Teaching a boy how to ride a dirt bike is better than teaching him to ride a bicycle. And teaching a boy to ride a bicycle is pretty high up on the scale of fatherhood. When you teach a boy to ride a bike you feel like you’re managing this whole dad thing properly.
When you teach a boy to ride a bike, he’s too young to have the vocabulary to properly express how he’s truly feeling. He’s scared. He’s uncertain. He wants to trust you, but believes he is probably going to get hurt.
When you teach a boy to ride a dirt bike, all of those same factors apply—only now he’s old enough to ask, “What if I mess up?”
“What if I’m heading straight for the house?”
“Leave off the gas.”
“What if I wreck?”
“You will. It’s not a big deal.”
That day, a few circles in the front yard were enough. Second gear would have to wait for the next ride. Right then, just the success of actually controlling a motorized vehicle—his very first, very own gasoline-powered machine—that was enough for him to know he could do it.
Years later, when he did eventually dump that bike—zipping a little too fast across a field that was a little too wet from a summer storm—he got up, back on, kick-started and kept riding. A little repair work later, some new plastic parts and everything was back to normal. Like I said, no big deal.
It’s easy to gloss over how thoroughly methods of transportation impact a boy’s life. Before dirt bikes there were plain old pedal bikes. Lots of bikes. Bicycles are the automobile of the preadolescent class. “How are you planning on getting there?”
“I’ll ride my bike.”
It’s the lynchpin of independance.
When you buy my son Jake a bicycle you are investing in a bike that will eventually have cost two-to-three times as much as the original purchase price. That’s because he will have methodically replaced every part and piece a minimum of one time each. You know, because this chain is better. This gear has a faster ratio. These grips match the color scheme more closely.
Everything gets replaced except the frame and the brakes. For reasons that are still a mystery to me, brakes on a bicycle are unfashionable. He and his friends couldn’t stand having them and would remove them from their bikes immediately. I’d step out onto my side porch to find my wrenches, screwdrivers and a discarded set of brake calipers. Meanwhile, these boys are flying down hills, going off of ramps and speeding alongside busy roadways.
Even after all of the surprises parenting has provided me, I still can’t believe I had to invent the rule, “You do not have to use your brakes, but you do need to have them installed or that bike isn’t going anywhere.” I sometimes wonder how boys manage to live long enough to become men.
Those same boy-built plywood ramps are equally good for bikes and skateboards. So many skateboards. Longboards, shortboards, penny boards. How many skateboards does one kid need? Evidently, the answer is “one more.”
Bought, built and rebuilt again, these boards remained in a constant state of maintenance or repair. Not all at once, granted, but never was the fleet at perfect capacity. Maybe that’s why so many were needed.
Now I’m teaching him how to drive. That’s not accurate. Jake already knows how to drive. He has been driving since he was 12 years old. Dirt roads. Side streets. Parking lots. Leaving the firing range, it’s far easier to have me hop out, unlock the gate, have him drive through, then latch it all back together behind him. “Do not wreck this car.” Easy enough instructions that he would follow past the gate and with me as a passenger down the road until we reached pavement.
It’s another thing I’ve seen along the way. No one trusts children. And they know it. When you trust them with something significant, they know it, too. That’s a pretty easy win if you’re trying, but it’s also pretty easy to miss if you’re not careful.
I’ve always watched for opportunities to show this kid I trusted him. Driving home in my old blue pickup one evening I say to this boy of about eight, “Go ahead—you take the wheel and steer.” After a moment’s hesitation he reaches over and does just that—giddy with delight that he’s actually controlling this vehicle as it rolls down the street. We repeated this a couple times more, negotiating more dramatic curves each time, until we neared our street. In our driveway, as I shift into first gear and apply the parking break, he looks me dead in the eyes and states, “I’m telling Mom.” Be careful whom you trust.
It became evident in those early moments that Jake would be someone that loved to drive. And if you love to drive you want more than to just log hours in a car. You want to be actively driving that car. Which is why, when his mother and I promised to buy him a car, he had only one request: “Can it please be a manual?” While I tried to sort out how I became the type of father that would buy his son a car for his birthday, he and his mom went into full-on car shopping mode, eventually finding a used Scion tC with a manual transmission that we brought home the day before he turned sixteen.
Teaching a young man how to drive a stick is even better than teaching him how to ride a dirt bike. The stress of the “what if I stall” moment looming over his head with growing apprehension. We did what we always do—found a parking lot, switched seats and went through the steps.
No stalling. No lurching. There would be plenty of that later, but for this first time, it all goes smoothly. And, once again, he’s learned that he can do it.
And for the last time, we illegally drive the back streets home. Tomorrow he’ll have his learner’s permit. One more piece of our story that can never happen again.
Attentions turn to modifications. Rims, shifter knobs, headlamp bulbs—perfectly good working pieces replaced with new, slightly different, perfectly good working pieces. Naturally, the sound system is unacceptable and the trunk needs to be retrofitted with 15” subwoofers. And because I’ve somehow managed the small miracle of having a teenaged son that still likes me, I get to help him build the speaker cabinet.
He’ll design it. He’ll primarily build it, with some direction and an extra set of hands when needed from me. And in the end he’ll know he can do that, too. Me? I’ll get to watch him work. And I’ll get to watch him continue to become this amazing man. But, I think I’ll also keep an eye on his brakes.
(Originally published in “Everyday Ordinary No One”)