Monday, August 17, 2009

Meddling with Pedaling

Quite often April and I are approached by friends, acquaintances and occasionally strangers who are impressed with what we do to integrate cycling into our family's lifestyle. The truth is we're copying a trend set by others across the country and around the world. We are far from original or ingenious. We supply some gumption and will power, but otherwise there are countless people who've actually developed concepts and designed products that make it possible. We're far from radical. We own a car and April uses it plenty to shuttle kids around during the week. Even though I am able to commute daily by bike, we try to offset the family's regular car reliance by keeping it parked as much as possible on weekends and days off.

I sometimes think about detractors, the people who aren't fans, don't agree and like to make sure someone hears them. You know the types -- they're quick to condemn an action as irresponsible or dangerous based on a narrow subset of rigid criteria programmed into the collective psyche of the status quo. We all suffer from judgmental tendencies. I firmly believe it's human nature to bolster status and shore up ego by criticizing, evaluating, judging, then labeling good/bad, right/wrong. As far as cycling goes, there are enough people who think and actually go so far as to decry the simple act of solo bike commuting on roads as foolish and flagrantly fatalistic. If one chooses to pull young children along on such 'irresponsible forays' the likelihood for negative criticism increases greatly. It only stands to reason.

Quite remarkably, we hadn't experienced any overtly negative feedback until yesterday. Unexpectedly, it came in the form of a safety lecture (replete with citings of supportive interweb research) from none other than some friends of April's. The background info is innocent enough. They dropped their daughter off in the morning for a play date. April wanted to visit the farmer's market to pick up some food for the week -- a normal weekend activity. The market is only three-quarters of a mile away along quiet roads. Since we had an extra kid with us, I surmised we could carry two on the back of the Dummy and one in the kid seat on April's bike. That would make it a quick, efficient trip.

Our young visitor had never ridden a Big Dummy, but Sylvia is a pro by this point. Her enthusiasm was beneficial -- there wasn't the slightest hesitation from her friend. We had an extra kid helmet, so we buckled lids on everyone and slowly rolled away from the garage. Our new passenger wasn't freaked out in the least; she was already telling Sylvia that next time she wanted to sit in front and hold on to the handlebars. A few minutes later we rolled up and parked the bikes on the curb outside the market. The kids were beaming. I get excited when kids have fun on a bike ride. It's just how I'm wired.

We did our browsing, got a snack and eventually met up with our guest's dad to make the hand off. In hindsight I knew it was coming -- a seemingly benign question at first: "How did you get everyone down here?" April immediately piped up that we'd brought the two bigger girls on the Big Dummy. "What's a Big Dummy?" It's a cargo bike. "Does it have a box enclosure?" No, it has a flat deck and handlebars. "So ... the kids aren't strapped in?" No. All right, enough Minnesota passive-aggressive questioning; I could see through it like worn out lycra shorts. We were ready to leave anyway, so we walked over to the bikes and showed him.

He tried to act interested in the concept but it was all too obvious he was mortified. I could see it unfolding in his body language, but I like to watch people squirm if they can't muster the chutzpah to say how they actually feel. April accentuated the fact we'd properly fitted his daughter with a helmet and ridden extra slow to be sure she was comfortable. We talked about how Sylvia rides the bike all the time and how I've even carted the whole family around on it. It's stable, safe and easily hauls a lot of weight.

Sadly, I realized that in his eyes my lowly cargo bike was missing a few things to pass muster as a "safe vehicle" for transporting a child -- namely a roll cage and CPSC-certified kid harnesses -- go a little further and add anti-lock brakes, a metal skin and an internal combustion engine. Both April and I had a hunch the case was far from closed as we bid them farewell. Sure enough April got a call from the girl's mom later that night.

I want to offer a caveat upfront: At play is a divergence of parenting styles. While I may have some strong opinions, I am not in the business of saying one is better than the other. However, it is clear some other people make it their business to do so.

I will state a fact: Our style seems to be working rather well. We have vibrant, healthy kids whom we have never injured in anyway while cycling, camping, canoeing, hiking or doing any of the stuff we love to do outdoors (and started doing with them practically from birth). Instead, we are beginning to notice our kids are well-adjusted to weather, bugs and the elements. They play outside four seasons of the year. They are both quite adventurous as well. Far from reckless though, they are connecting the dots between the physical laws of cause and effect in terms they can grasp. We don't hand them forks to shove into light sockets, but we don't bemoan the opportunities they take to leap off an object without first bending legs to land the jump. They learn -- it's a rather linear process. Neither of them would get the slightest lecture on physics if I attempted to deliver one, but they can learn tons in the experiential classroom of playgrounds, backyards and forests.

