People who know me well will tell you there are three things about my personality that are rigidly consistent. I am extremely boring at parties, I am easily confused by sudden changes in the weather, and whenever I see a parent out for a bicycle ride with their children I get unusually excited.
What can I say? Family bike rides always look like such wholesome family fun.
Not necessarily fun in the “that looks enjoyable or pleasurable” sense, but fun in the “strangers passing by are going to think we’re so cute and these pictures will get tons of likes on Instagram” sense.
Fortunately for me, my children are finally rounding into family bicycle ride form. I have three children: the oldest is seven and the youngest just turned three. The middle child, age five, recently started riding his bike without training wheels. And after a few weeks of training, I knew it was finally go time.
Our first full-fledged attempt at a family bike ride happened on a Tuesday afternoon, which just happened to be the last day of school. Just a few days before, for reasons that remain a bit hazy, I unilaterally instituted a new screen-time rule for the last week of school and summer: one hour per day.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. Sometimes when you’re a parent it’s easy to get drunk on unfettered power and make stupid decisions. Decisions you’ll ultimately regret. Usually immediately or, at the latest, the next week when school is officially out, the outside temperature rarely dips below ninety, and two months of endless, unscheduled days are staring you square in the face.
The timer chirped on the microwave signaling the end of screen time. I was lying face down on my bed, my legs dangling off the edge, feet touching the floor. When the days get long, I like to assume this position for a brief respite. I turn out the lights and bury my face in the comforter. The sensation of my warm breath on my cheeks makes me feel alive. Meanwhile, the children were watching the TV and iPad in the next room over.
I hoisted myself up from the bed and emerged from the bedroom triumphantly, ready to fulfill my dreams.
“Alright! The timer went off,” I practically shouted.
No one budged. They didn’t hear me. It was like I wasn’t even there.
Screens are magical devices. Honestly, we probably give them too much flak. They are versatile and captivating. They allow me to cook dinner in peace. They give me time to explore my deep inner world even when my children are present. I mean, how else would I have time to brainstorm ideas for comedy sketches about an NBA Draft analyst on an acid trip reacting to highlight tapes of draft prospects? I owe a lot to screens.
However, while I recognize the value of screens, I’m not immune from the zeitgeist. I know there are downsides of too much screen time (or so people say), perhaps most worrying, that it can wash away other interests and reduce physical activity to an unhealthy level.
So, sometimes I take a stand. And we go for a family bike ride—or more accurately, a family bike, scooter, and strider bike ride.
Our journey started out well. We were all peddling, scootering, and striding with great aplomb. The first three-vehicle pile-up didn’t happen until we rounded the first corner and traversed the small bump where the sidewalk is cracked and tilted up at an angle by tree roots underneath. Because we’re Floridians, we call this one-foot elevation change the mountain.
I was trailing the pack and arrived at the accident scene in time to untangle limbs from bicycle spokes and prevent any road rage incidents (for the most part). We dusted the dirt, grass, and lizards off us and continued on our way.
We made it as far as the third turn on our circular route before things fell apart. Literally. I pedaled one too many times and the pedal on my bike dropped uselessly to the pavement with an ominous clatter. I tried to put it back on while the kids rode back and forth, but it was no use. Clearly some sort of tool or an iota of mechanical skill was required.
At the same time, my youngest, the just-turned three-year-old who surprisingly learned to ride her bike without training wheels a few days later, decided she was mortally exhausted and handed her strider bike over to me to carry. I accepted the gift graciously and we made our way back toward home: me walking my busted bike while carrying another, the boys riding their vehicles, and my daughter walking haltingly with arms crossed on her chest, harrumphing periodically.
We made it home without anything worse than a few scratches, some sore muscles, and a bit of frustration, but our experience just goes to show you that things aren’t always as they appear. Next time you see a young family out riding their bicycles, the little children’s giant heads bobbing along in their cute little helmets, just remember it’s likely a façade. Stick around a bit longer and you will see the drama unfold.
At least one child will protest, something will break, and soon enough, the family will be back home tending to their screens and recovering from the effort of it all. And if you need to find the parents, maybe try the bedroom. Nothing calms the nerves and blunts frustration like a few minutes lying face down on the bed contemplating a dream fulfilled and taking a few deep breaths just for good measure.