Notes on freedom for a 6 year old boy

My new years resolution, perhaps the new years resolution, is to get a job. That pays money. As of mid January this hasn’t occurred, so moving quickly onto other options it would also be resolute to contribute to Coburghagen once again.

My posts fell away, as many a progressive cause or much loved celebrity in 2016, but in my case due to a falling out of love with writing. The fall can be directly attributed to committing the most productive hours of the day writing cover letters and responding to key selection criteria. In time the lack of reward for effort begins to wear you down, and before you know it you have stopped writing altogether.

Slapping that kind of negativity in the face is step 1, along with being prescribed thyroxine by my Endocrinologist, before sticking my head up and observing the wonders that have been occurring right in front of my eyes. To wit, my 6 year old known as ‘Breaker’, not as a nod of respect to Mr Morant and his horse skills, but to his propensity to bugger up anything his incredibly strong fingers can get a hold of. Prophetically though, this story is about his ability to break in the saddle of a 20 inch Avanti Shadow, or in layman terms, learn to ride a bike.

For a child in 2016, there are limited opportunities for a meaningful rite of passage. My definition would broadly encapsulate experiences that engender self-belief and worth, and provide a child with a greater perspective of their world. In observing Breaker and his older brother ‘Moaner’ (another literal explanation) the only comparable experience has been watching them learn to swim. In this case young Breaker was slowly convinced by his enlightened and insightful parents that what he really wanted for his birthday was a bike. Forget the iPad and nerf gun, the bike was the biz. Heeding this advice, the first stage in encouraging his love affair was to let him pick the bike he wanted. Having done the basic research and visited the local stores Breaker fell in love with the most expensive option (we’ve all been there). Figuring it was money well spent if he was encouraged to ride, we handed over the credit card, or as explained by Breaker at the till “you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit”, and rode off into the sunset (our local park, with a decent gravel path winding its way in and around the trees and play equipment).

As a parent we all do the “just listen to me” routine. We tell our children exactly what they need to do and they choose to do something else. Day 1 of learning to ride involved me giving intense levels of instruction and feedback before Breaker requested in a pleading voice that I stop shouting at him. Taking that on board, I shut up and just pushed when pushing was requested. This was frequently. The target on day 1 was to complete one lap of the park without stopping, falling or colliding. It was a wobbly, anxiety inducing lap but it was achieved. As a parent I saw Breaker with fresh eyes. So long in the shadow of his older brother, he was far more determined than I had given him credit for. He was simply not going home until a confirmed lap was under the belt. Secondly, he got great personal satisfaction out of his accomplishment, walking at least a foot taller on the way home.

Day 2 was considered by me as an opportunity to consolidate on lap 1, and maybe work on the art of starting and stopping. The end of day 2 saw thirty consecutive laps without a break and a look of pure joy beaming on the face of Breaker. And thats it, 2 days to to learn to ride a bike. Mind boggling. Mind boggling because Breaker immediately saw the potential. A child of small to medium motivation when it came to a suggested walk to the shops was now actively canvassing expeditions to pick up a litre of milk, or the daily ride to school. Looking through his eyes I could revisit what we all appreciate about riding a bike but tend to forget. It’s efficient, it’s fun, it puts you on a level playing field with your big brother, it is the freedom to go wherever you want to go under your own steam, to push beyond your known horizons. And so on the streets of Coburg in 2016, a 6 year old boy discovers the concept of freedom.

The uncomfortable reality is that less and less children are receiving access to an opportunity like this in our car heavy suburbs. Parents are likely too busy or worried to allow their children to ride to school or cruise the streets on the weekend or a warm summer evening. If you can’t experientially encounter a core concept such as freedom in your developing years, how do you grow up to value, advocate and protect it when the world is going pear shaped? In years such as 2016, which throw up more questions than they answer, expanding access to these concepts and experiences for future generations becomes increasingly vital.