Now, I say all of this not as a self-indulgent digression. I say it because the comments from our parental counterparts warrant it. The mom on the other line could simply have said, "We'd prefer you not take our daughter out on bike rides." Churlish perhaps, considering we are a family of skilled cyclists who have a positive track record of safe family cycling. But at least that would have been to the point and would have asserted a personal choice. Fair enough. I believe in honoring friends' wishes.

However, they chose to surpass that and launch into the realm of condemning our actions and choices as substandard and unsafe. Here are a few paraphrases: "I think you'll find you guys are pretty far out in your choices" was one comment. We started riding with our kids in a Burley trailer way too young, according to their sources. And, "Research shows that kids shouldn't ride on those 'things' until they're thirteen." Wow, really? I plan on kicking my kids off the Big Dummy well before that age. They can pedal their own bikes.

I can be rather self righteous at times. Especially when it comes to topics like people taking steps toward deconstructing the culture of the automobile. April will tell you I all too easily slide out the soap box and climb aboard. But I genuinely try to follow the philosophy of 'live and let live.' As such, I generally have a disdain for self righteousness united with proselytizing. If you don't like what I do but it ain't hurting you, then why are you blowing wind at me?

I don't really know these particular friends but I've weathered secondhand comments from them that have occasionally chafed me -- offhand, judgmental comments concerning everything from kids' diets to car seats and lead paint. Add "unsafe cycling" to the list and a critical mass was achieved. I was reminded of another bit of practical wisdom I try to live by: If you don't know someone, have never really had a conversation with them, forged a friendship or had a glimpse of what makes them tick, then chances are your misplaced criticisms are not well-balanced, nor are they welcome.

Is this simply a personal rant or can it have some relevance to others reading? It can have some relevance. If you think you'd like to have kids or are a new parent, let me share a lesson I've been slow to learn, but one I believe is a timeless maxim of parenting: If you choose to have kids, be forewarned there's a chartered bus load of people waiting in line to offer comments on everything you're doing wrong. Sometimes those comments might hold water; if so, act on them. Some people just like to stick their noses in odd places, so most of the time it's fine to smile and nod and say 'Thank you ... buh-bye." A few occasions may actually warrant a stern reminder that someone is out of line and might want to politely fuck off.

Furthermore, I like to expose such off-base comments as attempts to vilify cycling. Cycling has been condemned, implicitly and explicitly, by many for countless reasons but one that is cited wide and far is a blanket indictment: Cycling is not safe. Hooey. Do you really know safe? Are we talking absolute safety -- a mythical state that government agencies strive toward, one where nothing bad happens to anyone and stat counters remain at 0? Do some people really hold the belief that even if you're living the most mind-numbingly bland existence, practicing all the agency-endorsed safety tips you can print out on a daily checklist, that nothing bad will happen to you?

By the way, if you'd care to condemn biking have you bothered to check any stats for automobile deaths lately? Can I find safe at the end of the "Toward Zero Deaths" corridors I see posted along Minnesota's highways?

I won't sit back and be told that transporting my family by bike is unsafe or irresponsible. Beyond practical evidence, I'll argue safety is an illusion, like comfort and security. I see great merit in learning to develop a proper relationship with similar conditionalities, not make oneself a slave by attempting to construct them as concrete states of being. Mostly though I'm disconcerted by this: Everytime someone bashes cycling as dangerous or risky, worried people everywhere (which is the majority of our society, especially parents it seems) are shaking their heads and agreeing, thereby further narrowing any portal of expanded vision, quietly massacring another chance to see solutions, possibilities and sustainable ways of doing things differently.

I don't admire scared people. I simply don't see the world in the same way. I believe skill and resourcefulness are more powerful than flimsy insurance policies and empty precautions. I don't carry sanitizing gel to the playground, but I pack a first aid kit on my bike and I know how to use it. We let our kids occasionally eat candy and potato chips. But we don't let them play with lead paint chips. We don't cloister our kids at home because we believe the benefit of interaction with other humans and the value of seeing their parents in a wide array of social situations will make them adaptable and resilient. We trust the mores of our friends and caregivers and regard their lessons as valuable additions to the sets of guidelines we are working to instill within the girls.

Do we make mistakes, exercise poor judgment or occasionally just screw some things up? Hell yeah. But raising our kids in, on and around bikes is one thing I will never apologize for.

