Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How to Ride A Bike In 37 Long, Annoying, Painful Steps

A couple of months back, Popular Mechanics created a list entitled 100 Skills Every Man Should Know. Reading this list filled me with abject, unrelenting shame...

But as of today, I can proudly announce that I can check number 75 off the list: As of today, the Pillowfight Fairy can ride a bicycle without the training wheels.

Now, the way that the PM article advises how to accomplish this is intriguing:
Remember teetering precariously on a bike while your dad ran behind holding the seat? There’s a better way: Start with a bike small enough to allow the child to plant both feet on the ground. Then remove the pedals. Most kids begin using the bike like a scooter, pushing themselves along with their feet. Then they start lifting their feet to coast, which gives them the hang of balancing—which is much easier to learn without the distraction of pedaling. Next thing you know, they beg you to put the pedals back on so they can ride farther and faster.
I'd actually heard this advice before, from my sister-in-law. Apparently that's the standard way of doing it in much of Europe. Unfortunately, when I looked at the way the pedals were installed on my little girl's bicycle, I couldn't figure out how to get them off. I'm usually pretty good about figuring out mechanical things, but in this case, everything is sealed up tight, with no bolts or nuts or anything else visible. I suspect the entire bike would have had to be disassembled to get the pedal mechanism removed. Anyway, it wasn't worth the effort; I decided that my daughter would indeed have to teeter precariously ... while her dad ran behind holding the seat.

And that bit about "they beg you to put the pedals back on so they can ride farther and faster?" Fuggetaboutit.

You see, my little one has a particular vice.

(Oh, all kids have particular vices, starting at very young ages. The Happy Boy tries to eat anything not nailed down, except his vegetables. The Adrenaline Junkie has a hair-trigger temper that sends her into crying fits whenever she hears anything she doesn't want to hear, like "lets stop pretending to be banana slugs now." Every kid has something that we hope he or she grows out of eventually.)

The Pillowfight Fairy's particular vice is that she is highly averse to putting any effort into any task. She's got a lazy streak a mile wide. Now, she comes by it fairly; I remember my elementary school academic efforts, which primarily involved pretending that my pencil was a spaceship while my worksheets remained nice and pristine on my desk in front of me. Well, my daughter got the gene.

And in her case, it especially manifests itself when there's a physical task to be done--even little things, like opening car doors. I will ask her to open the door; so she'll take the handle in one hand, give a half-hearted little tug, then blithely announce that the door is stuck. I will command her to do it for real this time, or else, and she will try again with marginally more effort, and this time announce that "I caaaaan't! It's too haaaaard!" and beg me to do it for her.

Well, Mom and I are on to her now. She can often get other relatives or teachers to do her work for her by using a combination of charm and weepiness, but Mom and I have had enough of this, and so we're pretty heartless. "Get your *&^$% hands on the door and pull! No, not like that; put your weight into it! Now! That wasn't hard enough. That was too weak. Do it again! Harder! Harder!" Eventually she'll get the door open, though she's often weepy at how unfair life is by the time she gets it done.

(Note: I don't actually say things like "*&^$%". But I think them.)

We find we have to give her this treatment quite a bit, I'm afraid. If we didn't, she would never learn any new skill. Now, the thing is that once she has gained a new skill, she loves it and will do it for hours. Once upon a time she hated drawing, because it was haaaard, but now we can't stop her. Once upon a time she hated writing for the same reason, but she writes quite a bit on her own initiative now. So whenever we read the opinion of some "expert" telling us that we shouldn't be pushing our children or showing our disappointment with them when they fail to live up to our expectations, we just roll our eyes....


So it was time to teach the Fairy how to ride. How did I know this? Well, she's six. And she rather enjoyed riding on her bike with the training wheels. Of course asking her if she wanted to learn to ride without the wheels is a little like asking her if she'd like some giblet gravy with her ice cream, so I didn't ask; I informed her that she would be learning to ride without the training wheels.

For the last several days, I threw her bike in the back of the van and took the Fairy to a nearby park with long, wide walkways in it. And we started. And she did indeed teeter precariously as I ran behind holding the seat. The Fairy seemed to be taking it well; her mood varied randomly between terrified wailing and maniacal laughter. Sometimes the laughter followed her running into things; sometimes the wailing commenced after she had done something right.

We never claimed our kid was normal.

