Faith, freedom, and riding a bike

“Lessons of fatherhood, learned at play” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 15, 2007).

It’s as cliched as they come, but my earliest memory of my father is when he taught me to ride a bike. The memory is a fitting one for a son, for it calls to mind all that fatherhood encompasses.

The bike was an indestructible little piece of machinery engineered for efficiency, speed, and – so it appeared – combat. Cast-iron metal frame. Rock-solid rubber tires. Handlebars of steel. It was the Cadillac of toddler bikes.

The riders of the bike, however, were a bit less indestructible. My brothers and I each discovered freedom – and a few bruises and scraped knees, since our father didn’t believe in training wheels – on that little bike of death.

Looking back on it, I realize greater lessons were at work.

Precariously balanced on the bike, we all learned to ride in a quick lesson or two from our father. On the first trek or two down the street, he ran beside us, one hand on the handlebar and another on the seat. Soon, though, he was running behind us, a 6-foot-4 man awkwardly scampering down the street like an oversize Quasimodo, his fingertips clutched to the back of the seat. Words of encouragement and guidance were called out from behind.

“That’s it! Keep pedaling! Keep pedaling! Look straight ahead. That’s it! You’re doing great!”

Then, just as quickly, the words began to fade away. Taking a dangerous peek over our shoulders, we would discover that Dad had stopped running. Instead, he was standing in the middle of the street, looking on with a smile and shouting: “That’s it! Eyes forward! You’re doing great!”

A moment of fear passed through the body, but it was quickly replaced by that special blend of terror, exhilaration and fun known as adrenaline. It was the taste of freedom.

As a father now, I truly appreciate the significance of that first bike lesson.

It is a father’s job to teach, guide and encourage his children. To give them the faith to believe in themselves, and the freedom to succeed or fail as they find their own way in the world. A father must learn to stand back and cheer, knowing when to hold on to his children, and knowing when to let go.

These are indeed invaluable lessons, and I find myself trying to put them into practice each day with my own children.

I watch my 1-year-old son, standing a mere 30 inches, lifting a basketball over his head and shooting it toward the hoop 10 feet above the ground. That net must seem like a galaxy away to him, but he has every confidence that the ball will go through that hoop. Someday it will. In the meantime, I simply stand back, coach and cheer, offering help only when needed.

Putting the lessons into practice will not always be so easy, though. I see it already with my 3-year-old daughter. Teaching, guiding, encouraging – those are the easy part. Those very actions will instill the faith needed for a child to succeed in life. It is much more difficult, I am learning, to know when to let go.

A friend once likened our thirst for learning to a child’s discovery of the world. At one point, the child’s world consists of the womb. Then it becomes a crib and the arms of parents. Soon enough the entire house is the child’s domain. Then the front porch. And after that – the front yard. Before long, the child’s world encompasses the other side of the street and eventually the neighborhood.

As my children’s worlds grow, just when I will want to hold on to them more and more, they will want to rely on me less and less.

Freedom. It certainly is the greatest lesson of fatherhood. A father can give his children the foundational knowledge and the encouragement to succeed, but he must also give them the freedom to do so.

Thanks to my father, I’m still learning from that first lesson. Riding the bike is the easy part. The challenge lies in knowing when to let go.

It is the ultimate lesson for fathers and, fittingly so, the ultimate lesson in faith.

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