Last year, at the invitation and encouragement of a good friend, I took up mountain biking. It’s not something a lot of thirty-seven year olds get into – at least, not the thirty-seven year olds that I know. Almost everyone I’ve met since my first ride – a powerfully addictive jaunt through the hilly woods near my house – has been cycling for at least half their life. Negotiating difficult terrain has become, for them, somewhat instinctual. Jagged rocks, steep descents, tangled roots – it’s all in a day’s work for them.
Because I’m still learning, the guys take it easy on me. No one expects me to launch myself off a boulder or rocket through a narrow switchback at stupidly high speeds. And yet, on occasion, that’s exactly what I do, though it’s rarely on purpose. Eager to grow, to do better, to keep up with the guys, I push myself to discover new terrains and experience higher speeds. I don’t exactly seek out the giant rocks or hairpin turns, but what can I say? Obstacles have a way of sneaking up on you when your ambition is greater than your skill. And though I sometimes find myself soaring unexpectedly through the air like the cartoon coyote realizing too late that he’s run off a cliff, or tumbling over my handlebars into the waiting branches of thorny bushes, my hope is that my ambition will forever exceed my skill. That is how we grow, after all.
Part of learning is discovering one’s limits, and yet we tend to feel as though there is danger associated with that. We fear what may result from our ambition exceeding our experience. In an effort to protect us, to keep us safe, our brains imagine any number of reasons why we shouldn’t do things: I may discover I’m not as good at making friends as I’d hoped I would be. I may be mocked if I don’t know the answer. I may crash my very expensive bike into a tree. If we are not willing to be vulnerable – to feel just a little bit unsafe – we will never bump into our boundaries hard enough to shatter them.
That’s not to say that we should ignore our instincts. When I speak to families who face the daily reality that their nonverbal or self-injurious autistic child or loved one may just leave the house and wander off alone, I am reminded how fortunate I am that my instincts would prevent me from doing that. As much as our brains love to torment us with worst-case scenarios, occasionally they make a pretty good point, and we need to listen in those moments. However, we risk missing out on the great lives we could be living if our desire to be safe results in self-limiting thoughts. Worse, we risk passing those limiting beliefs along to our children and unwittingly shrinking their lives as a result.
Relentless focus on worry and dread has been my approach to parenting since my children were born. From the time they could lift their own heads, I’ve been deliberate and thorough in pointing out every possible harm that may befall them. “We can’t go on a walk today because it’s kind of windy,” I once explained to my four-year-old daughter. “You never know if a rock is going to pick up and slice into your eyeball.” My wife thought I was being unreasonable, but that very thing has happened to me. “I had to wear a patch on my eye for weeks,” I continued, my daughter practically in tears. “To this day, I can’t keep my left eye open in bright sunlight.”
Never one to share cups or straws with my children (because, germs...), I’ve shown them love by sharing my fear of less-than-optimal consequences. “Never reach blindly into your backpack; you could get a paper cut or jab your finger with a hidden pencil tip.” “Do not eat crackers or pretzels without first sipping some water; you can’t rely on peristalsis.” “Please, let me chop up that popsicle; I once choked for, like, a full second on a popsicle tip that broke free unexpectedly.”
In preparing my children to expect the absolute worst and avoid those circumstances at all costs, I’ve instilled in them not resilience, not intelligence, not a sense of self-reliance, but utter fear. My daughter apologizes for reaching into her backpack without looking; my son eats his popsicles with the hesitation and concern of a dog stealing food from the counter; neither one of them accepts so much as a CheezIt without first questioning if there is water nearby. Clearly, the time to push myself out of my comfort zone and allow my children to experience reality for themselves is long overdue.
In an effort to be a better parent, to parent from a place of love and optimism rather than fear, and to expose them to awesome things, I recently bought both of my children mountain bikes. This, I think, has confused them. More confusing still is my encouragement: “Now, when the ground gets really bumpy and you think you might wipe out,” I tell them, adjusting the straps on their helmets, “just stand up on the pedals and let the bike roll right over those bumps” – this, from the same man who for years prohibited talking while climbing steps.
Maybe it’s an Asperger’s thing. Because mountain biking is important to me, I assume it must be important to everyone else in my life. Whatever the reason, watching my children laugh their way down single-track trails – albeit the safest ones I can find – reminds me that my job as a parent is to prepare them for life, not to shelter them from it.