Here’s a video of a young boy being taught to ride a bike. (It’s in Dutch – but you really don’t need to know the language.)
The story is familiar to many of us from our own childhoods, and from our experience as parents. The wobbly starts. The crashes. The fallings-off. The lesson that slowing down – a natural response to speed-induced fear – is in fact a really bad idea. And eventually, the triumphant moment when the skill is mastered and the child rides off into the sunset (kind of).
I’ve seen a number of videos like this one recently: the three-year-old girl shimmying up a doorframe; the girl doing her first big ski-jump; the time-lapse video of a baby playing with a room full of toys. And there is a clear message in each: that children have an appetite for competence.
Make no mistake, that’s a good message for us grown-ups to hear. But I want to bring to your attention something you may have missed in this video. The child learning to cycle was not just getting help from his family. Many other people were also behind his journey to becoming a competent cyclist.
For instance, how about the neighbours, who were happy to let the family take over the path for their lessons, apparently untroubled by the noise and inconvenience? Perhaps we should also thank Dutch parents as a group too, for their role in creating a culture in which parents and relatives are not overly concerned about being blamed for every bump and scrape their children may experience. (And to forestall any “why isn’t the child wearing a helmet?” comments, I want to point out that 1) there are no helmet laws in the Netherlands, and in fact very low levels of helmet use, and 2) if you look carefully at the evidence – as I did [pdf link] – the jury is out on the safety benefits of helmet-wearing, for adults and for children.)
And let’s not forget the planners and architects who put in those wide pedestrian pathways in their neighbourhood in the first place, and the politicians whose decisions made this happen. It is hard to learn how to cycle if you do not have safe, traffic-free paved areas to practise in.
The deeper story behind this video is that giving children a taste of freedom is not just a job for individual family members. Of course, parents and carers make the final judgement calls. But they will only be prepared to untie the apron strings if they have the support and blessing of other parents, the wider community, decision-makers and society as a whole. In short, it takes a village – a big village – to teach a child to cycle.
One final point: in a 2007 UNICEF study of the well-being of children in rich nations, the Netherlands came top of the list. The UK came bottom, while the USA was second-bottom. (Australia did not feature, as it did not even collect enough relevant data.)
I cannot help but think that some of the reasons why the Netherlands topped this chart can be seen in the video. The Dutch place a lot of value on their children’s everyday freedoms, and there is also widespread support for the goal of creating places that allow children to explore, have adventures and get around on their own. Studies show that a sense of autonomy – of having some control over one’s destiny – is a crucial part of what makes children feel good about themselves. What could be a more concrete, visible expression of autonomy and freedom than the ability to get into the saddle, push down on the pedals and cycle off towards the horizon?