Columns 2006

When did a bike ride stop being just a bike ride?

I was walking with a friend when I saw him. He couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. He was riding down the path on his bike on a beautiful spring day. The sun was shinning, the snow was almost melted and you could feel the surge of life in the air.

Yep, it could have been Opie Taylor heading for his fishing hole…except for one little thing.  There was a cell phone in his hand attached to his ear and he was having an earnest conversation while steering with one hand.  All memories of an idyllic childhood shattered on the hard plastic of that cell phone.  Eight years old and he was already learning to multitask.  Eight years old and he was already learning to steer with one hand and only half of his mind on the road.  The cell phone remained at his ear and he remained in earnest conversation until he rode out of sight.

April is child abuse awareness month. I realized as I watched this child ride by that abuse certainly can come in many forms.  I know, I know. I know all the arguments about a cell phone keeping him safe while he’s riding to a friend’s house or just taking an after dinner jaunt.  But I can’t help thinking it’s abuse in some strange way.

Williiam Wordsworth wrote these prescient words in the early 19th Century:

the world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

When I was a kid, back in those days of prehistory when wheels were square and bacon only came from pigs, riding a bike was a chance to exercise your mind as well as your body; your imagination as well as your sense of balance.  You were Supergirl chasing a bad guy on a bike that would take flight if you just pedaled fast enough.  Or you were Dale Evans on Buttermilk riding next to Roy and singing.  Or you and your friends rode side by side and talked about a million nothings, a million nothings that created a friendship that survives fifty years later.

Or you just rode, pedaling lazily if the mood struck, faster when that mood struck. And you enjoyed the peace and quiet of being in the world but not quite of it.  Your only responsibility was not to cross the street on your bike without parental permission and not to crash into any neighbors carrying their dinner groceries home from your dad’s store.  You were in your own isolation chamber where your mind could drift while you steered and there were no limits to where it could go.

Kids don’t get to do much of that nowadays and I, for one, think they are the poorer for missing it.  There is something to be said for a lazy bike ride with no interruptions from mom or dad or friends, a ride on a bike where the ride is the focus and not a conversation about what you are going to do when the bike ride is over.

If we ever wonder why our kids are increasingly diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, maybe we should consider that they come by it rightfully because from birth they are made to multi-task as if just being a child weren’t job enough. We whip our kids from one activity to the next without pause for a breath or an examination of a pretty spring day.  We fill them with motion and activity as though if we give them enough of those things, they will somehow add up to something substantial.

But sometimes the most substantial thing we can give them is time for a lazy bike ride on a pretty day with no specific destination, no other activity already set for after the ride so that is has to be time limited, no expectation that it will produce anything other than a general feeling of well being…and maybe the discovery of spring’s first butterfly.

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to a time when that would be enough to justify a child’s day.