Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyclical Failure

I think if I had to boil down the essence of American fatherhood into one scene or activity, it would be the day out in the street when the father, running behind the child’s bike, lets go of the seat and watches proudly as his child rides a two-wheeler for the first time without the training wheels.

I could picture the scene in my mind. I would be sitting in my red leather chair in my study, wearing my crushed velvet smoking jacket and ascot, reading a classic novel. My son would knock respectfully at the door, and ask to speak to me about his bicycle. Having inherited my incredible balance and agility through his DNA, he would instinctively know he was ready to go from four wheels to two. He would beg me to remove the training wheels and I would ask him, “Are you sure you’re ready?” in that really cool fatherly way, where I know he’s ready, but I want to instill in him a sense of measured restraint and responsibility for his own actions, so I ask the question anyway in a concerned, caring, thoughtful, and deep voice.

He says, “Yes!” excitedly, because he knows all about my concerned, thoughtful voice, so he knows that I know that he knows that he’s ready. I give him a wink. Without saying a word, the wink says, “You’re turning out to be a fine lad, and you’re making me proud.” That one wink says it all. It’s a wink he’ll remember and cherish for the rest of his life.

We bound out to the garage where he sees that I have already removed his training wheels the day before, because I’m such an intuitive, thoughtful, caring dad that I can see these things coming. He smiles from ear to ear as he realizes how lucky he is to have me as his father. Out in the street, I run behind him holding the back of the seat for a few minutes, and then, using my innate dad skills, I recognize the perfect time to let go, and he rides off on his own, in a glorious display of two-wheeled balance and agility. I stand in the middle of the street beaming with pride as the neighbors erupt in applause for my son’s new achievement and for my superior dadliness.

That didn’t happen.

For starters, I don’t have a study, an ascot, or a son who knocks respectfully on anything, let alone a door. My wife and I have three boys, and crashing through doors head-first is about as restrained as they get. Anyway, my oldest son, Number One, as we refer to him, is about to turn six years old. I felt that it was about time he learned how to ride a two-wheeler, even though he had absolutely no interest in doing so. His younger brother, Number Two, is four and a half. He had plenty of interest in learning to ride a two-wheeler, but a distinct lack of balance, grace, agility, and good sense. He does have, however, a heaping helping of persistence.

I asked Number One to try.
He said, “No thanks.”
I told him we were going to take his training wheels off and give it a shot.
He cried.
A half-hour later I finally convinced him it would be a good idea, and he said, “OK.”

I tried to hold his seat.
He fell over.
I tried to hold his shoulders.
He fell over.
I tried to hold the handle bars.
He ran over my foot. Then he fell over.
He said he was finished.
I said, “OK.”

I limped back to the garage.
Number Two announced that he was ready to give it a spin.
I iced my foot.
He begged.
I said, “Maybe later.”
He pleaded.
I said, “OK.”

I took the training wheels off of Number Two’s bike and out to the street we went.

I tried to hold his seat.
He fell over.
I tried to hold his shoulders.
He fell over.
I tried to hold the handle bars.
We ran into a parked car.
He asked me to stop helping him.

Number One looked at me and said, “Dad, you’re really bad at that. You dropped me every time, and you ran him into a car.”

I had no argument in my favor. Now, in my defense, they were completely leaning to one side, not pedaling, not steering, not helping in any way, but the end result was, in fact, that I had ran Number Two into a car. The results speak for themselves.

I gave up and went inside. Number One went back to playing tether ball, but Number Two was not to be deterred. He decided that if his dad couldn’t help him, he would just have to figure it out on his own. For the next three days, every opportunity he had, he was out on his bike without training wheels, trying to learn to ride. Occasionally I would offer helpful advice, and he would give me a perfunctory “OK, Daddy” that really meant, “I’ll take it from here, old man. You may go now.”

When I returned home from work the next day, I was greeted by a positively beaming Number Two, who was tearing up and down the street on two wheels. He had done it. And, he had done it all by himself! I found myself more proud of him than if I had helped. He had overcome the giant hurdle of a useless coach and won the game on his own. He was truly an all-star.

He was also very, very aware of the fact that he could now ride a two-wheeler and his older brother couldn’t. So aware of that situation that I began to question his true motives. Had he done it so that he could accomplish a personal goal, or had he done it to stick it in his brother’s face? Hmmm.

The answer began to clear up at dinner that night. Our boys know that bragging is forbidden at our house, but, if you don’t mind me saying, they’re smarter than average in my opinion. My four-and-a-half-year-old knows that stating facts is not necessarily forbidden, so he decided to make some observations.

“Hey, Dad.”
“I’m four and a half.”
“Did you like how I rode my two-wheeler today?”
“Yes I did. I was very impressed.”
“Hey, Dad.”
“He’s almost six.”
“I know that.”
“I like riding my two-wheeler.”
“That’s enough.”

Can you guess who asked me to remove his training wheels that night? Two days later, Number One was back on top, no longer the kid whose younger brother could out-ride him.

I set out to teach my boys how to ride a bike. Three days later they had learned absolutely nothing from me, but I had learned a valuable lesson from them. Sibling rivalry is going to be a wonderful tool for me. It’s way more effective than anything I can say. Number Three doesn’t stand a chance!

As Number Two zoomed up to me that evening on his super-cool green motocross bike, I gave him the knowing wink. That one wink that says it all.

He just stared at me blankly. Oh, well.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!


  1. A classic moment in a father's life! And take it from a #2 -- sometimes you just want to be the one to do something for the first time in the family! :)

  2. when i was a kid bikes did not come w/training wheels - it was ride a two-wheeler, walk or suffer the humility of riding a tricycle till you were old enough to drive.
    PS: thought i would miss your political observations (and i do) but these columns are very entertaining ... thanks, you brightened this foggy morning.)