Of Bicycles and Self-Determination

My almost-three-year-old niece is just learning how to ride a bicycle. The overall balance issue doesn’t come too much into play yet since there are training wheels on her bike, but there’s still a lot involved. The pedaling needs to be done in a forward direction in order to move; that can be hard to start from certain pedal positions. A backward pedaling motion stops the bike but you need to remember to do it when you want to slow down or stop. And you need to remember not to do it when you want to keep going forward. That whole steering thing is a lot to think about as well, especially when you’re focusing on pedaling and trying to catch up to your older brother.

As the family went around the block, my niece drove my sister a little nuts as she alternated rapidly between asking for help and pushing my sister’s hand away. The child wanted to do it herself but kept getting stuck. The parent was happy to give her daughter assistance and independence, but the rapid cycling between the two wasn’t the easiest thing to deal with. So the bicycle balance issue that was covered by the training wheels was replaced with a parenting balance issue.

But it wasn’t a balancing issue for my niece. She knew exactly when she wanted help and when she wanted to do it by herself. When she got stuck and couldn’t move with a try or two, she wanted a little push. Then she wanted to be left alone. She didn’t necessarily want the occasional steering help to keep her from going into the middle of the street or a hand on her bike on a big downhill stretch, but those weren’t up for negotiation.

It gets harder to ask for help when we’re adults. Maybe a lot of that difficulty comes from a fear of loss of independence: If I ask for a little help with my finances, will I lose my financial control? If I ask for help with my project, will people think I can’t do it and give it to someone else? If I ask for help with my health issue, will someone else make my medical decisions for me and will I end up having to do things that aren’t right for me?

And we’re much more aware of others’ feelings than we are when we’re three years old. My niece had no problem pushing my sister’s hand off of her bike. As adults, we worry a little about hurting someone’s feelings by not following their advice or by rejecting their help. Since it’s hard to stop accepting the help, we may think it’s easier not to ask for it in the first place.

We can learn a lot from a toddler on a bicycle.

Training wheels are ok while you learn to pedal and steer. If you’re new to cooking, start by following recipes closely. If you are having difficulty managing your weight, ask your doctor for a specific plan to follow as you learn how your body specifically responds to certain ways of eating.

Sometimes you need a little push – ask for one. If you haven’t been able to stop smoking by yourself, ask your doctor for something to help you. Ask an expert for advice when you don’t know what to do or aren’t sure you’re taking the right step.

If someone has their hand on your steering mechanism for too long, ask them to remove it. If you are feeling pushed towards having a medical procedure done that you don’t feel comfortable with, stop and ask for a second opinion. Discuss your goals and your fears with your helath care team. Find what works for you. Grab your steering wheel back.

It was delightful to watch my niece and my sister do the self-sufficiency/reliance-on-others dance. The pride beaming from both of their faces, the love, the frustration, the achievement, the annoyance, the accomplishment – it was a marvelous first ride around the block. May they have a million more.

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