A few months ago, we taught Henry to ride a bike. He had mastered a balance bike before turning 2 and flew around the neighborhood on those tiny wheels. We thought that putting him on a pedal bike would allow him to keep up with us on family bike rides.
I probably wouldn’t have considered doing this with a 3-year-old except some friends had successfully done the same with their kids. Henry is taller and more agile than a lot of 3-year-olds, so this plan seemed reasonable. And at first, it was.
He needed a few weeks of practice to master the pedaling part, but after that, he was on his way. Eleanor learned to ride a bike on her fifth birthday, and the hardest part for her was learning to use the brakes. With balance bikes, kids drag their feet — and destroy their shoes — to stop. No surprise then that Henry had the same problem as Eleanor.
Henry, however, lacked his sister’s fear. Also her foresight. I told him that if he needed to stop quickly, he should steer his bike into the grass. One day, he insisted on riding his pedal bike to pick up Eleanor from school, something he hadn’t done before. The ride there is gently uphill, and he had to scoot with his feet much of the way. The ride home was, of course, gently downhill, the sort of downhill that seems manageable until you are about to shoot through a busy intersection and your mother is running behind you screaming “Stop, Henry, stop!” He dumped the bike — gave a sharp jerk of the handlebars, leaned into the turn, and dumped it. I was beyond impressed.
I reached him, pulled him up, and he got right back on. I don’t like to compare my children, so I will merely say that this played out differently than I expected based on past experience.
At this point, I should have buckled down on the learning-to-brake thing, but I trusted that he would get there with enough practice. A few days later, on a ride around the neighborhood, he selected the street with the steep hill. I tried to persuade him to walk the bike down the hill. As I always say to Eleanor, you can’t win an argument with a 3-year-old (no matter how right you are). He refused to get off.
Okay, this was our chance to practice the brakes. I held the seat of his bike while he pedaled, and then I told him to hit the brakes. He did it. We repeated the lesson, and again he hit the brakes. At this point, we had gone down about 10 feet of the 500-foot hill. I told him that this time I would not hold onto his seat and that he would have to use the brakes on his own. You know where this is going.
The second he was beyond my reach, he saw how quickly he was gaining speed and he froze. He took his feet off the pedals, dashing all hopes that he might apply the brakes, and splayed his legs into a V. “No, Henry, no!” I shouted. He wailed in fear, the sound trailing him down the hill. I’m pretty fast for a 30-something mom, but I would not be catching him. I ran mostly so that I could quickly assess the damage after he crashed. I did a quick mental calculation of how close we were to meeting our insurance deductible for the year. I chastised myself for thinking about money as my son headed for imminent disaster. Would it be broken bones? Facial lacerations?
A neighbor, a mom of three boys no less, watched our circus fly past her driveway. And then Henry was at the bottom of the hill. Unscathed. Terrified and mad at me but with his beautiful face intact.
What’s the lesson here? Teach your child to use the brakes? Don’t teach a 3-year-old to ride a bike? Or maybe just that, yes, my children are opposites, and I know nothing about parenting despite eight years of practice.