Seven years ago I wrote a Father’s Day blog post about learning to a ride a bike. Seven years is a long time, and a lot has happened since then: In June of 2013, none of my five kids were married. Now four of the five are, and they all did really, really well. We had no grandchildren then, but now we have 4, with a new one coming any day.
Seven years ago I was a father to a houseful of teenage boys. with one daughter off on her own. Today we are on the verge of becoming empty-nesters. (27 days, to be precise.)
Fatherhood evolves. Being a father to a bunch of toddlers is one thing, raising teenagers is quite another, and being a father to adult children is yet another. Being in more than one of these dimensions at the same time can be mind boggling.
But first, here’s the story from 2013, then I’ll add some more comments.
The 1965 Schwinn Stingray. And it was mine. I couldn’t ride it yet, but it was only a matter of time. I did have some training wheels, but they seemed to send me off in all the wrong directions.
One Saturday morning, my dad decided it was time for me to learn how to ride it for reals. This was probably the result of my incessant begging, but I have somehow chosen to forget that part of the story. I do, however, remember the big day…
But before I tell you the story, let me tell you a little about the bike. Stingray bicycles were only a few years old, and they were very, very cool. However, that cool factor was decimated by the existence of training wheels. Mine was blue, and had a “banana seat.” Why banana? Look at it. Now you may scoff at the banana seat, but it did have some advantages. Lots of room for you, and lots of room if you needed to give someone else a ride. But those concerns, like the heightened “Sissy Bar” accessory, or the fluorescent orange flag, would only come into play after learning how to ride it.
That’s where the banana seat came in handy. The metal loop at the back of the seat was the perfect handhold for the instructor to steady the bike, as the student wobbled down the road.
(Side note: I taught most of the FOMLs to ride BMX type bikes that had no such convenient handhold. However, I was able to teach them without needing one, since I would usually take them to the top of a nice grassy slope, wish them luck, and give them a gentle push. Worked like a charm.)
My training ground was a flat sidewalk, with lawns and bushes on one side, and grass parkways on the other. There were about five front yards to pass before the street turned downhill. This is where I would master the Stingray.
After removing the shameful training wheels, it was time to learn. Dad held onto the loop on the seat and jogged behind me as I tried to balance and pedal at the same time. It was slow going. We went the distance of the course, and then turned around and went back.
A couple of times I realized that my dad let go of the bike and was merely watching me pedal. This awareness, of course, caused me to instantly crash. We made a few runs, and he would try and trick me, but he couldn’t fool me. I could tell when he let go, and would immediately panic and fall over.
Then something different happened. My dad was running behind me, and for some unknown reason, I veered to the left, and, amazingly, recovered. This quick adjustment caused my dad to stumble and fall into an evergreen shrubbery next to the sidewalk. I could tell he let go, and I glanced back.
I caught a brief glimpse of him lying there in the bushes, and I prepared to crash – but… I didn’t. And to this day, I clearly remember Dad yelling encouragement from the bushes:
“Keep pedaling! Just keep pedaling!”
And I did.
And I still do.
— I miss you Dad.
And I do still miss my dad. I think of him often, and I see more of him in myself all the time. Sometimes it is disarming. (Especially when I hear myself laugh hard.)
To me, rereading this story brought back the nostalgia, but, more importantly, it gave me pause for reflection. Today, after 32 years of parenting, the thing that jumped out at me was the part where dad let go.
He had to. If dad didn’t let go, I could only travel as fast and as far as his legs could dictate. I wouldn’t be in control, nor would I have any say on where I was going.
The letting go is essential.
Now, as a dad, I still have the same amount of love, concern, hope, dreams and fears for my kids, but it isn’t as “hands on” as it used to be.
Nothing pleases a dad more than having a kid call up and say, “Hey Dad, how do you make ribs which are he best in the entire world? (It could happen.) ” Or, “Hey Dad! My engine light went on, what should I do?”
President Ballard gets it: “Nothing shows respect for another person as much as asking for his advice, because what you are really saying when you ask for advice is, “I appreciate what you know and the experiences you have had, and I value your ideas and suggestions.” Those are nice things for a father to hear from his son.” (link)
It isn’t so much that dads know all that stuff, it is that their kids think they do, and that feels good. We still have a stake in our adult kid’s lives and want to be there for them, and help in whatever way we can – all while realizing that we need to retain our non-grip status, and keep letting go.
Today marks a very tender milestone for us. This afternoon, I have the privilege of laying my hands on the head of my youngest son and ordaining him to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood. And then I am done with that season of life. Thrilling, yet bittersweet.
One of the ironies of fatherhood is that the better job we do, the less needed we are. We hope that we send out kids into the world well-equipped to tackle what comes their way, in the correct way.
We also have to resist the urge to grab onto the bike if they start to wobble.
Looking at the broader picture, it is not as quaint as teaching a child to ride a bike. Fatherhood is becoming more and more passé in our society, which is exactly what the adversary hopes for. It is the most urgent social problem of our times. Elder L. Tom Perry said this:
“Satan, in his carefully devised plan to destroy the family, seeks to diminish the role of fathers. Increased youth violence, youth crime, greater poverty and economic insecurity, and the failure of increasing numbers of children in our schools offer clear evidence of lack of a positive influence of fathers in the homes.5” (link)
A second witness to this comes from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
“… I suppose no book I have read in recent months has alarmed me more than a work entitled Fatherless America. In this study the author speaks of “fatherlessness” as “the most harmful demographic trend of this generation,” the leading cause of damage to children. It is, he is convinced, the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from poverty to crime to adolescent pregnancy to child abuse to domestic violence. Among the principal social issues of our time is the flight of fathers from their children’s lives.” (link)
You really want to help society? Be a good father, and advocate for fatherhood.
One of the beautiful things that this blog has provided for me is a way to share my testimony with my kids. They have absolutely no doubt what their dad believes, and hopefully they will remember it when the time they need it inevitably comes.
“If a child is not listening, don’t despair. Time and truth are on your side. At the right moment, your words will return as if from heaven itself. Your testimony will never leave your children.” (Neil L. Andersen, link)
Dads: If you are still waiting to teach your child to ride, are currently hanging on for dear life, or have let go and are watching through your fingers to see what will happen, I welcome you to the adventure of a lifetime.
As our kids keep pedaling, don’t forget that we need to keep pedaling, too. You are engaged in a great work.
Happy Father’s Day!