The difficulty with riding a bike--difficulty from the work-averse Fairy's point of view, at any rate--is that you're only stable when you have enough speed, and speed takes work. If one puts in an effort like the Fairy's half-hearted door-opening effort, one never gets enough speed, and the bike wobbles all over and eventually runs you into trees, fences, benches.... So I found I continually had to yell at her, "Pedal! Pedal like the wind! Pedal like a Dervish! Pedalpedalpedalpedalpedal..." just before the Fairy, wailing, drifted to a halt and fell over.

I'm not sure she knows what a Dervish is, either. And explaining would just have made everything worse.

By the end of Monday's practice she had gotten to the point that she could stay upright for extended periods. But she couldn't start herself; I always had to give her an almighty push at the beginning to give her the speed she needed for stability. She could keep it going, but she didn't know how to start. So Tuesday (yesterday) we worked on starting up.

It was pretty frustrating. I have now banned the words "I Caaaaaaan't!" from the Fairy's vocabulary, because she was using them way too much, and actually believing them.

Now, granted, starting up from a stop is a tricky thing to do, and even trickier to explain. In the Fairy's case, we ultimately worked out a system: she starts with one foot on the ground, and one on the raised pedal; then she simultaneously pushes against the ground, and stomps the raised pedal as hard as she can; then, with that (very) little forward velocity, she gets her first foot on the other pedal and starts "Pedal[ing] like a Dervish!" Usually while weeping, at least at first.

This system worked, when she actually put some effort into it. The trouble was, she rarely exerted herself hard enough. So by the end of yesterday, I decided to take a slightly different tack: I'm going to start running, and I want you to catch me.

Well, it worked. I'm probably going to Hell for it--playing on her fears of abandonment to get her to actually do some work, and possibly landing her in therapy when she's older--but it worked. The first several times, she was wailing, "Don't leeeeeave me!" as I took off. But then she got the message somehow, and found the strength to start up the bike and come after me. By the very, very end of yesterday's session, she was able to start up her bike mostly at will.

Somehow, by the time we got home, everything seemed much better.


Today we decided to do something a little different. We loaded the whole family (except me) in the van, along with the Fairy's bike. Mom drove them over to the park, and I rode my bike. The Fairy and I rode around the whole park, until the Fairy got too tired (and jealous of her siblings, who were getting to climb on the playground equipment). There were a few crashes, and occasional bouts of crying; but I think the Fairy is actually starting to enjoy the experience of riding. I noticed something a little odd: when she was supposed to be following me, she would go into a panic if I got too far ahead (that Abandonment thing again); but if I told her to ride to that oak tree way, way over there, she would do that without complaint and without panic, even though she was riding much farther away from me than she had been.

And the Fairy's well-being had to have been helped by the fact that every time we rode past the little playground, the Adrenaline Junkie was there, cheering and jumping admiringly as her big sister rode past. That's got to help one's self-esteem, at least a little.


So, after all this, I asked the Fairy this afternoon if she enjoyed riding her bike, and she said "Yes."

You know, after all the wailing, all the tears, all the half-mad cackling, all the Don't leave me's, all the crashes, all the frozen little fingers, all the I'm never doing this again's, it perhaps should have been surprising to hear her say that. But it wasn't. Mom and I know our daughter, after all, and we know that this is the way she operates. This happens every time she learns a new skill. She fights it, fights it, fights it... and then she gets it, and wants to do it a lot.

We're just hoping that eventually she starts to see this for herself. I eventually got to that point, though it took me until after college to realize it fully: you force yourself to work on these things that scare or otherwise intimidate you, and then not only does it become easy, it becomes fun. But more than the fun, it gives a sense of accomplishment, which in turn gives more confidence that I can beat the next challenge I'm up against.

But in the meantime, I have to guide my little girl along, often against her own will. Tonya and I have to trust our own judgment that we know what is right for the Fairy, because she will often fight us tooth and nail the whole way. And it gets really tiring being the enforcers all the time.


And it means that I've caught myself sounding like Calvin's dad a lot lately. It's an odd experience: Ever have to stifle a laugh at yourself while lecturing a six-year old about character? You should try it sometime....

1 comment:

B. Durbin said...

My dad lied to me and told me the training wheels wouldn't fit on the new bike. And I believed him. (I learned late— I was nine.)