“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso
Jodi has commented more than once that she wishes she were more like my sister when it comes to trying new things. “Jill can do anything,” my bride tells a friend. “She painted that mural in Emma’s room, and bought a hanging lamp, cut the cord off it, and turned it into a ceiling light. She’s like, ‘I’ve never done that before; of course I can do it!'”
Jill gets that from my dad, a mostly self-taught machinist, mechanic, and builder of … well, pretty much anything, and my mom, who has been known to take a raised eyebrow or a snicker of unbelief as reason enough to turn a cartwheel in the living room, just to show she still can. (That was years ago, but please, don’t tempt her.)
I got just enough of the can-do attitude to believe, just after we were married, I could change the water pump in my car with a socket set, a couple screw drivers and wrenches, and a Xeroxed copy of the Chilton’s instructions in the open parking lot of our first apartment in Sioux Falls. When the landlord came out halfway through the procedure to point out that Jodi’s lease forbade auto repairs on the premises, I apologized, but suggested it might be best to let me finish and clean up the mess than to snarl things any further. I’ve retrofitted a flush-mount ceiling fan to hang on the level from a sloped cathedral ceiling. I drew the picture my sister projected and painted on Emma’s wall. I did these things because somebody had to do them, and I was available. But I don’t necessarily go out of my way to look for new challenges of this sort.
So this past week, Jodi and I looked at the calendar and realized that Gabe was registered for a mid-day soccer camp, and both of us had to work. We suggested he ride his bike a mile or so up the road to the middle school on quiet residential streets and paved bike paths, for the most part. We also suggested that Brendan accompany him on his bike, with his cell phone – at least on the first trip – to be sure Gabe didn’t have any problems.
I was informed that Bren hasn’t really been riding his new bike much since last summer, mostly because he didn’t “get” the gears: he couldn’t find one he liked, and whenever he shifted to another, the chain made annoying noises. Gabe’s problem was more practical: he wasn’t sure how he could ride a bike and carry his soccer ball at the same time.
I was exasperated. When I was their age (and younger!), I stripped all the “extras” off my BMX – chain guard, reflectors, handbrake, etc. – because I wanted the lightest functional bike possible, and I rode my bike to the lake near our house with a lifejacket, tackle box, fishing pole, and bucket for the catch, without issue or explanation. I explained to Brendan that he should take a minute to look at his sprockets as he shifted gears, and when his chain was making noise, so he could see what was going on – that most of the time, you just need to back the shifting mechanism off slightly once you changed gears to make the noise stop. I suggested to Gabe that there was a hands-free way to carry stuff to school that would work just as well on a bike as it does on foot: his backpack. I assured them (somewhat sharply) that they could handle this little adventure – and might even enjoy it.
Only later did it occur to me why I was that way as a kid (and as a newlywed). My dad did all his repairs – auto repairs, home repairs, you name it – himself, and required me to be with him, come sunshine, rain, or snow. I didn’t have “the knack,” but I learned to look more closely at how things worked, and learned which tools did what, and where to find them. After hours in the shop, working on my bike was a piece of cake.
And Mom and Dad set clear boundaries and rules, then gave me the freedom to roam the neighborhood, the woods, and even the docks and beaches, playing, exploring, fishing, and even hunting. If I wanted to take advantage of this freedom (and make the most of my time) I had to figure what I needed and how to transport it. We built forts in the woods, repaired bikes on the road, camped on islands in the middle of the lake, without anyone carting me around.
We do live in a different place and time, but I have consistently opted to keep the kids close to home rather than send them out on their own, and I avoid DIY projects in order to protect “family time.” As a result, my kids are well-mannered, bright, obedient … and perhaps overly dependent. In my Second Third, I need to recognize that working together with my kids, or even letting the kids do thing together on their own, is family time, too. I need to do what my folks did: create opportunities for my kids to do, to learn, and even to make mistakes – so when they are my age, whatever challenge they face, they’ll echo their Aunt Jill: “Huh. I’ve never done that. Of course I can!”