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Lessons from a unicycle

S. E. Livingston

The difference between being a hovering parent and a neglectful parent seems vast on the surface. Through trial and error the most effective parents find the delicate balance between encouraging growth and fostering independence, but core strength and a constant self-knowledge of one's center of gravity determine progress. It is a bit like learning to ride a unicycle.

On Friday my 12-year-old daughter's unicycle was delivered. This was a reward gift from us for a year-long task she had achieved. Her enthusiasm propelled her to put the bike together herself, but then she needed help to learn how to ride it.

When she asked me for help I had a list of 10 things I needed to do (writing this column being one of them), but which I would probably procrastinate anyway. I had a list of three things which I wanted to do, but here was one of my children asking for help to complete a challenge. I heaved an inward sigh, looked longingly at my book on the sunny deck and clothed myself with patience.

Annie researched how to learn to ride a unicycle. When riding a unicycle one must learn to balance from front to back as well as from side to side. The best way to learn is to get on, hold on to a railing with one hand and hold on to a person with the other hand.

The helper walker must use two hands to 1. hold the hand of the rider and 2. support the rider's elbow with the other hand. This is the two-handed parental support model of which I am a fan. With two hands I can lead/pull the rider toward progress while cupping my hand around her elbow to help her from falling backwards. So symbolic.

The rider is making her own propulsion with her pedaling, but in my hand hold I am pulling her forward thereby not allowing her to stop her pedaling. Of course she doesn't want to stop her pedaling, but my hand hold continually reminds her of how important it is to keep moving.

The reason the unicycle is so complicated is that in order to get moving, the rider has to learn to "fall" in the direction she wants to go and then immediately correct the fall by pedaling to get the one wheel back in the center of gravity. Annie had to learn to fall forward to accelerate and fall backward to decelerate without actually falling.

In my grasp of her elbow I am counteracting her fall backwards. My hold allows her to feel her body falling backward without actually losing momentum so that she can adjust her center of gravity.

As I held her arm with my two hands I kept thinking of the metaphor. How many times in her life had I helped pull her forward (piano lessons, homework, play auditions) while simultaneously providing a support to keep her from a full fall (providing boundaries, insisting on rules, helping patch a friendship).

We went back on forth on the deck — her on her unicycle holding on to the railing on one side and holding on to me on the other. Pretty soon she got to the point when she could go around the deck without stopping but still holding on to me. My hope was that she would get the feel of the movement and balance so that I could step away.

At some point one needs to take away the support and allow the falls to come because falls can be good teachers too. The trick seems to be knowing when to take away the support. If it's too soon then she'll get frustrated and quit trying to even ride the thing. If it's too late then she'll think she can't do it on her own.

As with life, parenting is as much about the falling and correcting as it is about the straight riding from point A to B. It's never static. It's never smooth riding for very long, and if you stop pedaling you fall over.

S.E. Livingston

Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota and lives in Duluth.