My heart genuinely aches when I imagine children held back, not allowed to experience a gateway to the lifelong joys of self-reliance, resourcefulness and practicality that is cycling.


chiggins said...

Wow. I'm all agitated and filled with rebuttal energy. Rather than fill pages, I'll just say this:

"I think you'll find you guys are pretty far out in your choices" was one comment.

1. Not letting your kid ride one of those 'things' until they're thirteen is a pretty far out choice. Poor kids.

2. Here's a choices that isn't so "far out" to most Americans: living far away from where they work and shop and school, using cars to get to all of it. This is what James Kunstler calls "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." And it's collapsing.

So I'm curious, did you vent in kind, smile politely, or do the "Good day, sir!"?

Snakebite said...

Dude, you and April might enjoy this for your bloggy reading enjoyment:

Now, if we only knew someone who worked at Surly Bikes who could push that bolt-on roll cage for Big Dummies.....

If my kid wasn't significantly older than yours, (and one state away) I'd want mine playing with yours.

TOMMY GUN said...

well played, Sir Fleck! Seems to me these "friends" of yours are well-versed in the khaki attitudes that overwhelm our society and do nothing but contribute to the morbid obesity and mental atrophy that is incurred thru continued reliance upon the auto. The saddest part is that the kids will grow up to be the same auto-reliant citizens that Amerikkka cherishes. I'm going up the country, does anyone wanna go?

reverend dick said...

Admittedly, I'm a bike nut job parent, but you are right all the way through on this.

Some people suck. Those parents fall in that category. Bummer for the kid, who needs all the breaks she can get from parents who think you won't end up dead if only you do all the right things.

bmike said...

perhaps friends no more?

what is sad is that in most cases the kids suffer - either a friendship that may be lost due to 'parenting' - or a kid that is lost to cars and computers and media...

keep pedaling. glad i just found this place... our little one rides in a bakfiet or a burley... and when we save up the $$ or sell the bak i'm eyeing a dummy.

Rick Cummings said...

Bravo for taking the kids for a ride! You can take my kids riding anytime you're in Colorado.

midway cyclist said...

The free-range kids movement was my first thought too - there's so much fear around letting kids be kids these days that soon they won't even have childhoods until they're 25.

It's also a touchy subject when dealing with other people's kids. I've had the conversation with fellow cyclist/parents, it's easy to forget how differently and how narrowly non-cyclists think about this stuff.

Patch O'Houli said...

Thanks, folks. A blog can be self-edifying or can get one shot down. I'll take either with dignity --the multifaceted approach that the blog is a personal tool for contemplation, entertainment, or keeping those who care up to date with what's going one in our lives. Everyone brings expectations and I hope to never fulfill them all the time. I wish I had the energy to craft thoughtful, insightful (and inciteful) posts at every turn. That's a lot like work.

I am encouraged by how many (well, actually all) supportive comments I've had. It does occur to me I am addressing the choir though, for what it's worth. Chiggins, to answer you, I did neither. April had the direct conversation and I turned to words on my personal forum. A pretty chickenshit option perhaps, but I sat on my draft for two days and contemplated the universal value of this essay. (It was way more inflammatory before a couple of edits.) It appears to have struck chords with many, however, and that is satisfying. I don't know these parents very well, as stated in the post. It's a shame really since lack of direct discourse may only preserve polarity. Maybe they actually read my blog ...

I will make a confession -- I had a strong hunch that what was, in my mind, such a harmless trip to the market would raise some hackles. Maybe I did it subconsciously as a litmus test to expose the truth of otherwise annoying, but harmless, attached parents. But one thing I suspected was absolutely true -- their daughter was thrilled beyond words to take that short ride with our family because I'm quite certain it was a genuine adventure for her. That's cycling. That's the stuff!

Thanks for the links, the info and for reading my spew. Keep riding, friends!


chiggins said...

Just as well. On thinking more about it, I'm unsure of whether or not rebuttal's a sound response. Perhaps the better policy is to be under no obligation to justify anything, and to just, what's the term, "keep on keepin' on".

I am somewhat devilishly delighted that she got such a kick out of the one bike ride she'll be allowed to have until she's 13. Rad.

Anonymous said...

Let's see. They'll feed thier kids all the crap they want, put them in front of a television for hours a day, all them on the streets all night, and let them be on the internet looking at who knows what, chatting with who knows who..

But riding a bike is dangerous?

Some kids need to be protected from thier parents.

Nice entry: great blog too! Glad to read it!