Learning to Ride a Bike...Or Not

So I’ve been teaching Nate to ride his bike. And by teaching, I mean bribing. And if we’re being completely honest, it’s Saturday morning at the moment and I’m sitting by myself in a coffee shop listening to some new-age music and hoping that by the time I get home, Tighe will have taught him how to do it. I’m also hoping that Tighe will have cut the grass, cleaned the bathrooms, prepared some make-ahead dinners for the week, renovated our master bath, and finally put that addition on the back of the house above the garage. I feel like finding a vaccine for Zika wouldn’t be too much to ask either. I’m an eternal optimist.


But back to the bike. A few weeks back, we walked to a playground in Waldo to fly the kites Nate and Sam got for Easter. After a mass entanglement of kite string, legs of a stranger, the stroller, Wally the dog, and some monkey bars, we decided to break for some ice cream. Slightly miffed, the stranger did not join us, but the combination of lactose and sugar made Tighe and Nate drunk with ambition.


Next thing you know, we were across the street at a bike shop listening to Nate, still wearing his sticky chocolate ice cream beard, tell the saleswoman what a good athlete he is. A few minutes and a few hundred dollars later, and that same saleswoman was standing at the door, bidding us farewell as Nate—sporting a shiny new red helmet—pedaled away, proud and awkward, determined to bike the entire way home—about eight blocks. 


By the time we got home, Nate was spent. The sugar high had worn off and a hangover had set in. He was ready for some couch time and a movie.


That was a month ago. Since then he’s sat on that bike seat exactly once. And in fairness, my schedule’s been a little erratic lately—I ate trail mix for dinner three consecutive nights this week—and so we’ve booked very little instructional time. But still.


Like any good mom, I keep a stash of Starbursts and Tootsie Rolls and Skittles and other colorful gems that give our dentist nightmares. I have two bags of gummy worms, Nate’s favorite.


The day after the bike purchase, or as I like to refer to it: the day we blew the down payment on our new house—so much for moving! Anyway, after that infamous day, Nate refused to try the bike. He cited muscle soreness, and if I remember correctly—so long ago now—it was also raining. So we didn’t force it.


But the next morning—a Monday—as Sam wandered in with his lovies and shoved in next to us to watch videos of himself on my phone, I announced my fool proof plan to Tighe: “I shall bring them to a playground and bribe him with gummy worms to try the bike!”


I had been awake for hours mapping out my procedure, and by daybreak, I was confident in my strategy. I hopped out of bed and launched into my day.


After Tighe left for work and our standard drawn out morning routine—why does a four year-old take forty minutes to eat a piece of toast?—I put Nate’s new bike and a little Strider we have for Sam into the back of the car and drove to the playground.


The gummy worms, which I had yet to mention to Nate or Sam, were in the kangaroo pouch of my hooded sweatshirt.


This particular park is about three acres, complete with a large playground, a baseball diamond, a tennis court, a basketball court, and best of all, a very flat, gently curved walking trail that surrounds the whole thing. Perfect for teaching one’s progeny to tackle his fears and mount a two-wheeler! It has all the makings of a Daniel Tiger episode!


I unloaded the bikes from the car, “All right, let’s try this trail!”


Trembling, Nate refused. And yes, he was actually trembling. With fear.


It has training wheels, numb-nuts!


Conceding that maybe this very friendly walking trail might be a little intimidating, I tried again: “Why don’t we start on the tennis court? There’s a lot more room and you can practice pedaling without worrying about steering.”


This seemed like a good compromise to me. It’s a double tennis court, and there were no tennis players on it, so there was lots of “mistake space.”


Still, he was trembling. “I might fall.”


“You might. But it’s good to practice. At least try it.”


“It’ll hurt.”


“I have Ninja Turtle Band-Aids! They can cure any skin abrasion.”


We negotiated for a few more minutes when, feeling desperate, I finally brought out my secret weapon.


“Nate, if you get on your bike, I’ll give you these gummy worms.” Yep, I’m not ashamed to admit that I bribed him. Kinda like I bribe Sam to climb into his car seat with a piece of gum. And now I have a two year-old gum junkie.


So, desperate for some mid-morning sugar, Nate cautiously climbed onto his bike while I held it still for him. He can pedal a tricycle, this shouldn’t have been such a struggle, but he still never flashed a smile—only an occasional resentful glare in my direction.


Within moments, he was caught in the net. I helped him back up and redirected the front wheel. A few moments later, he was butting into the fence that enclosed the court. Then back in the net again. And then caught in a small branch that must have fallen onto the court in the storms the day before.


As he pin-balled back and forth between obstacles in this seemingly empty space, I ran through my prenatal and postnatal mistakes in my head: “I guess I didn’t eat enough protein when I was pregnant with him. Or not enough iron? Perhaps I should have bought Mozart lullaby CD’s instead of Bach. I’ve never showed him enough love. I push him too hard. Oh God, where did I go wrong?”


Meanwhile, Sam—my back-up kid—loves his Strider! He’s perfectly comfortable waddling around on the little red bike, pushing and gliding and steering carefully to avoid big bumps and hurdles. He’s also happy to sit on Nate’s bike and let me push him around. He can’t reach the pedals, but he enjoys steering and taunting Nate. He also enjoys gummy worms, and by the time the morning was over Sam had probably eaten about a dozen and was constipated for two and a half days.


Nate earned one gummy worm that day. He spent the rest of that morning in the sandbox and on the swings and on the slide. As we drove home for lunch, I felt mildly successful. “Baby steps,” I told myself.


Unfortunately, that was our peak. Since then, even with the promise of gummy worms, he’s refused the bike. And really, I don’t force it. I offer up the gummy worms on the condition of attempting a bike ride and if he accepts, great. If he doesn’t, no big deal.


But on the inside, I’m dying. It takes every ounce of self-restraint not to lift him onto the bike and manipulate his little legs into pushing the pedals around and around.


This past week, as I sat on the tailgate of the Suburban with Sam, chowing down gummy worms, I tumbled through mental anguish: “What childhood experiences you’re forfeiting, Nate! What life lessons you’re relinquishing! Riding a bike means freedom! How will you ever learn about failure? About perseverance? How will you ever get somewhere fast?”


I extrapolated this process to playing tee-ball. To learning calculus. To finding a job. To moving out on his own.


As I reflect on my own life, I decide that learning to cope with failure—to overcoming hardship and complications—can come later in life, like when you’re thirty-three and your son won’t do what you want and your other son is slowly becoming a cavity-ridden diabetic. This doesn’t mean that Nate’s not destined for greatness or independence, it just means that I’m not in control. Gosh, that was hard to admit.