My first bicycle was my gateway to freedom. I explored places all six-year-olds should be allowed to go. I traveled as far as my imagination—and backyard—would take me.
There was beauty in the freedom I had on my bicycle—until the day I realized how limited I was in the places I could go. If I could just go beyond my backyard, I thought, I could actually explore new places. Real places.
I’ll never forget the day I tried it and nearly died. Though rarely traveled, cars occasionally did drive in the alley behind our house. With our garage situated at the bottom of the yard, it was nearly impossible to see an oncoming car before my tire hit the roadway. At six years old, I didn’t think about that. I just went for it.
The next thing I remember is staring directly into the grill of a car as we both came to a screeching halt.
The grill of that car serves as a metaphor for the life stressors and dangers our kids will all face. Depending on our parenting tendency, there are four unhealthy messages we send our kids in moments like these.
The first two tendencies are parents who overprotect their kids.
- The Helicopter Parent sits in the backyard with the child to ensure he never comes face-to-face with the grill of a car at all. The message the child receives is, “Since you’re the center of the universe, I’ll make sure you don’t face challenges or get hurt. When you do fall off of your bike though, I don’t believe you’ll be able to handle it on your own, so I’ll be right there to rescue you.”
- The Religious Parent overprotects by shaming the child for not obeying the rules. Instead of being treated as the center of the universe, the child is treated as the problem. Rather than using the encounter with the grill of a car as a lesson, this parent adds insult to injury by shaming him about the incident and punishing him by taking the bike away for a month. The message the child receives, “You can’t make it on your own. Left to yourself, you’ll mess it up. You need to learn to follow the rules.”
The other two parenting tendencies are parents who allow their kids to explore further than age-appropriate, not protecting them, as they should.
- The Boss Parent allows his child to ride bikes, perhaps even bigger than he can handle for his age. But when he meets the grill of the car he hears, “What were you thinking? You know the rules. Follow them. If you don’t listen, one of these days you’re going to get hit, and it’ll be your fault. You need to do better next time.”
- The BFF Parent allows the child to bike wherever he wants through town because the backyard might limit his creativity or who he is to become. When he meets the grill of the car in the alley, this parent is writing down every detail the child can remember about the car to hunt down the person who dared drive on that alley while her son was riding his bike. The message the child receives is, “You can do it on your own. You’re amazing. When trouble comes, it’s the world’s fault, not yours. We’ll rescue you.”
The very message they need to receive is, “You can explore safely within the boundaries, but when you stray and meet the grill of life, I’m here to help you learn from it. I love you unconditionally for who you are, but I love you enough to not leave you that way.”
For more on these parenting tendencies, check out Josh’s latest book, Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well.