This is the first in what will be an occasional series on teaching my kids to ride bicycles. My experience may be handy to some of you with young children, and for those of you who have children well beyond this stage of life, maybe these observations will bring a pleasant reminder of previous years. Either way, these will be less a pedagogy than a chance to consider what cycling offers a child—Padraig.
The first time I ever saw my son Philip ride an el scooter, he was 22 months old. We were at our neighborhood park and I was sitting on a bench when he came zipping by me. The scene was clown-car comical. He was small enough the handlebar stood at his chin. It was a bit like watching a Chihuahua ride a tricycle, but only if the Chihuahua had the energy of a hummingbird and the grin of a Jack ‘o Lantern.
This scooter was a three-wheeled version that features two wheels in front and one in back, which was unusual; most three-wheeled scooters placed two-wheels in back, like a tricycle. For small kids, this was a problem because with their short legs, the foot they pushed off with would bump into one of the rear wheels. By positioning two wheels in front, this allowed him to push his short legs without his foot hitting a rear wheel.
Within in minutes he had the thing wired. He was doing laps around the play structure and turning both left and right with ease. I was equal parts dumbfounded and proud. Watching him was every bit as entertaining as the final 5 kilometers of Tour de France stage. I figured there was only one thing to do.
After lunch we went to Toys ‘R’ Us and I purchased a razor scooter. I figured if he’d managed to master the three-wheel scooter in a matter of minutes, I ought to go for something that would challenge him. A
man’s child’s reach should exceed his grasp, right?
Not lost on me was the fact that once he figured out how to turn the razor scooter, he’d have learned to countersteer, arguably the single most important skill necessary for riding a bicycle.
Initially, the razor scooter was a frustration for him. It didn’t stand up on its own, which meant he had to hold it upright in order to go anywhere. While you and I may not think about that if we hop on one, what it means is that for someone new to coordinated efforts—this kid had been walking for slightly more than six months—a razor scooter required him to push something and hold it up and steer it. Not to mention that he needed to have enough balance that at slow speeds he didn’t immediately fall over. His first efforts on the three-wheeled scooter required only pushing. He added steering a few minutes later. But with the razor scooter, holding the scooter up was part of the steering and not something he could check out on. Considering toddlers have an attention span shorter than some TV ads, that’s a big ask.
He wanted to put his foot on the scooter and simply rest his hands on the handlebar after picking it up. That didn’t work, which meant his first attempts at riding it lasted less than 10 feet. He’d make a few attempts, get frustrated, then do something else. After an hour or so, he’d ask for the scooter and give it another try and quickly, the frustration would return.
This went on for three days. I wasn’t seeing any improvement and after the second day I became afraid that I’d really miscalculated his ability to conquer a challenge. I began to feel guilty, that perhaps I was being some sort of Little League parent and expecting far more of him than was reasonable.
Then, for reasons I can’t fathom, on the afternoon of the third day, he picked the scooter up, grabbed the handlebar with a bit of conviction and pushed off. He didn’t go far before falling, but I could see that something had clicked. Three days. After feeling guilty for expecting too much of him, I whiplashed into elation and wonder. Had he mastered the razor scooter on his first outing, I’d probably never have thought about just how difficult a skill that was for a not-yet-two-year-old child to develop.
Honestly, he fell loads in that first month. He got skinned up, bruised up. But he had a degree of determination in him that I’d previously glimpsed when he first stood, cruised, walked and, yes, climbed out of bed. This kid wanted to go places.
Naturally, he became interested in greater speed and the effect of gravity. Actually, I think that isn’t quite the case. Many people would look at how he behaved and say exactly that. What I’ve learned about our brains, about play, about what it is we chase, tells me that he wasn’t interested in speed for its own sake, and gravity was less a toy than a problem to master. What he was chasing was fun. Fun contains whoosh, it contains down, it contains turns that sparkle with the pull of physics.
Of course, talk to a five-year-old about dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins and he’ll look at you like you’ve completely missed the point. Those words aren’t the thing. The thing is the thing. You chase not the idea, but the feeling.
Which is to say that I took him to the skatepark. He renamed it the “ramp park” and it became the thing he asked to do most weekends. He took to the slopes and ramps like a cat to carpet. His understanding was less implicit than instinctual. Indeed, the toughest lesson I had to teach him was to look around for other skaters. Working in his favor was the fact that as the only sub-three-foot person at the park, he was a curiosity and the other skaters were both considerate and understanding of him, not to mention fairly amused. After watching him scream down the face of one slope a nickname from my skating days came floating back: Mini-Shred. Yep, that’s a fit.
So now a confession. I have an agenda. Unlike a great many parents who think they are God’s gift to parenting, the first ever in the history of the world to do right by their offspring, I’m under no such delusion. I don’t see myself as a great parent. I get a half dozen things wrong every day, and those are my good days.
My agenda is simple. I want Philip to get a feel for what it means to be good at something. I think in chasing fun, he has the opportunity to connect the dots between curiosity, hard work and excellence. Once those dots are connected, his ability to plug that entire set of data points into how he defines fun is all the guide he’ll need. What I’ve learned of flow states has convinced me that if he has plenty of flow in his life, he won’t want for satisfaction in his life.