As the groan of our garage door opening signaled that mommy was home, my daughter started jumping up and down. She didn’t even wait for my wife to get out of the car. “Mommy, we went on an adventure on our bikes, and the best part was the big hill.” I could sense from my wife’s Hawkeye glare that I had some explaining to do.
I decided that last Wednesday was a great opportunity to test the bounds of my daughter’s recently acquired cycling skills. With a full day ahead of us and an empty refrigerator at home, I told my daughter that we were going to spend the day riding our bikes to and from the grocery store. Being that our grocer of choice is nearly three miles—and one very large hill—away, I fully understood that this trek may take the rest of the day and likely drain my patience gauge. I packed my two-year-old son in the bike trailer, filled it with enough water and snacks for an entire day trip, and told my daughter that she was to stay on the sidewalk, but that I would be right next to her in the bike lane the entire way. Just over two hours later we returned home no worse for wear, with a trailer full of provisions for upcoming meals and a newfound enjoyment for two-wheeled transportation. Each morning since, my daughter has awoken asking if we can ride to the grocery store again. Goal accomplished.
Nothing good happens from looking down or behind. Sure, it can be constructive to evaluate our past failures to determine what caused them, but only as a means to expedite our progression forward. It is basic neuroscience, dwelling on what has passed or the dangers below induces measurable neurological adaptations, literally shutting down the components of our brain that regulate relational and item-specific processing. The more we do it, the thicker those neural pathways grow and the easier it becomes to focus on fear, anger, and stress. If we respond to perceived stress with positive action, it becomes progressively easier and those pathways which motivate us to react negatively or not react at all become dormant. It took me three-plus decades of experience, and a little bit of neuroscience research, to recognize that the primary impediment to achieving my goals was not a lack of ability, but that little voice in my head telling me to look down. This topic has been the heart of many of my family’s most in-depth ideological discussions, and my wife and I have dedicated quite a bit of the summer of 2017 teaching it to our daughter (as a difficult notion for adults to accept, maybe we are biting off more than we can chew by presenting this topic to a five-year-old whose shins bare a few reminders that falling off a bicycle hurts?). Either way, we agreed that if we can do one thing as parents, it is to drill this concept into the subconscious of our Princess and Batman. The more we act, constantly moving forward, the easier it becomes. Our children will not spend their formative years mired in unrecognized potential because they wasted time staring at the dangers below them or the failures behind them, not over my old, achy, scarred body.
Ironically, the activity that has caused me the most (and longest-lasting) physical pain, riding motorcycles, also taught me one of life’s greatest lessons: look where you want to go. Target fixation is the first concept in the motorcycle rider’s basics handbook. If you look at the ground, guess where you’ll end up? A few minutes before we reached the start of the descent down the big hill, I turned to my daughter and asked, “Remember that big hill we had to walk up? We’re about to go down it. If you are scared, we can stop and walk.” She hesitated for a second, clearly giving her pre-K brain time to evaluate her options, and before she could respond, I took matters into my own hands. “I’m right next to you, honey. Get a firm grip on your handlebars and look straight ahead.” As we picked up speed, I reminded her every few moments that “the big Walmart sign, that’s where we’re going.” We reached terminal velocity at the bottom of the hill, gaining just enough momentum to propel us to the stoplight at the entrance to WalMart without any pedaling. I proudly watched as she pointed her pink steed towards the upcoming sidewalk ramp and rolled to gentle stop at the light post. “Dad, can we walk back up and do it again?” she asked excitedly.
As parents, our most powerful instinct is that of protection. There is nothing worse than seeing your babies in pain. And mulling over the different ways you could have helped them avoid every little scrape can keep you up at night. Every so often I have to remind myself that my greatest personal growth occurred when I fell my hardest, and my primary responsibility as a parent is not to shield my children from life’s biggest hills or do everything so that they never crash, but to point them in the right direction and remind them to look straight ahead.