I set a goal that my son would be riding his bike by the last day of school. My daughters, ages 11 and 8, have been riding their bikes for years, but he has always struggled with gross motor skills, coordination, and all those things that have to come together at the same time in order to balance, petal, steer, and navigate. Swimming is similar: kicking, scooping his arms, breathing, face in the water, alternating actions–too much. He manages in a pool but he looks far from graceful. (I warn the lifeguard at the beginning of each summer that although he may look like he’s drowning, that’s actually his way of swimming.) But he’s 10 now, and he needs to know how to ride a bike. He just can’t keep up with the rest of the family on his scooter anymore. And if he gets invited to a friends’ house I don’t want him to feel embarrassed if they want to go ride around the neighborhood and he doesn’t know how.
So, I set a goal. We were going to go out there, every day if we need to, and practice until he got it. Like most propositions with him, it was met with resistance. He has a hard time imagining that anything we might do would be fun. Once he sees someone else having fun in an activity, he opens up to trying it. As long as it’s not too hard. Lots of things are hard for him. So, even though this was a goal with a deadline, I resigned to his objections, because it was just easier to do something else productive than discuss the benefits of learning to ride his bike, and negotiate time limits and conditions that might seem agreeable or pleasurable to him.
I forgot that it wasn’t really that he didn’t want to learn to ride his bike. I forgot that it was probably scary for him, that he had failed so many times before, that his little sister had mastered this skill, and that he had a hard time imagining that riding a bike could actually be fun. Then he told me: I don’t want anyone to see me. He was embarrassed. He has never been able to find the words to describe how he is feeling. But I heard him. I was reminded how important it is to be present with him because if I’m not, I might miss the rare messages he’s able to pull out of his mind and his heart. Ahhh…he was embarrassed.
Okay! I could work with that! I assured him that no one was out playing on the street right now, we’d stay within 3 houses on each side of ours, it was the perfect time of day to get out there unbeknownst to neighbors. And that was all it took. Out we went, little sister by our side, and we hit the pavement.
Then the most amazing thing happened. I helped him teeter on his seat, got him lined up, gave him some simple coaching–and he was riding! Simple as that! I jogged along beside him, in awe of his bravery and ability.
He was just ready. As with so many things throughout his 10 years, he wasn’t going to do it until he was ready. How silly of me to think that this was my goal to set. I did it with the best of intentions, and with the confidence that my sweet son could do it–because that’s what I do. When he can’t project himself in to the future and visualize conquering a new task, when he can’t determine the steps that need to be taken to get him to where he wants to be, when he can’t see how trying something new and challenging can actually bring him more happiness–I do that for him.
So maybe my new goal should be to check in with him and talk about what he’s feeling. Little by little he’s getting better at extracting the words that describe his emotions and his thoughts. A few weeks ago he described every emotion as boredom. After some gentle probing, he slumped his shoulders and admitted to being tired. Okay–I get that. I wasn’t understanding how being bored was keeping him from playing with the boys down the street–but being tired–understood. Things just aren’t as they seem with him, often times. But more than I want him to ride a bike or swim from one end of the pool to the other, I want him to have a better understanding of his own feelings and be able to express himself so he is understood by others. Again, not a goal I can achieve…this is his work to do. But I can teach him that his feelings are valid and important. I can teach him that being able to articulate what he needs is going to lead him to more happiness. I can sit with him, listen, and help guide him in matching the words with the feelings, and reassuring him that it’s worthwhile work because there are people who care for him and want him to be happy.
This morning he wanted to ride his bike to the bus stop. He rarely cracks a smile, but knowing him, witnessing this eagerness to use his new skill, showed me that he was feeling proud. He was excited to hop on that bike and ride to the place where a group of kids were gathered. This is one more thing that makes him more like them. I feel this emotion with him. And it makes me so happy! I’m so proud of him! Maybe by the last day of school I’ll get him to tell me how he feels about finishing 4th grade, about to embark on his last year of elementary school. They’re his feelings, but my goal will be to sit with him, listen, and guide him to more and more happiness.