Behind closed doors
We have been introducing our newly five-year-old daughter to the bike, and, to put it mildly, it has been trying. Never mind that the training wheels are still on the the bike, the terrain is smooth and flat, and the distance we are covering is short--we may as well be asking our child to bike Mount Everest. Over the past few weeks, we have seen so many tears and tantrums.
I know all of the advice: keep the bike rides short and fun. Do not get into a battle of wills. Be patient; every kid is different. Easier said than done.
We live in a very bike-unfriendly area. Our neighborhood is practically a mini mountain, and we have no sidewalks, which means our rides are limited to our driveway, or we must venture out to parks and empty parking lots for practice. That means that all of our bike rides are public, and I am keenly aware of how many eyes are scrutinizing our parenting decisions.
Many people have been kind. Some have ignored us. Others have chimed in with what they mean to be helpful advice. I find myself desperately wishing for privacy as our family endures this struggle. It is as though our dirty laundry is being aired for everyone to see. We are inviting everyone to take a first row seat to view what happens behind closed doors, where the parents are not so patient and understanding, the kid is not using listening ears or exhibiting a cooperative attitude, and where a family bike ride is not a leisurely weekend activity but a special slice of hell.
I read a book a few years ago, All Joy and No Fun, which made the case that modern parenting focuses so much on protecting children that room for spontaneity and challenge is almost nonexistent. As a society, we overstructure and overmanage, which ultimately leads to stressed parents and less resilient kids. The book's writer lays out the argument with far more nuance and elegance than I did here, but I think back often to her points. Sometimes we have to let our kids fall down. Sometimes we as the parents have to stop trying to fix everything. Sometimes no one may be happy, and that is okay.
I do not know what we will do about the bike exactly. We have tried a few different tactics, and we may let it go and revisit it again in a few months, but this post is not about the bike. I wonder about the chasm between public and private, how differently we behave behind closed doors and when we have an audience. It is human nature to some degree, of course. My husband and I restrict our yelling matches to places out of earshot of others, and I quickly ditch my carefully coordinated outfit for sweats or pajamas when I am at home. Parenting, however, falls into a different class. It seems to me that parents today feel that they are always "on," that every moment with their child must be teachable, that their primary job is to shield their children from all pain and unhappiness. Frustration, disappointment, boredom, discontentment...they are all part of life. I do not wish them for my daughter, but I know that she will experience them, and I try to acknowledge these feelings when they crop up, but I do not try to "solve" them or make them go away. I try to parent consistently, wherever I am, even if I do feel more self-conscious about showing anything but a joyful face to the rest of the world.
How much do we shift gears in our parenting styles when we are in public versus private? My hunch is that there are some big inconsistencies, but we do not want to talk about them, because, after all, parenting is supposed to be all joy, all the time. If we spoke more about those hard moments, those bad moments--without quickly plastering smiles on our faces and saying "But we'll get there!"--we might all sigh in relief. We might feel less tight, less wound up. We might just discover that other families have less than picture-perfect weekend bike adventures too.