“The brakes! Do you remember how to use the BRAKES?!” I yelled at my seven-year-old son, Evan, as gravity swept him away.
“YYYYYEEEEeeeeaaaah!” he called over his shoulder as he wobbled, righted himself, and wobbled again, picking up momentum and heading straight for our neighbor’s mailbox.
If he truly remembered how to use the brakes, that knowledge didn’t seem to be manifesting itself in any obvious way. He’d picked up enough speed that his shirt began flapping against his back, which is nature’s way of tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Dude, don’t fall right now, or gravel is going to end up in some really undesirable places.”
Up to that moment, he’d never gone faster than a walking pace on his bike. Despite years of constant parental cajoling, his bike had sat in our garage serving as a spider habitat, like one of those ships they sink offshore to create an artificial reef.
As much as I wanted him to enjoy riding his bike, I couldn’t really blame Evan for not seeing the upside before that day. It’s not like we were all of a sudden going to let him go tooling off into the world by himself, like I was allowed to do when I was a kid, back before we put all of our dogs and our kids behind invisible fences.
When I was a kid, a bike meant freedom. I’d hop on my bike and ride around with the neighborhood kids, trespassing without a care, getting poison ivy in the woods, and doing lots of other things that make me nostalgic, but that I will never let my kids do.
When it was time to come home, my parents would stand on the front porch and – I swear, this seemed perfectly normal at the time — blow into a gigantic conch shell.
“aaaaWOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” the sound of the conch would reverberate across the neighborhood. Whatever we were doing, I’d hop back on my bike and pedal home like mad, because conch-blowers, in general, do not take kindly to being ignored.
Sometimes, I think that childhood now isn’t so different from childhood in the 80s. Then I remember that my parents’ primary instrument for long-distance communication with me was the shell of a large mollusk. These days, kids wouldn’t understand that concept at all. Their parents’ conch shells are much smaller and sleeker.
In any event, after years of ignoring it, one day Evan just dragged his bike out of the garage, evicted the spiders, and started riding the thing around the driveway in circles, yelling, “This is actually FUN!”
Wanting to encourage his newfound appreciation for being a bipedaling biped, I took Evan and his five-year-old brother, Zack, out for an expedition around the neighborhood. (Zack’s bike still has training wheels and a handle in the back that lets me steer for him, so it’s more of a socially acceptable stroller.)
“Don’t let go, Daddy!” Zack said as we headed down a large hill. I grasped the handle on the back of his bike a little tighter.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you, buddy,” I said.
“Bye!” Evan said, pulling up his feet and bombing down the hill, prompting my shouted reminder about the existence of brakes.
I watched, helpless to do anything but spectate. Evan was truly on his own, approaching a curve in the road at a speed he’d never attempted before, with only that mailbox there to catch him if he failed.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is to let go. Or hold on. Or both. Or neither. Actually, I have no idea what you’re supposed to do.
I winced, then exhaled deeply as Evan sailed around the curve, hitting his brakes at the bottom of the hill.
“I did it!” he yelled, proud of either his accomplishment, or the embolism he’d just given his father. Both were quite large.
You can communicate with Mike Todd via the mollusk of your choice at firstname.lastname@example.org.