Do you remember your first bicycle? I remember mine vividly. It was yellow and white with a “banana” seat, back brake, riser handlebar, white plastic grips. The freedom that it gave me was pretty amazing. My Korean parents, like many, were very strict. The bicycle afforded me some much needed (and illicit) independence. I still have scars on my knees from falling off that bicycle because of neighbourhood adventures.
A few years ago, when my daughter was six, we went to visit my parents in Minnesota. The surprise was that my parents had kept my old bicycle. It was now about forty years old. My daughter loved it. With a service at the bicycle shop, wheels and chain upgraded, it was ready to ride again. The mechanic expressed interest in buying it because it was now vintage. I had to smile. I guess I was now too.
I had already purchased a bicycle for myself which I would leave for my dad. When we picked up my old bicycle by car and brought it to my parents house, my daughter wanted to ride it almost immediately. We went for a little tootle around the neighbourhood. She was able to ride her own bicycle in Sydney. But this was something different. She was excited. I was excited. It sparked an idea. I bought a tagalong for her a few days later.
My parents house was located on a golf course estate. It was flat. The cul de sac and meandering neighbourhood streets were a great way for my daughter to become accustomed to the bicycle and to get a bit of exercise. We also discovered a trail which led to the local YMCA complex. She had expressed interest in going to the day camp program because there were no kids in the neighbourhood. I suggested that we ride together on the tagalong to day camp. She agreed. It would be like the commute to which she was accustomed at home in Sydney (except she would be pedaling too). Most mornings and afternoons during the three weeks of our stay, I took her on the tagalong and picked her up despite my parents protests. “It’s too far. It’s too hot. Are you crazy?” It was a 15km round trip. (For me, it was a great 30km day.) But we practiced on the weekend. She tried riding my old bike but it didn’t have gears. With a few rolling hills, it would have been an unnecessarily difficult and uninspiring ride for her.
We always had a great commute. We were completely separated from the suburban roads. We went through forest, along the train line, through mosquito patches from which we quickly emerged, a bridge, a small stream. It was lovely. It was also an excuse for an icy pole at my parents house a few times a week. I lost 3 kg on that trip commuting to camp and home. (The primary reason for our visit to Minnesota was because my mother had been diagnosed as being “pre-diabetic.” I wanted to show, by example, how to improve her diet and lifestyle. She lost 20 kilos after our three week visit. Her doctors were amazed.)
Fast forward three years. We recently bicycled together to Ikea in Tempe. My daughter was again riding one of my old bicycles. This time, a 28” hybrid on which she once was passenger. She was up front to lead our little procession and to set the pace. I saw her stop to look at all intersections along George Street Cycleway in Redfern. She anticipated by braking early. She waited patiently at all of the lights. We passed the gymnastics facility that she attended for camp during the school holidays. I taught her how to lock up her bicycle to a post securely during the week of camp. I took our son in the Nihola for the same camp. He rode his balance bike for part of that journey too.
Now that the summer holidays are approaching, we are planning for next years activities. Our daughter has finished swim school at the local pool and is now at squad level. We have always said that she could choose a different after school activity when she finished swimming. She expressed interest in gymnastics at the same facility where she attended camp. The journey is along the separated George Street Cycleway. But our son is still in swim school. And our nanny can’t be in two places at once. My question is: At what age, does one allow one’s child to bicycle alone to a friend’s house, to school, to an after school activity?
We have chosen to live in the inner-city for a myriad of reasons. One is that proximity to the city is a very short commute. The other is that we wanted to teach our children the value of life. Not everyone has a nice house, a nice car, nice clothes. Not everyone goes to private school. When my daughter was in pre-school, we passed homeless people on our street. She asked me why they were homeless. I told her that it was because they didn’t listen to their parents and didn’t study hard at school. Later, I would tell her that sometimes people get sick and their minds don’t function well. She said that she was scared of the homeless people that she saw from time to time. I agreed that they were scary. She didn’t like walking directly in front of them. I agreed and said that if she felt more comfortable, we could cross the street and go around them.
Consequently, we have worked on the skills that makes one “street smart,” and not in the Donald-Trump-street-smart-way. Instead, we are teaching our kids how to take the bus, the train, to cross the street at the right time, to wait for the cars to stop at the red light before crossing. But still, I pause to let her bicycle alone to gymnastics. I have imagined her alone riding on George Street Cycleway. The approach to Redfern Street is always colourful. Maybe too colourful for a ten-year old to manage alone next year? I’ve asked her if she would be comfortable riding along and she has demurred. She much prefers bicycling with me. At what age then? We’ll keep talking.