“Mommy! We don’t need your car anymore!” my six-year-old shouted happily as he pounced on his daddy and me Christmas morning. “SANTA LEFT BIKES!”
The bikes’ provenance notwithstanding, my son Fletcher had guessed at least one essential motive for the shiny new road bike with the half-bike hitched to the back (a “tug-a-bug”) parked in our living room. It was the one holiday gift I’d specifically asked my husband Stewart for.
Now, I am not an outdoorsy person. I’m not even a particularly athletic person. My most vivid bicycling memory is of a outing Stewart and I took years ago, pre-baby, on Cape Cod. I’d spent most of that picturesque excursion cursing that even as a pack-a-day smoker, Stewart had still left me in the dust. Which tells you a lot about my fitness level.
And there was the problem. Although my other “job” is writing about health, I’ve got a fairly lackadaisical attitude toward exercise. Which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been spending way too much time on my keister. Now that my son was in second grade, I couldn’t really hide behind the “I chase a toddler all day” excuse for why it was okay that I wasn’t going to the gym. “Find ways to squeeze exercise into your daily routine” is what the fitness experts always say. Heck, I’ve written that advice a dozen or so times myself. But where exactly to squeeze it was the eternal dilemma.
And then … lightbulb! It hit me. We could ride bikes to school. Other families did it. Why not us? We lived just two-and-a-half miles away — close enough that a child could do it without whining (much anyway); far enough that it would still be a workout for me. With two roundtrips, I could be riding 10 miles a day.
But multi-tasker that I am, I had another agenda as well. Daily rides would also satisfy a vexing parental need: teaching Fletcher to ride a two-wheeler. At 6, the boy still couldn’t manage without training wheels. And while it didn’t seem to bother Fletcher any, it was starting to bug me. Teaching your kid to ride a bike is one of those things all parents have to do. I think it says so on page 328 of the Parenting Club Handbook they stick in the swag bag you get as you’re leaving the maternity ward. (“Thanks for delivering! Here are some lovely take-home prizes!) Seeing other kids, younger kids, racing around our neighborhood on their bikes was a constant reminder that I’d been slacking off with this particular parental responsibility.
To this day, I can still remember my dad teaching me to ride my first two-wheeler, a teal beauty with a sparkly banana seat and a basket with flowers on the front. But this gig’s really a young parent’s game. My dad was 32 when he doggedly jogged behind me, steadying my seat until I finally found my balance and took off. I am 46. And while I don’t feel “old” per se, my back felt otherwise after going about a block. So I’d let the whole bike riding thing slide. The kid would learn eventually, I figured. Though I had no real idea how exactly that would happen. The tug-a-bug seemed to offer the perfect solution. Using that, I could steady the bikes for both of us — without risking permanent back injury — till Fletcher learned to balance himself.
So, over Winter Break, we mapped out a route, noting where we’d have to cross the three busy intersections between us and school and still have sidewalk under our tires. We ride as often I as can get Fletcher off the couch and away from the TV, which, as far as I’m concerned, should really count as weight-lifting. We ride to nearby parks, to friends‘ houses, to school and back several times. I want us to get used to the chill, the distance, the busy-ness of the streets, the strange dips and jogs the sidewalk makes along the way, the places drivers are likely to roll into right turns without stopping — or looking. I want Fletcher to get comfortable with all of that so that on Bike Day, our first ride to school after Winter Break, the trip will seem easy, even routine.
The Monday we head back to school, the skies are overcast. The Weather Channel app predicts a 30 percent chance of rain. I optimistically decide to see that as a 70 percent chance there won’t a downpour, and I hitch together the bikes.
My next-door neighbor, who’s either named Craig or Greg or Doug, I can never remember, waves at me. “Little cold for a bike ride,” Craig-Greg-Doug calls over before getting into his Mustang, which is warming up at the curb.
At 7:30 am, it is 57F. Not as chilly as Dubuque perhaps, but cold enough. And I know it’ll feel colder as we ride. Am I insane? I grab my leather gloves and pull Stewart’s golf windbreaker over my turtleneck and sweatshirt. I look wistfully at my Volvo in the driveway. The heater in that car is fantastic.
“Mommy, are we really going to ride?” Fletcher asks, stretching the question into a slight whine when I come back inside to check his progress with breakfast. “It’s gonna be cold.”
“It’ll be fine,” I say. Though I grab a thermal shirt for him to slip under his school polo and hoodie just in case. “Wear your mittens. You’ll be fine.”
“It’s cold,” he complains again when I open the garage to leave.
“It’s cold,” he says again as I tuck away my keys and phone and sling his Superman backpack over my shoulders.
“It will be fine,” I repeat with what I hope sounds like conviction rather than frayed patience. “Are you ready?”
The moment we leave the driveway, I realize we’ll be pedaling into the wind the entire way. It’s hardly an auspicious start.
“This was a bad idea, Mommy. A very bad idea,” Fletcher whines about one minute into our ride. “I’m cold. My legs are cold.”
Truthfully so am I. Quite cold. But if I turn back and succumb to the alluring comforts of my Volvo now, I know it’ll be spring before I get my boy back on the bike again.
“Keep pedaling,” I answer. I mean to sound encouraging; with my teeth chattering, it comes out like more of a bark.
But gradually, as we pedal, we warm up, and the whines turn into humming and then … remarkably singing.
“Copy what I say, Mommy,” Fletcher calls to me, sounding more enthusiastic. “Bee bee boo boo bop.”
“Bee bee boo boo bop,” I parrot, willing even to sound like an idiot if that will distract him from the morning chill.
“Zing zing zang,” he says.
“Zing zing zang,” I echo.
“Boop boo ba loop boo ba loop boo ba loop,” he continues the game.
It’s sheer silliness, but at least he’s no longer complaining he’s cold.
The traffic gods are with us as we cruise along — incredibly, we make every green light. The riding prep we did over winter break paid off: Fletcher’s happily nattering on and singing behind me, waving to the people in cars at Stop signs who graciously let us cross in front of them. The entire ride, I don’t hear a single Are we there yet?
As we approach school, I drop my feet from the pedals and coast. The wind’s lashing my face, burning my ears. But in that moment, I can feel my boy behind me, pedaling steadily for both of us. Perfectly balanced.
So, how did you teach your child to ride? Leave me a comment and tell me all about it! And if you liked this essay, please LIKE and SHARE with your friends! Thanks!
A shorter version of this essay was posted on Lifescript’s HealthBistro blog on January 11, 2013.