I set out to help my son learn to pedal without training wheels. But he wound up teaching me a far more important lesson.

Illustration of boy riding a bike
Credit: Keiko Morimoto

When my son Galen was 5, I decided it was time he learned to ride a two-wheeler. He'd already pedaled with training wheels for more than a year, often with one of the plastic wheels bent an inch above the ground. Taking them off seemed like a formality.

I talked the impending milestone up for weeks. "Get ready!" I said. "You'll be a big boy soon!"

On the first warm Saturday that spring I led Galen to the driveway and removed the training wheels. Together we carried them to the back of the garage and headed for the street.

"Don't forget his helmet," my wife, Katherine, called from the window. That meant not just a helmet, but also knee and elbow pads, high-top sneakers, long sleeves, and pants. Before we moved to Wisconsin, Katherine had worked in the E.R. of a children's hospital in Salt Lake City, a job that gave her a ringside seat to every conceivable way a child could be maimed. She'd once shown me a picture of a bike helmet smashed to smithereens and then told me to imagine that it was our son's head.

I buckled Galen's helmet beneath his chin and rapped my knuckles against his elbow pads. He could fall off the roof of the house and hardly feel it. "Are you ready?" I asked. "Ready," he said.

Katherine came outside to watch, our 2-year-old son on her hip.

"Don't let go," Galen said.

"Here we go," I said, and we set off down the sidewalk. We jogged past our house and the neighbor's until we had built up some speed. "Keep pedaling," I called, and let go.

Galen sensed immediately that something had changed. "No!" he screamed, and dove for the grass.

"You almost had it," I said. "Why did you stop pedaling?"

"You let go."

"Let's try again."

Galen looked me in the eye. "This time, do not let go." He pointed his finger at my chin. "Do not."

"Just keep pedaling," I said. "Focus on that."

We turned the bike around and started again. Galen pedaled past the neighbor's house on the other side. I was holding on with three fingers, then two. He was going faster. He had this. When the bike seat slipped off my index finger, I let it. For a few glorious seconds, Galen kept riding. I clapped and called out, "You got it! You're doing it!"

Galen glanced over his shoulder. When he saw I wasn't there, he let go of the handlebars. He collapsed like he'd been hit by a giant rock, landing on the sidewalk and scraping his palms (the one body surface I'd neglected to pad). He saw the blood on his hands and began to wail.

My impulse was to tell him that falling was a part of learning to ride. The spill couldn't have hurt that much, not with all the cushioning. But Katherine had told me too many stories of awful dads in the waiting room, telling their kid with a compound fracture to suck it up and be a man. So I moved Galen's bike out of the way and helped him stand up.

Katherine came running over. She knelt on the pavement and kissed Galen's bloody palms. Galen draped his arm around his mom's shoulder and looked back at me. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said. "But you're a bad teacher."

"Let's try again," I said.

"I just want to ride my bike," Galen said.

"That's the idea," I replied.

"No," he said. "The old way. Put the training wheels back on."

"You can't give up so easily."

"Wheels back on."

"No way," I said. "Once the training wheels are off, they're off."

"Fine," Galen said, crossing his arms and frowning, his eyes glassy. "I won't ride then. Ever."

"Suit yourself," I said. I walked toward the house. Katherine picked up our toddler and held out a hand that Galen quickly grabbed. The bike stayed where it had fallen.

An hour later I wheeled it into the garage. And there it lay, on its side, collecting dust for the next several months. In the mornings, Galen watched as I took my bike out to ride to the office. "This could be you," I said. "You want to try riding again?"

"No," he said. "I'm not ready."

"Tell me when you are."

"I'll tell Mom."

By late August, I'd given up. My firstborn would be one of those kids who never learned to ride a bike. He'd grow overweight and socially awkward, afraid of girls and sunlight, spending his free time trolling in the basement. Eventually he'd end up in prison for hacking into a government mainframe. Katherine told me to look on the bright side: If all that came to pass, he could probably hook us up with free cable.

One day, Galen wheeled his bike to the driveway. Instead of riding it, he turned it upside down and cranked the pedals with his hand, singing out, "Ice cream! Ice cream! Who wants some ice cream?"

"You know," I said. "If you learned how to ride we could go get some ice cream together."

"Who wants ice cream anyway?" he replied.

My wife set her hand on my arm. "Let him be," she said. "At least he's playing with it."

So I sat in the yard and watched our toddler, pretending not to notice Galen. Eventually he turned the bike over. He stood with his feet on the ground and the crossbar between his legs and walked in circles. Then he leaned against the garage wall and slid onto the seat. He pushed off, pedaled once, and fell onto the grass. He wasn't wearing any protective gear, but he didn't cry. I didn't move.

Galen walked the bike back to the garage. "Okay, this is it," he muttered to himself, baring his teeth. "This is the ride of Angry Galen." He clenched his fist and looked down at it. Then he pushed himself away from the wall and, this time, made it to the pavement. He was slow and wobbly, but he didn't fall. I listened for the sound of metal scraping on concrete but heard nothing. Seconds later he came up my neighbor's driveway and emerged around the back of the house, gliding back to the garage wall. "This is the ride of Angry Galen," he said again and shoved off once more.

Angry Galen circled the house at least 20 times that afternoon (enough to wear a trail in the lawn). After all the years I'd spent fantasizing about teaching him to ride, and my conviction that doing so would be a great father-son bonding moment, it turned out that the best thing I could do was get out of his way.

Toward dinnertime, my neighbor wheeled her grill onto the driveway. I told Galen to put his bike away. It wasn't a good idea to ride past a hot grill, and it was time for us to eat too. When he turned to me, the look on his face said, "Where in the world did you come from?" He cruised back to the garage wall one more time. "Dad," he said. "You want to see something?"

"Go for it," I said. "I'm watching."

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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