Training Wheels Facing fear, no matter your size

By Elizabeth Haussler – February 7, 2013

My son has a complicated relationship with his bike, which I think he got from me (along with my freckles and my let-me-eat-breakfast-before-you-talk-to-me-in-the-morningness).

Not long ago I had one of those days that can only be described as unexpectedly perfect. Both of my sons had been moody, grumpy, uncooperative and just not a pleasure to be around. I had been trying to get things done and was getting frustrated when my 5-year-old said, "Wook. We need to ride." The sidewalk around our house is uneven and lately they had been bumping into each other. At times, it seemed like this was on purpose. We would need more room to ride. I looked at the two bikes, my 5-year-old's red one and my 8-year-old's blue one, looked at the bike rack on the back of my car, and thought, "Now, what would MacGyver do?" I grabbed a blue rope we had used for who knows what and wrapped it around the seat and the stem of my older son's bike, creating a blue rope crossbar. I lifted it up onto the bike rack. Success.

I took the blue bike back down and examined the red bike. I started pulling stuff out of my trunk: my swim bag with pull buoy, kickboard, fins; the tri bag with my helmet and cycling shoes; the bag of emergency pants every parent of a preschooler has stashed somewhere in the car; the first aid kit I put together the night before I went to watch my first road race. Thinking of the boys, I put the first aid kit back into the trunk. It’s like Bike Tetris, I thought—if I tilted the red bike just right, I could fit it in and still close the trunk. Success. With both the bikes secured, I threw on my running shoes, loaded the boys and some drinks and snacks into the car, and headed for a nearby park where a paved path wound through the woods and provided ample riding room.

It was like finally being able to exhale as the boys set out while I jogged behind them. I was so happy I stopped to snap a picture of them pedaling away. Later, I posted that picture online and was stung by one person's response: "Isn't it time to lose the training wheels?"

My older son has Asperger's Syndrome, a kind of autism, and it sometimes catches me off guard to realize that people don't see the same thing I see when I look at him. He is tall for his age and is riding the largest size bike that I could get training wheels to fit.

When I look at that picture I took, I see my boys riding side by side, not fighting, and just enjoying each other's company as they pedal through a beautiful afternoon. I don't even see the training wheels. I also see a very brave boy who worked for months with an occupational therapist to learn to move his feet, one at a time, to pedal a tricycle. I see a boy who worked for months to learn to balance on a balance beam, who worked for months to get up the courage to slide down a slide. I see a boy whose brain sometimes sends him messed up signals about where he is in space. I see a boy for whom the world is often too loud, too fast, and too unpredictable. I don't see training wheels.

The fact of the matter is, though, that he is growing up and outgrowing the kind of bike that will fit training wheels. Recently, his occupational therapist asked for a list of things for them to work on that were still troublesome; I wrote down "buttoning pants," "opening a snack package," and "training wheels." While we were in the waiting room, my son asked to see the list. He read it over solemnly, ripped it in half, and threw it into the trash.

We had tried taking off the training wheels a couple of years ago. It was a disaster. He got on the bike, felt wobbly, and flew into a rage. Feeling off-balance is one of my son’s biggest fears. It shakes him to the core. He screamed at me to put the training wheels back on and swore he would never ride his bike again. He kept his word and did not ride that bike ever again.

When my younger son got his first bike with training wheels a few years later, my older son begged to share it. The seat was adjustable so I spent a couple of weeks raising and lowering it, depending on who wanted to ride. My younger son, who has a very generous soul, tolerated his brother using his prized possession until, one day, he decided enough was enough: "That's it!" he yelled. "That guy needs to get his own bike!" My older son said he didn't want a bike because he would never ride a bike without training wheels. I did some research and found one that, while so large it just barely fit him, could still accommodate having training wheels installed for a little bit extra. I went by myself to the bike shop to explain the situation.

I think years of having a child who can have a meltdown at the worst possible time in the most public setting has made me almost immune to what people think or say. And by “meltdown,” I don't mean throwing a fit because he wanted a toy; I mean full on screaming, kicking, biting, and practically turning into a wild child, one who is immune to all bribes, threats, and reasoning due to sensory overload from buzzing fluorescent lights, change in routine, getting jostled, and having something loud and unexpected happen. I say “almost immune” because my voice did quaver a bit as I as explained to the bike shop guy why I needed training wheels on such a big bike and why I couldn't just get the kid-sized mountain bike that would grow with a him a little bit but wouldn't fit any training wheels.

So, now, here we are with a bike that isn't going to fit for much longer. We are at the end of the road, as it were, with training wheels. My son's occupational therapist has a new plan involving balance training using a scooter that she says has worked with older kids who learned to ride their bikes. I am optimistic. My son, however, doesn't want to try it and swears he will never, ever ride a bicycle without training wheels. So I will do what I usually do; I will tell him we are going to his therapy. I will coerce—if not outright push—him over this hump. It's only fear.

On a recent cycling workout, I was joined by one of the group's ride leaders. He pedaled alongside me, explained the turns we would be making, and reminded me to slow down and keep my wheels perpendicular to the railroad tracks we were crossing. I hadn't been on my bike in a while and admitted I was nervous; having my shoes clipped to my wheels—being attached to the bike for better or worse—is still a little bit unnerving, especially when it's time to stop at a light or stop sign. I said, "I haven't been riding for a while and it turns out riding a bike isn't just like riding a bike." He laughed and said, "No it isn't, is it?"

In a way, I think everyone has something he or she can only do with the training wheels on. It is hard to leave your comfort zone, whether it's walking into a restaurant or an event alone or completely changing your routine to fit in something new. Sometimes it's easier with the added safety of training wheels but watching my son has made me determined not to miss out on anything just because I'm afraid I might fall.


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