Currently, my children are ages four (4) and eight (8); they are both non-disabled. It is important to me that they have a physically active lifestyle, even though I am in a wheelchair and limited in the range of activities that I can do. When my son was a toddler, I wanted him to be able to learn how to ride a bicycle, but I didn’t know the first thing about how to teach him. As a mom in a wheelchair, and someone who has never ridden a bike in her life, I wasn’t sure where to begin.
As physically disabled parents, we often fear we will be unable to help our children master exactly these types of athletic tasks. I have heard similar worries from other disabled parents… “What kind of parent will I be, if I can’t kick a soccer ball around with my kid?” Such activities are a core part of childhood, and they are often symbolic of the relationships we strive to cultivate with our children.
Although my partner is non-disabled and knows how to ride a bike, he does not own a bike nor is he much of an outdoors person. I knew that if I wanted my son to ride a bike, it was up to me to figure it out. After doing a little research online, I decided to get him a balance bike. This concept is truly ingenious. A balance bike is a small bike without pedal or training wheels. Children learn how to balance on the bike and glide along using their feet to stop and start as needed. Eventually they start just cruising along with their feet off the ground. This worked beautifully! My son caught on quickly and when he was ready to move up to a regular bike with pedals, he took to it like a pro! No training wheels required.
A few years later, I figured my daughter could learn the same way, since it worked so well with my son. I tried to give her my son’s old balance bike, but she never took to it. I don’t know if it was because it was a hand-me-down, or because the balance bike concept just didn’t resonate with her, or because my daughter is… my daughter. Regardless, this year for Christmas she received her very own brand new bicycle (in her favorite color pink, of course) with training wheels. She will be five (5) next month, and so far she’s doing great riding on her 16-inch hot pink bike with training wheels.
I am strict about requiring my kids wear helmets, and they will fall when learning to ride a bike. Just because I’m using a power wheelchair doesn’t mean I can’t be right there to comfort and encourage them. Sometimes I have the urge to swoop in and pick them up. But honestly at their ages, they are getting more independent and they can learn from their mistakes. Ironically, my disability stops me from being too much of a helicopter parent! Safety is important, but we do our children a disservice when we don’t allow them to fall, or to fail. They need to fail in order to gain the skills to cope with adversity.
A couple weeks ago, at a neighborhood Christmas party, my son’s best friend’s parents asked me how my son learned how to ride a bike so well. They noticed how confident and skilled he is riding his new bike around the neighborhood. I laughed, and told them “you might not believe this, but I actually taught him to ride his bike myself.” They were ready to sign their kid up for lessons! I felt proud – both of my son and of myself. I didn’t shy away from teaching my kids something just because I can’t do it myself. The truth is, I think my son is just naturally skilled at riding a bike. But it feels good to get a compliment on your parenting, especially when you are a disabled parent whose abilities are most often underestimated, regardless of our actual contributions and efforts.
Like everything with parenting, I’m learning that what works for one child may not work for another. Just when you feel like you’ve mastered a skill, the next child needs to learn it in a totally new and different way. It’s been a lot of fun taking the kids on bike rides. My next goal is to get an adapted handcycle bike for myself so I can join in on the exercise part! At the end of the day, though, it’s not really about riding bikes. It’s about togetherness and being truly present with my children. The late, great Maya Angelou once said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Nowhere is this more true than in parenting. I don’t know if my kids will remember me teaching them how to ride their bikes. I’m not sure they’ll recall what bikes they got or care how much they cost. But I hope, and I believe, that they will remember that I was there – and that I made them feel important and loved. I was right beside them the first time they achieved that milestone, to wipe away their tears, to give them hugs and kisses, and to encourage them to shoot for the moon.