I have memories of trying to learn how to ride my bike without training wheels. The bike I had was a marvelous blend of brown, mustard yellow, and more brown. Growing up in West Virginia you were either going up a hill or down a hill, so the concept of NOT using training wheels haunted me until about the 4th grade. It was at this point that I was the only kid in the neighborhood that was still riding a four wheeler, and it definitely wasn’t the cool kind. One day when he didn’t have to go into work my dad took me to the hospital parking lot, as it was one of the few flat surfaces near our house. I don’t remember how long we practiced. I do remember falling, having the handle bar scrape my stomach. My dad and I still joke about that today. But in the end I left there feeling confident enough to keep the training wheels off.
A few weeks ago our older son asked if we could get an older bike down from storage in our garage. He didn’t tell me why. I had just semi-cleaned the garage the week before and I knew the bike in question was well buried. It was my one day off for the week, and I had hoped to be able to sit and relax rather than go climb a ladder and dig through debris. I spent the better part of thirty minutes arguing with him, coming up with reasons that I shouldn’t get the bike – it is way too small for you; it would be hard for me to get where it is located; just go ahead and ride the bike that fits you. However, my son persisted. It was important to him, but in my fatigue from work I failed to notice this.
Eventually I gave in. I usually recommend to parents NOT to give in when your child has been told “No” already to avoid future issues with tantrums and begging. But the fervor in his requests told me this was something more than a typical request. I climbed the ladder, dug out the bike, and in my last feelings of frustration stated, “You better use this for more than five minutes since I got it down for you.” That statement wasn’t necessary. Another failure on my part.
As he took the bike out I told him we couldn’t put training wheels on it as we had none that would fit it. He told me he didn’t want any. Unbeknownst to me or my wife he had made the decision to learn how to ride his bike unassisted. This was new as in the weeks prior he stated he was too scared to do this out of fear of falling. As he sat on the bike it was obvious his legs were too long and pedaling would be a struggle. But this time I kept my mouth shut. After about 10 minutes of trying and failing to pedal on the bike he stated, “Dad you were right. Can we take the training wheels off my bike and try that instead?” We did. He didn’t master the balance at that time, but he worked harder at it then I believed he ever would.
The next day at work I got a call over lunch. It was my wife’s phone number so I answered assuming there was a question about dinner or something else. On the other line was our son’s voice. “Dad, guess what? Guess what I did?” There was excitement there, and I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going. “I rode my bike without my training wheels!” “That’s great!” I exclaimed. I won’t lie. At first I had an initial pang of guilt. I had not been the one to fully teach him to ride his bike as my dad taught me. But that feeling soon left me realizing that my wife got to enjoy that moment, and in that I was happy. Sometimes as a dad of boys we feel we should be the one to teach them these life skills. In all honesty, that is also a failure in my mindset.
So what does this have to do with empathy? In pediatrics we are trained to understand cognitive development and understanding. That way when you bring your child in at a certain age we are ready to connect with them at their level. I know your 15 month old is going to hate me and scream the entire visit no matter what I say and do. I know the five year old preparing for kindergarten will either be overly shy or fantastical in their description of life. Junior high visits may include a patient who is uncomfortable in their body or not sure where they fit in yet. Being able to see your patient from their viewpoint is extremely important in connecting with them and helping them through any problems they may be presenting with. So why couldn’t I stop and think about what my son’s viewpoint was when he asked me to get that bike down? I was more focused on my desire to relax than I was on my kid’s desire to break through a fear. Initially I was not willing to see things from his side and was more focused on my own.
As parents it is not always easy to see why our kids act or behave in certain ways, but if we can improve how we see them at their age and their expected cognitive abilities then we can reduce the amount of frustrations we have with them. I do it every day with my patients. I should be able to do this with my own kids as well. Had I persisted in my frustrated responses of “No” we may still be using training wheels. That initial push for him to accomplish this goal would have been suppressed.
After putting his bike away that first day of practice my son pulled me to the side. “Dad, I’m sorry. You were right.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “I only rode the small bike a little bit and not very much. I shouldn’t have asked you to get it down.” “No,” I told him. “I am sorry, because getting that bike down let you break your fear of riding without training wheels. Without that you may have never tried on your big bike. It was a really good idea you had.” With that he walked away smiling. I never want my kid to think his ideas are bad. And I want my kid to know it is ok for Dad to say sorry. And although I initially failed that day, I grew from it. Another lesson added to the book we call parenthood.
I challenge everyone as a parent – over the next week write down at least 3 failures you had. Don’t judge yourself or feel defeated. Accept the imperfection. Then determine what you learned from it and how it made you a better parent. Remember – our kids don’t expect perfection. Neither should you.
Imperfect Dad, MD