Teaching a child to ride a bike is great joy

Published 9:04 am Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

It seems to me that if a father cannot get anything else right, if he screws up a bunch of his fatherly duties, if he is a drunkard, a deadbeat, a workaholic or a couch potato, he ought to get this one thing right — teach your offspring to ride a bike.

There are responsibilities a father has when it comes to raising children. Loving them is the most important, of course. Reading books and playing catch are up there. But helping a child to master the difficulties of riding a bicycle opens up a new world around them. They can get around faster, go farther, see friends away from their block and perhaps even buy an ice cream cone on their own. They learn responsibilities of caring for a prized possession and respect for the rules of riding on the sidewalks, trails and streets.

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One day about seven years ago, I was tinkering in my garage with my road bicycle and several boys came by. I noticed their chains were rusty, and I called them over to get squirts of a lubrication called White Lightning. Reflecting on it later, I made a comment to my wife that a person can tell if a father is involved in his child’s life by checking whether the chain on the child’s bike is oiled or rusty. It’s one thing to buy a kid a bike. It’s another thing to care about the bike.

It goes back to the age-old parental lesson: You can’t buy your child’s love. You have to spend quality time with your child to get that. It’s about hugs, not things.

Forrest, my 6-year-old son, has a blue Trek bike he got for Christmas from Grandpa Jere (pronounced like Jerry) and Grandma Teri when he was two months away from turning 5. Jere gave me a handle that attaches to the seat post and sticks out behind for a father to hold. Our plan was to skip training wheels altogether.

Last summer, I would take Forrest on his bike from time to time. I would run behind or alongside, holding the handle, and he would pedal. For short stretches over a few cracks in the sidewalk, I would let go, and he would ride without knowing I wasn’t holding on.

But you know, this year, I realized I messed up. The reason Forrest didn’t learn to ride a bike when he was 5 is I hadn’t been doing it frequently enough. Bad, Dad! That was OK, because many of his pals weren’t riding yet, either. Still, some kids he knew could. Last month, I told him we were going to ride his bike up and down the sidewalk of Maurice Street several times a week.

He kept getting better and better, going longer and longer without me holding, but I could tell that while he rode on the sidewalk that the bushes, the curb of the street, the cars parked in the street and the corners made him nervous. He couldn’t ride very far. He needed somewhere to ride free of distractions.

On Sunday, Lisa, Forrest, Jasper and I went to the Blazing Star Trail along Albert Lea Lake at the end of Garfield Street. Forrest put on his helmet, elbow pads and knee pads. Lisa pushed 1-year-old Jasper in a jogger while I held the bar for Forrest.

On the first try, when I let go, Forrest rode his bike like he was ringing a bell. It was amazing! He would swerve, but the trail was wide enough for him to stay on it. He sometimes went in the grass, but there were no pickups or station wagons to crash into. There were no curbs to fall off of. He would then ride back onto the trail.

He did crash a time or two into the tall grass and once into thorny raspberries, but he loved riding so much he would get back on with no tears and keep riding. He kept getting better at braking, and he learned to stop. By the end, he didn’t need me to run alongside. All he needed me for was the start, then he could go on his own.

It wasn’t so easy when he went back home and tried it on the sidewalk, because he crashed into a power pole, but he did far better than before. He just has to get over the jitters he gets from obstacles near the sidewalk, and he still needs to learn how to climb hills.

There are major milestones for fathers and sons. The day when your son can ride a bike is a proud one. I will always remember and cherish Sunday.

The next time we go to the Blazing Star Trail, we both are riding bikes.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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