From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Training Wheels, Training Dad

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.

Henri Bergson

“I’ll call you names, too, if you keep calling me names,” my six-year-old son blurted through his tears.

Not my proudest moment as a father. I had been badgering him all morning, trying to push him past his fear of riding his bike without training wheels. How could he be afraid? Of all my kids, he had always been the daredevil. More important, who was this monster calling his son names like “quitter” and “chicken”? This moment had been building since July, when Taylor turned six. Most kids—the neighborhood kids anyway—had been riding two-wheelers since they were four years old.

I think the fact that I had always taken pride in Taylor’s bold personality and natural athletic ability only compounded my frustration. From the moment he was born, Taylor was a father’s dream. He was never without some kind of a ball, and proved every day that he was all “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.”

The plain truth was that Taylor had spoiled me. I’d gotten used to eating up other dads’ envy as they watched Taylor try some athletic skill for the first time. Taylor needed to be shown something only once and he could do it. I was certain he could already ride. He was just afraid.

But that’s the part that just didn’t compute. I couldn’t fathom how Taylor could be afraid, not this boy who attempted stunts that would make Evel Knievel cringe.

By the end of September I’d had it! We were well into the middle of the flag football season, and I had spent the past four Saturdays watching this boy dive for flags, block the heck out of older boys twice his size, and run for touchdowns. On each corresponding Sunday, however, this same boy whined, faked injuries, and refused to even try to ride his bike.

Infected by pride, I decided that the end justifies the means. The following weekend, I swore that Taylor would leave the park on his own and on two wheels. We went through our usual routine of Taylor’s panicking each time I let go of his seat and either falling or diving off his bike. I’m not proud of it, but I snapped.

Despite promises I had made myself when Taylor was born, I transformed into Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. For those who aren’t part of this 1979 movie’s cult following, it’s about a legendary tough-as-nails fighter pilot and his relationship with his family. The scene that always sticks with me as a father is the fight Santini starts with his teenage son after he loses to him at basketball for the first time. As the son walks away to defuse the situation, Santini keeps bouncing the ball off the back of his son’s head while repeating something like “You’re my favorite little girl.”

Taylor managed to maintain his composure while I threatened to throw his bike into a trash can. “Well, if you’re not going to ride it, I might as well throw it away,” I scolded.

That classy maneuver bought me another attempt. After his fear made him lose his balance, he sprang up clutching his banged knee and pleaded, “There, I tried. Can we go home now?” I guess that’s when the name-calling started.

A rabies vaccine couldn’t have worked any better than Taylor’s diplomatic approach to my irrational behavior. Rather than retaliate, he wanted me to realize that I wouldn’t like it if he called me names. I was floored. For once, I was the one who needed a “time-out.”

I rushed over and hugged Taylor tight. “I shouldn’t have called you names. That was wrong, and I won’t do it again,” I assured him. “You can keep riding with your training wheels on as long as you want.”

When we returned home, all I wanted was to get back into Taylor’s good graces. I knew just how to do it. Tools. Taylor loves tools! I took him into the garage to help me put his training wheels back on. We put on the matching tool belts that my wife had given us for Christmas the year before. Knowing he’d be disappointed with just a wrench, I also let him take a screwdriver, hammer, and a pair of pliers. As I handed him each tool, he looked up at me with undying gratitude. Ahh, redemption!

We spent the rest of the afternoon riding our bikes together. I couldn’t help but notice that Taylor wasn’t even utilizing the training wheels most of the time. Occasionally, he would tilt to one side, and when the training wheel hit the ground, he would shift his weight and rebalance himself back into the middle. I bit my tongue.

The next morning, I had barely come in from getting the Sunday paper off the driveway when I was greeted by a groggy Taylor. “Dad, I have a good idea. Can we ride our bikes again? Is that a good idea?”

It’s funny how in parenting sometimes everything just falls into place. “I have a better idea,” I said. “What do you say we put on our tool belts, and you can take off just one of your training wheels first?” He was hooked.

No sooner had Taylor realized that he could ride perfectly fine with just one training wheel on, than he was asking me if he could take off the other. I handed him the wrench, and he took the other wheel off. One push and he rode away as if he’d never been afraid and had been riding all his life.

Despite his tough guy persona, Taylor had the kind of heart that rivaled the Tin Man’s. When he rode back up our driveway, he stopped just in front of where I stood frozen, watching him in awe. Straddling his bike like a pro, he said, “You’re the best dad for letting me use your tools.”

Best dad? I thought. Not yet . . . I’m still in training.

Peter Balsino

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