A few years ago my husband and I tried to teach our youngest child, Isaiah, how to ride a two-wheeler. We were veteran parents by that point. I thought it would be a snap, partly because of that blessed parent-amnesia that keeps our species propagating. Like sleep-training your baby or toilet-training your toddler or teaching your first-grader to read, it’s a thing that doesn’t happen by itself. Your brain only thinks that a few years later after your psychic immune system has had a chance to clean the place up. Every couple of weeks a sunny Saturday would bloom and we’d give it a go. First, my husband would hold onto the back of the seat and run along in that peculiar bent-over technique. “Keep your eyes up! You gotta pedal faster!” Then his back was shot and it was my turn. Our patience got spent quickly. There was shouting, defiance, frustration, shaming. I’m not proud of it. We entered a vicious cycle—the only cycling that got done that day. This did not improve my son’s confidence to keep his eyes up or pedal faster.
Sometime after that, my brother and his family came to visit. Bikes were pulled out. Isaiah mentioned casually that he couldn’t actually ride his.
“Oh, that’s fine,” Uncle Ben said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
Within five minutes Isaiah was riding his bike.
“Wow,” I said to Ben, watching my child bike off into the distance, eyes up, pedaling fast.
Ben shrugged and looked back at the house where his youngest son had wandered. “Theo still can’t ride a bike.”
It can be difficult for parents to teach skills to their children. It becomes ever more difficult as kids get older and start seeking independence. There were many troubles that came with remote schooling last year, and this was among the most emotionally fraught.
I say to my son “Do your math homework” and to him it means ‘I am your boss.’ It probably means ‘I have expectations. I have disappointments. I don’t trust you to do it without me telling you.’ It might also mean, ‘I won’t actually follow up on this demand if something else, like my phone, distracts me, because though I act high and mighty, I’m pretty lazy and tired and we both know that, which is why you will do literally anything except your math homework.’ This tends to set up a series of confrontations and crises that swallow an evening.
When my son’s teacher says “do your math homework,” it mainly just means, do your math homework. You and all the other kids in your class.
We want to be guides, cheerleaders, supporters to our children, especially as they reach an age to venture out into the world. In a year of remote schooling, we had to double down as enforcers, chastisers, scolders.
Granted, in this last year, nearly all boundaries collapsed: between ourselves and our spouses, ourselves and our homes, ourselves and ourselves. We lost the exogenous forces that take pressure off these intimate relationships. We lost the neutral, uncharged, authoritative middle people, whom, if nothing else, give us someone less central to blame for our hardships.