City Sprawl: Pedal Pushers

We bought my son a bike—then made every wrong turn trying to teach him to ride.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

There’s an expression you always hear being bandied about, that such-and-such is “like riding a bike.” I don’t doubt that it is, whatever “it” may be—something else dealing with muscle memory, like ice-skating or beating the heck out of a pizza dough—though until recently, I never stopped to think about why something might be like riding a bike, that is, why bike-riding should be the standard for things we learn so innately we couldn’t forget them, even if we wanted to.

Then I tried teaching my son how to ride his bike.

Trauma. Trauma is the reason you can’t forget.

As parents, as my son’s primary caretakers and instructors, my husband and I really flunked out with the bike training. We both enjoy riding bikes, and it’s something we both did growing up, so we were looking forward to our son’s rite-of-passage trip to Target. We bought him the training wheels and something absurdly low to the ground. We sprang for the quality protective gear, though the risk factor, we figured, was next to none; it would have taken a hippo with scoliosis to knock this thing over.

Later that day, we all strapped on our helmets and boogied over to the track. But it just wasn’t clicking. My son’s feet wouldn’t move. Gently, we tried turning them around on the pedals, but he locked his knees. We coaxed my son off. I got on the bike. My husband got on the bike. The bike comes up to his lower thigh. Cramps were endured. Staring from other children was endured. Consideration was paid to my husband’s career potential in the circus.

“Let’s stay positive!” I bleated after our son’s eventual flat-out refusal to remount. That was five months ago, and we haven’t talked about the bike since. It’s hanging on a peg in our garage, and I’m sure my son, whose entire life to date has been one sustained and startling growth spurt, has by now outgrown it. No one wants to take it back, though, because it feels too much like admitting defeat.

Fools that we were to think we could simply present our son with a bike, when it turns out there are entire philosophies spun from the ways you can teach children how to ride. By now, we’ve heard a few. Teach him on the grass. Teach him with no pedals. Always use training wheels. Never use training wheels. Burn the training wheels in a pit of live vipers.

There are storms of opinions. Finally, I got a clear breakdown from my dad, who had just been through the same thing with another one of his grandsons. He didn’t say we had to do it his way, but he did repeat it to me, twice, and my father’s not a man to mince words.

First, he commanded, you buy a three-wheel scooter. (How many wheels? Three.) Then a two-wheel scooter. Next comes a bike with training wheels. Only then, after your child has mastered the initial three vehicles, do you graduate him to a freestanding bike. Instructions shall be neither bypassed nor modified.

If it all sounds excessive, try buying the wrong scooter first. There are things, you should know, that all decent, God-fearing scooters possess, like adjustable handlebars, a back break, plus a platform with correct width and length measurements in proportion to rider weight. Know how I know we screwed up? We invited my son’s friend over to play, and his mom wouldn’t let him anywhere near my son’s scooter. More than once, I caught her eyeing it like it would sprout fangs and bite him. She’s not returning my texts. That’s how far off the mark we were.

Times have changed. My own father has changed. I don’t remember any of this from when I was a kid, and my dad was the one who taught me to ride. Here’s how that went: I had a bike, and I rode it, which isn’t to say I was a natural. For the longest time, I thought riding a bike meant pushing the pedals around while he ran alongside and supported the seat to make sure I stayed upright. My memory’s fuzzy on how long this went on, but if I asked him and he said years, I wouldn’t be shocked. Never once did we venture from our cul-de-sac in Manassas. Weren’t we all having a good time?

The first time he tried letting go, pangs of betrayal shot through me like knives, so we got through it the way any sensible family would: He lied and said he wouldn’t do it again.

Looking back, I applaud both my parents for their efforts, including my mother’s, even if hers were mostly about turning a blind eye. Now that I am a mom, I know how hard it is not to freak out about any activity involving a child’s increasing mobility and access to streets. Speaking personally, it will be a cold day in hell before my son realizes you can do anything with a bike other than weave it at a controlled pace around an oblong loop with a fence, wearing every conceivable kind of joint pad.

Bike riding isn’t unique in its mysteries. There are other activities we take for granted as being inherently known to most of us that perhaps aren’t. Flying a kite, for instance. Jumping with a jump rope. Getting around on a scooter.

I come back to that last one on purpose. So she wouldn’t feel left out, we ended up buying my daughter one, too. She’s 23 months old, and the box for the smallest one we could find said ages 2 and up, so we rounded. My dad, by the way, totally nailed it: My son’s taken to his new scooter—the morally right one—like it’s made out of Lego pirates stuck together with Halloween candy. That’s how much he loves this thing. So now we find ourselves spending most nights at the track, watching him zip around in the wrong direction, throwing workout groups and tiny gangs of 12-year-old track athletes into chaos. It’s good family fun and the first independent physical activity he’s ever mastered, so we’re appreciating a little well-earned time on the bench.

Two of us can appreciate it. Less so my daughter. Her issue with her scooter’s not the same one we had with the bike and my son. I would describe her ability level as “standard” and her interest level as “desperate.” And seeing as how her birthday’s not for another 10 days, we wouldn’t dare judge her shortcomings, though between you and me her steering could use work. For my daughter, riding a scooter looks like a permanent hard left turn, leading her to swivel in a series of progressively tightening circles until vertigo outweighs interest and she lets herself topple over—while her brother whizzes past in his frenzied pirate sugar high.

But this isn’t my first rodeo, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that if problems arise with a scooter, you retreat from the scooter. Instead, start with balancing blocks, to work on your kid’s steadiness. Next: Buy scooter-appropriate shoes and have her walk in the vicinity of the scooter with the shoes. Then: Purchase a “scooter strap” to pull her around on the scooter. But don’t get carried away. Maybe your kid just wants to rub the strap fabric between her thumb and forefinger until she’s comfortable with the texture of the fibers. Your call.

Whatever you do, don’t get her a bike, which is what she really wants in the first place.

That would be, in a word, crazy.

(November 2017)