When you try something new, you are going to suck in the beginning. Period. You are. There's no way around it. How could you be good at something you've never done before? So give yourself some grace and allow yourself to suck. That's how all of us begin. Everyone of us. Every time.
I was recently thinking about the process of learning as my son, Leo, just mastered his "big boy bike" - a 16 inch pedal bike, with no training wheels - a month before his third birthday. Yes, definitely earlier than most kids. As a dad, I was stoked! I was giddy, running alongside him during his first couple of rides like a secret service agent next to the president's limo. "Clear the way everybody!"
I loved riding bikes as a kid and still do. In fact I even mountain biked through the Himalayas when I was 25 years old. The picture below is me at the Mount Everest base camp at 17,000 feet elevation. Look at those guns!
Oh wait, I almost forgot this blog post is not about me...
Neighbors were shocked watching my son Leo on a pedal bike with no training wheels. "How old is he again?" they'd ask. He's "still two" I'd respond. "Wow! That's incredible. He's so coordinated!" they'd say. The older women that walk around our neighborhood every day couldn't believe it. Same with our friends when I would post videos on social media: "He's going pro for sure!", or "Unbelievable.", or "He's so talented!". But looking back at the last year, the biggest reason he was able to ride a bike was...drum roll please...he practiced for a long time. That's it. He rode his balance bike (no pedals) nearly every single day for a year. He was developing a new skill. And guess what? In the beginning he sucked and was frustrated. And we were frustrated, too.
We got Leo a balance bike for his second birthday. I was trying to decide between a balance bike and a scooter but after seeing so many little kids eat it on scooters at the park, I actually thought a balance bike would be safer. I thought back to the psychology class I used to teach and since kids don't typically remember details before the age of three, we got him a used balance bike on facebook marketplace for $40 versus a new one for $120. And, because his dad's frugal (aka cheap). It was definitely loved but useable, although the tires didn't have much tread (more on that later). I did however spend a decent chunk of time researching the best kids helmets and ended up spending more for his helmet ($42) than I did for his bike.
Leo spent his first three weeks with the balance bike just walking with it between his legs. He did it daily. I'd tell my wife with a smirk, "Hey babe, we're gonna go take his bike for a walk."
During those three weeks my wife and I started thinking we were the problem..."Maybe we should be guiding him more? I'm not exactly sure how to get him to do it right. Is he just going to walk with it forever?" Thinking back now, Leo was happy walking with his bike because it was new to him and he didn't know any better. It was fun for him. It was his parents (ok his dad) that was frustrated. But why do we always do this to ourselves and our kids? Why would I expect a child to automatically know how to ride a bike? Or walk? Or talk? Or be potty trained? Or read? Why wouldn't I assume it would take time to learn something new? I think it's because in the beginning we suck, we can't do it, we struggle. But the beginning isn't the whole journey. We get better. And better. And better. It's important to remind ourselves of this and give ourselves grace when we try new things. We need to embrace the struggle, keep working at it everyday and eventually it will click. It always does. And that's exactly what happened. Finally, after three weeks of walking with his bike everyday (which was no time at all to him but felt like eternity to his parents), we were at the park and began to see glimmers of hope! Progress. He starting lifting his legs and gliding, for perhaps just a second or two, but it was progress none-the-less. I was so proud and immediately sent a video to mom.
He was getting it! He was learning the most important element of riding a bike - the balancing part. Something that training wheels, that invention the US has been using for the last 50 years, don't help with at all. Once he figured out how to glide on his balance bike, things got fun. Now he was even more excited to ride it everyday with his dad. So we'd go out in the neighborhood, me on my skateboard and Leo on his balance bike riding around looking for trouble. After about six months of riding, nearly every day, Leo was pretty comfortable on his balance bike. Here he is after six months of riding, at 2.5 years, dropping down into a drainage ditch behind our house.
People were shocked when I posted the video on social media. "OMG" and even some comments that perhaps I was irresponsible for allowing him to do it. But I'd seen him everyday on his balance bike. He was getting good. And I didn't let him drop in the entire way the very first time. I was nervous too. I'm not totally crazy. Remember I spent more on his helmet than I did on the bike? We did it incrementally - trying it from halfway up, then from three quarters of the way, before I let him tackle the whole thing by himself. I again had to send a video to my wife, who was now pregnant with our daughter and on bedrest. She was thrilled and scared at the same time.
A few months later I was out on a local trail and happened to cross paths with a dad and son mountain biking together. The boy didn't look much bigger than Leo, so I had to ask, "How old is your son?". Turns out his son had just turned four. He told me about his son riding his balance bike at two, then getting him a pedal bike at three, and now at four they ride up to ten miles together on the trails. Wow! That was impressive. That conversation planted a seed in my dad brain. Leo was a few months away from turning three years old, and I'd been thinking about getting him a pedal bike for his birthday. After seeing this boy and talking with them, I was convinced Leo could do it. That random chat on the trails with someone that had been in our shoes helped a ton. It allowed me to see, not only that it can be done but, the steps they took to get there.
So with Leo approaching three, it was back to facebook marketplace for a "big boy bike." I reasoned to myself that yes, even though he might remember a ripped handle bar, he's still going to be ecstatic! He's not going to say, "Ummm dad, I think this looks used." Moving up to a 16 inch pedal bike, people on facebook were asking from $50 to $100 - highway robbery - in my opinion! Knowing how excited Leo would be, I got excited myself, and started showing him pictures of bikes. We ended up buying him a 16 inch Norco Ninja, with a hand break - which the dad I met on that trail had encouraged me to do. I took Leo with me to pick it up, I thought it would be fun and educational. I also knew that if Leo went with me there was no way I could pass on it no matter the condition. After getting it home, I couldn't bring myself to hide it in the garage for a few months, so it turned into an early birthday present. Leo was able to ride the pedal bike the very first day! He did need help getting on the slightly big-for-him bike and with the pedals and once or twice asked if he could "go back on my red bike." He wanted to go back to what was comfortable, just like we all do from time to time, but that's not where the growth is and it's not where the fun is. Now, as I write this a week before his third birthday he's as obsessed with riding his pedal bike as much as he was his balance bike.
In an entire year practicing his balance bike, there was one bad fall. The kind of fall where we both came home crying. Leo was crying because he was in a lot of pain and I was crying because I knew how much trouble I was going to be in when I got home and my wife saw his face. In my defense, I didn't even let him do the entire downhill, just the bottom half. Also, if I wasn't so frugal (cheap) I might have picked a bike with a little more tread, so when the bike started wobbling on the sandy asphalt, he could have recovered without a fall. The night of the accident my wife (not so gently) reminded me that we were in the middle of a pandemic, she was on bedrest and needed full-time help, and we didn't need a hospital visit on top of everything! I decided to keep Leo off FaceTime and Zoom calls for a few days, my wife was already concerned about my parenting skills, I didn't need family and friends concerned too. Six months later there's still a little scar on his face.
One bad fall over the course of a year. Which, of course, is going to happen when learning anything new. We're always going to fall when learning to walk. And while I'd love to think my son is super gifted and talented and all those things parents like to believe, the truth is he loves riding his bike and wanted to go on it every single day, because, well...it's fun. He practiced nearly every day for a year before learning to ride a pedal bike. Looking back now, it's easy to think it was all just a smooth and easy feat. It's easy to forget the moments of frustration, doubt, and yes - even sucking we all go through when learning something new. That's how all of us begin. Everyone of us. Every time. So give yourself grace and allow yourself to suck, it's just part of the process.