I love the symbolism of children learning how to ride a bike.
They go slow at first, unsure of their own balance and fearful of the pain they will feel when they fall, not if they fall. They know they will.
Despite their young age, immaturity and inexperience, they realize they are learning something that could hurt them, something dangerous, so they know instinctively that they will kiss the pavement sooner or later.
They rely on training wheels to keep them steady and their parents to keep them safe as they take on a perennial childhood rite of passage.
It’s a metaphor for the early stages of life.
A young child cannot survive without someone caring for him, yet he is always looking out to take that next bold step, whether it’s his first crawl, his first steps, or his first dip in the pool. Parents are within an arm’s reach every moment.
Soon, he will feel more comfortable on his bike, even with the training wheels, and pick up speed and venture farther away from his parents. He will no longer be content riding circles around the driveway, and will want to circle the block or the entire neighborhood.
It’s a metaphor for elementary school, when he starts feeling more independent, but always looks over his shoulder to see if you’re watching.
Before long he will build up the courage to take the next step, and ask you to remove his training wheels. Once you do, you still have to hold the seat and run alongside him while he learns to maintain his balance. He wants to take a risk and be dangerous, but you know he still needs a little help. You might even let him stumble to some degree so he can learn from his mistakes.
It’s a metaphor for high school, the time when you know you will have to let go soon but you want to hold on because he’s not quite ready to face the world on his own. Without question the time is near, but you sense his imbalance as you hold and release the bicycle seat.
Then one day, when you are least ready for it, he finds his balance and jets away from you as fast as his feet can pedal. You struggle to keep pace running alongside him, but quickly realize the futility of it and let him go.
He just graduated college, the final metaphor in the stages of learning to ride a bike.
I’m proud to say my two children now are both college graduates. Metaphorically, that is.
On March 25, 2012, my nearly 7-year-old son Gavin walked off the stage with a bachelor’s degree in Two-Wheeled, Human-Powered Vehicles, two years and five days after his older sister, Celeste, learned to ride a bike.
I took the training wheels off Gavin’s bike last fall, but he gave up learning to ride without them after just a couple of tries. I encouraged him to keep at it, but he wouldn’t.
I learned from teaching Celeste to ride a bike that kids will learn only when they are ready, so I waited. Gavin’s ride stayed in a mosh pit of bikes at the head of the garage throughout the mild winter, and he never once asked to take it for a spin.
He saw his younger friends whirl around the neighborhood on just two wheels like they were professionals, but he remained on his scooter while I continued to wait.
Then on March 25, 2012, as the sun sat high in the afternoon sky and the temperatures hovered around 70 degrees, Celeste took out her bike and wanted to race Gavin on his.
Gavin jumped at the chance, but I wouldn’t allow it.
“Your bike doesn’t have training wheels, and you can’t ride it without them,” I said.
“Besides, that’s a big hill even with training wheels. Why don’t you race on your scooter?”
“No,” Celeste protested. “It’s only fair if Gavin’s on his bike.”
“He doesn’t know how to ride it,” I said flatly.
“You could put the training wheels back on,” Gavin offered with a smile.
I shook my head. “No, I’ve already taken them off, and it takes too long to put them back on and get them just right,” I said.
Gavin thought for a minute. “I can try to ride it without training wheels.”
“Not in a race,” I said.
“No, that’s not what I mean, Daddy. I mean, just try it. You can help me.”
“I can do that,” I said.
We took out his bike, and I held onto him as he found his balance on just two wheels.
“You can do this,” Gavin whispered to himself. “You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.”
“You can do it,” I told him as I ran alongside of him to make sure he didn’t fall. I could feel his balance improve with each yard his wheels devoured, and I slowly released by grip while running next to him.
He fumbled a few times, but kept his composure enough to apply the brakes and stop himself without falling down.
“Let’s try again, buddy,” I said.
He quickly set his feet on the pedals and started grinding away. I again let go as he maintained his balance.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said to himself louder with each repetition. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
He stopped, and I knelt down beside him.
“Why can’t you believe you can ride your bike?” I asked.
“Because I couldn’t, but now I can,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
I hugged him. “I believe it, Gavin. Want to keep going?”
He did, so we turned around and I continued to run next to him just to be sure he wouldn’t run into a tree or out into the street, but I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with him. He did not need me to keep his balance.
“Keep your eyes on the prize,” he said to himself as his riding smoothed out. “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
Later in the evening I asked him what prize he was after. “Riding my bike without training wheels,” he replied.
I smiled, and realized I too had a prize: watching my son earn his degree. Well, metaphorically, anyway.