Recently we took the training wheels off my daughter’s bicycle. She had gone outside and found her neighbor friend, slightly younger than her, learning to ride without them. So the die was cast and off we went. And over the next couple evenings I was struck by something:
Teaching a child to ride a bike is a great metaphor for parenting in general.
A child can safely figure out how the bike works when she’s riding it with training wheels. This stage is relatively comfortable for a parent because you know that a wreck is unlikely. After all, the point of the training wheels is to keep the bike upright as the child rides.
But at a certain point the training wheels have to come off. It would be ridiculous to see a 14-year-old riding around on a bike with training wheels, wouldn’t it? Of course it would – and it wouldn’t happen because the teenager would be very self conscious to be seen by his peers. (This self-conscious feeling tends to arise much earlier anyway…)
So everyone recognizes that training wheels are temporary. But there can be nervous reluctance to take them off, because we all know what’s probably going to happen. Boo-boos are likely. One or more knees will be skinned. There will be crying and frustration.
But it’s just part of the process.
Our process looked like this:
1. Practice riding down a gentle, grassy slope in our backyard to begin learning balance. We did our best to create a more controlled environment (i.e. not the street) where she could fall on a surface much nicer than asphalt.
2. Begin riding in the street with a parent running alongside. The parent can hopefully catch the child before she falls and help her when she wobbles. This is a challenging and exhausting stage for the parent (trust me). And it can be a bit nerve-racking because if she falls you know it will probably hurt.
Of course the parent can’t run alongside forever – especially when you’re in the kind of physical shape that I’m presently in! And now it gets harder because now you have to really begin letting go and letting her ride.
3. Let go and let her ride while a parent watches. This is often where the wrecks occur. Hopefully there won’t be too many, but as a parent you have to encourage the child to get up, to have the attitude of Chumbawumba, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”
4. Let her ride on her own. This may be the most difficult stage of all because now the situation is really out of your control. You can give instructions, make sure the helmet is on, and even remain nearby, but your child is going to want to ride without you. And you have to be OK with that.
The parenthood metaphor is pretty clear isn’t it?
Our kids need the protection of parents and training wheels as they take on new challenges, or simply as they begin to manage life itself. Over time, however, if we want them to be fully functional, independent, responsible men and women one day, we have to begin taking the training wheels off.
For a while it’s good and appropriate to control the environment – to give freedom within certain confines – like riding down a gentle slope in the backyard. And once a child demonstrates they can generally handle that, you move into the street and run alongside. As you see them grow and develop, you begin to let go. And eventually they’re riding on their own.
Like all metaphors, this one breaks down at points. But I find it helpful in thinking about how to parent. It can be scary to take the training wheels off, but the training wheels become counter-productive at some point. (And let’s be clear – it’s not at the same point for everyone.) The training wheels begin to stunt growth and what was once a source of protection becomes a source of frustration and even derision.
So we have to let go at the right time. We have to let our kids fall and scrape their knees sometimes – it’s how they learn (and probably how you learned too).