very, very quiet. It might be the first time the back seat of the car’s been empty in years.
It is hard to get used to.
And it takes time. I remember one child who moved out with just a few hours warning to a city several hours away. The mom was not expecting it, nor was she ready for it. I remember taking a photo of that moment, when they hugged goodbye and both tried to smile for the camera – the daughter’s eyes bright, looking forward to a new and exciting future, while the mom was desperately trying to hold back tears, standing there, essentially looking at her hand, the one that up until moments before had been holding on to a saddle – one that had just been pulled out of her hand, when she herself wasn’t ready to let it go.
It is hard to get used to.
What about their first “real” relationship? The one where you can just feel the wobbling of that particular bicycle, you can feel the unsteadiness – you just KNOW, deep in your heart, that this just isn’t the right person for your child, and yet, you have to let go of that saddle… Sometimes you have to let them fall, or they won’t know how to keep from falling. Knowing when to do that is one of the hardest things to do as a parent. How would they react to having you interfere? How would you have reacted had your parents told you “she’s not the right one for you” – or “he’s not the right one for you”? – so you walk that razor’s edge of knowing what to say, but not when to say it – or knowing the right time to say something, but having no idea what to say…
What about the breakup of that first relationship? The one you find out about long after the fact – when you get what starts out to be an innocuous sounding telephone call, but over time, the truth comes out, and you know that they’re hurting in ways they don’t even have words for, in ways you’ve hurt before, and your heart just aches for them. You understand a bit of it – but you can’t actually say that, now’s not the time. You want to grab the saddle again, you want to rip it from the bike and use it to whack the crap out of the person who did this to your kid.
But you don’t.
You get the “Band-aids” – sometimes – this takes the form of a “care package from home” – sometimes it’s sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, or coffee, or a beer. Sometimes it’s going for a walk or a drive. It’s astonishing the kinds of things that you hear when you just take your kid out for a drive. But most often, the thing that’s most important is just taking the time to listen to your kid think their way through a problem to a solution, and what’s crucial is they need to know you’re listening to them, and you’re available to do it.
No cell phones, no blackberries, no iPhones… Your kid needs to feel your hand on the saddle right then until they’re steadier, and when they’re ready, they’ll start pedaling again, and it will be time for you to let go.
This, as you may have guessed, will repeat itself through your life, throughout their lives. You will find, over the years, that they “ride their bike” in circles around you. The bike will change, whether it’s their first date, or their first job, or their first day after being let go from that job, or whatever. They will ride by and in one way or another, say what they said when they were little, “Look at me! Look what I can do!”
And your job is to do exactly what you did when they were little.
You cheer them on.
You encourage them.
You show them you love them.
And they’ll ride away, with the sound of those cheers ringing in their ears, knowing you’ll be there, in spirit if not in body.
This has been a pretty hard note for me to write, because as you might have guessed, some of what you just read came from personal experience, and as I was writing it, I realized, that as I’m working on letting go of the various saddles my kids are on – that things are coming around full circle, and that my mom is doing the same thing with me. It’s part of life, but it’s hard.
As I was writing this – I found my thoughts going back to 10 years ago, when my dad had a massive stroke, he was in ICU for a very long time, and in a nursing home for a while afterwards. It became very clear that as much as we wanted him to be with us, that the time we were able to share with him was coming to a close.
I wrote him a note – and in that nursing home room in Tacoma, on a warm late August afternoon in 2000, I read it to him.
What was neat, if you can say that, in a situation like this, is that we could tell he was still in there – he just couldn’t communicate out very well. We adjusted the ventilator that was breathing for him so he could talk a little, and I remember his last words to me, “Tom, I love you, and I’m proud of you.”
He died two months later. Mom was with him at the end, they’d both fallen asleep, and dad died in his sleep beside her. As I was writing the eulogy, my sister had this image…
…the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.
The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.
His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.
His heart didn’t struggle.
His feet weren’t cold.
We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.
But as I thought of it later, I realized that in that moment in August, he’d done what all parents eventually do…
He’d let go of the saddle, one last time.
I miss you, dad.
So. (deep breath)
Run with your kids while you have them.
Love your kids while you can.
Hug them as often as you can.
Teach them how to ride a bike – but know that someday, you’ll have to let go of that saddle, and when you do, remember what your job is:
You let them go.
You love them.
And then you cheer them on.
Because while they’re riding away as fast as they can, and while you’re standing there, the bittersweet realization of what just happened slowly dawning on you, they need to know you’re still there.
Take care, folks…