One in a series of posts tracking my summer goals. Hopefully there will be more than one.
Kate had been chasing her brother and sister back and forth along the sidewalk for a year or so, either gliding along on her scooter or pedaling on her princess bike, and she was finally looking ready to ditch the training wheels. And so on the Fourth of July, as we sat watching fireworks on a blanket in a park far from home, I asked her if she was ready to learn how to ride her bike.
She laughed. "I already know how to ride my bike, Daddy!"
"But don't you want to learn how to ride without training wheels, like Henry and Alison?"
She shook her head. "No."
I asked her again when we returned from our trip, and this time she gave me a different answer. "Yes, Daddy, I do!"
I took her training wheels off as soon as I got home from work the next day, and as she sat next to me on the curb I explained that even though it might be hard at first, I knew she'd be able to do it. All she had to do was do her best. If she was nervous, she didn't show it as she climbed onto her bike.
I showed her how to turn the handlebars if she felt herself falling, explained that she had to keep pedaling, and promised that I'd be holding on to her the whole time. And then it began.
There is something magical about teaching your child how to ride a bike, probably because it's an experience that everyone -- parents and non-parents -- can relate to. When you think of all the seminal moments of parenting -- childbirth, first steps, first words, potty training, etc. -- there is nothing as public or universal as taking off the training wheels.
I held on to her seat and whispered encouragement into her ear as I trotted behind her, just as every father everywhere does, and the neighborhood took notice. Our next door neighbor saw Kate through her window and came outside just to stand and applaud from the sidewalk. A woman down the street also cheered for her, and told me that she couldn't believe it had been twenty years since she had taught her daughter how to ride.
But more than just our friends were proud of Kate. Every car that drove by slowed to a crawl, and not just for safety's sake. The drivers all smiled and waved, instantly aware of what we were doing. Whether they had children of their own or not, they had all experienced this moment on one end of the bike or the other. They had experienced Kate's skinned knees, my aching back, and equal doses of our frustration and eventual pride. No conversation was necessary; all of that came across in their smiles.
As I jogged up and down the street, first holding tightly for safety, then gently resting my hand on her shoulder for guidance as she gained confidence, I realized that even if I was just teaching her how to ride a bike on this particular Tuesday, the whole thing was an obvious metaphor for parenting. We hold our children close as they start something new, encouraging them to take risks as we assure them that we'll catch them if they fall. Then we slowly release them, inch by inch or year by year, until they're ready to fly on their own as we applaud from a distance.
And so when Kate was finally ready to ride on her own and I watched her pedal away from me, I felt a touch of sadness even as I cheered her success. She was growing up and leaving a piece of her childhood behind, and I was letting her go.