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John Engel: Parenting, bicycles and learning to let go

Kids learn when they are ready. My wife, Lori, and I were recently reminded of this when our kids spontaneously demanded to have their training wheels removed.

Last year they were content to zip up and down our dead-end street with four wheels, even when the neighborhood gang was pedaling and scooting proudly on two.

Instantly we joined the time-honored tradition of running along side our budding bicyclists as they learned to balance and we practiced letting go.

Neighborhood tradition includes riding from top to bottom of the side yard at the end of our block, where the grade is slight and the grass offers soft landings, which eased our minds and their bodies.

When they graduated to the adjacent alley, differences between our kindergartner and preschooler emerged.

Eldest Zoe was entranced by the bright, Forsythia blossoms lining the right edge of the lane. Each attempt ended the same; like a bee drawn to pollen she veered off the path and straight into the bushes, growing more frustrated each time.

“I can’t do it. I keep crashing. I will never be able to do it,” she cried.

Yet, with renewed determination she eventually succeeded, ever so cautiously.

After a few tearful attempts, Adam rocketed down the alley, banked the turn, zipped half way up the block, made a sharp 180 degree turn, headed back to the alley, and skidded to a stop, sporting a wide grin.

Each day they take to the streets with helmeted heads, honing their balancing, steering and stopping skills, wailing when they crash into parked cars, curbs, neighbors and each other, squealing at their successes.

Their confidence grows faster than mine. For more than a week I put the brakes on their repeated requests to ride on the bike path. Visions of them crashing into an oncoming bike muted their pleas.

Eventually we took an incident-free ride along the path, as I ran between them, Adam racing far ahead and Zoe taking in the sights. Emboldened by the experience, they began scheming about longer rides, leaving me excited and terrified.

As teenagers, my friends and I toured by bike for many summers, each trip hundreds of miles, camping along the way, thrilled to explore the world on our own terms. Despite our parents’ fears about cars, trucks and bears, we never incurred more than mosquito bites and sore muscles.

Then, I took their approval for granted; now, I’m awed that they allowed us to feed our adventurous spirits in this way.

As an adult, bike touring has been replaced by years of bike commuting, the past five pulling a trailer, first with Zoe, then Adam, too. Loading the kids into the trailer, our second car, is a family ritual.

In the early days, Lori and I took turns pedaling Zoe to and from day care, and to the farmer’s market on Saturdays. When Lori worked weekend shifts, I chauffeured Zoe to town for lunch and a big chocolate chip cookie to share. She would fall asleep on the way home; parking her chariot on the patio, I’d sip tea and read the paper until she awoke.

Later, Adam at her side, we rode to and from preschool, the parenting center, library, lunch dates, and parks; sporting water bottles and snacks, they belted out “Going on a Bear Hunt,” through heat waves and snowstorms alike.

The thought of biking with an empty trailer — worse yet, no trailer at all — leaves me feeling grief for the loss of a cherished chapter of fatherhood.

This journey, filled with a zest for adventure, theirs and mine, and my attempts to ensure their well-being, is quite a ride. And, ready or not, Zoe and Adam are offering me a new opportunity to practice letting go, which will never be as easy as riding a bike.

John Engel is an organizational development coach and consultant living in Florence. Engel can be reached through his website, www.fatherhood-journey.com.

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