Walking to School Month

I don’t read my local newspaper with too many expectations. Stories seem to sit on the extreme ends of a spectrum – either outrage and indignation (think local government planning decisions) or sugary sweet (remarkable escape and return of family pet from tree/stormwater drain/garbage truck). There must be a tried and tested formula because its been done this way for as long as I can recall, across the numerous suburbs I’ve called home. But they do come into their own sharing community information that isn’t going to make the headlines anywhere else. Case in point, I was flipping through the pages of a recent edition and came across a story from our local Council promoting an event I’d never heard of, Walk to School Month. As a parent of a Grade 2 and soon to be Prep, I thought I had my finger on the pulse regard the complete range of available events and activities for children, assisting me in either avoiding them at all costs or to donate my own children for experimentation.

Its a straight forward program, VicHealth encourages students to walk, scoot or ride to school throughout October to help them achieve their 60 minutes of physical exercise per day. As its 2015 there’s a website and an app, and competitions and prizes to engage and motivate the participation of the kids and parents, which say’s something fairly significant about our current relationship with the original method of human transportation. More interesting to me are the benefits associated with participation. Improved health outcomes are obvious, and with rising levels of obesity in the developed world, as opposed to the malnutrition prevalent in many developing countries, its a community and social issue we need to be right on top of. From a sustainability standpoint I was immediately hooked by the opportunity to take cars off the streets, the reduced congestion leading to easier and safer access to the school, and the associated reduction in air and noise pollution. Lastly, the potential to improve parent/child relationships is also promoted, a very different and unique dynamic being in play when you walk or ride alongside each other as opposed to the inherent distractions of driving.

At this point I should put up my hand and declare that we are serial walkers/riders to school. As a one-car-family it is partly born of necessity, but more influential is my own experience as a student. Going to school on the Northern Beaches of Sydney in the 1970’s and 80’s meant a return walk of 5km’s on my little legs with Mum, and when there was enough money and I was deemed responsible enough, I got a bike and was on my own. Eventually a bus option became available, but we were feral and frequently in trouble, and being driven to school was a rare and exotic treat. So riding (or walking when the bike was either intermittently broken, missing or stolen) was always the best option. It meant being responsible enough to be on your own and the personal freedom that entails, it meant meandering conversations with my group of friends as we collected each other along the way, it meant uncountable bike races, bike crashes, and the freewheeling glide down the hill from my house, before the long climb back up in the afternoon.

Its sounds idyllic but lets face it, life was different. There was more time, more space, less material things, less organised activities and lessons to improve and advance your children. I wanted my boys to experience a little bit of my own childhood, perhaps in meek response to them growing up as Victorians and AFL obsessives. We’re certainly not the only family that walks or rides to school, there are a number of die-hards who we regularly meet or pass on the way regardless of the weather or season, but the traffic congestion on the streets surrounding our school at drop off and pickup times is increasingly intense, a battlefield to find a parking spot while passing traffic builds up and makes increasingly hazardous attempts to squeeze past.

I might be lucky but my eldest son loves to ride his bike, picture Elliot in E.T., without E.T. in a basket on the handle bars.

Image courtesy of Sean Powell
Image courtesy of Sean Powell

It’s an extension of his body and his personality – always smiling, always contemplative, always finding a way to beat Dad at something. We take our time to and from school, we feel the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain, and make appropriate complaints and recriminations to the weather gods. We stop and temporarily supervise road works and trench digging, memorise the make of vehicles by their badges, check out for sale signs on houses and fight over who’d get the biggest bedroom, pick up sticks and run them along fences, or pinch flowers overhanging footpaths and growing on nature strips to bring home to Mum. Nothing very deep or consequential, just hanging out and watching the world go by together.

If anything is going to successfully motivate necessary change in the 21st century its going to be the inherent joy and happiness felt through experiences and activities like this. As a motivator for walking or riding to school, its good to know that its helping to keep us healthy, and my personal sense of superiority is enhanced by the environmental do-gooding but none of these are in themselves motivating enough to make it part of our every day lives. We’re too short sighted, too busy, too lazy, too easily distracted or led astray. We do it because it makes us happy, because it clears the head after a day of toil and gives some precious personal time with my children whilst they’re still young enough to think thats a good thing. We do it because in combination, factors like this make it the best option. Instilling the necessary attitudes and habits to ensure that many of todays challenges are stabilised, reduced and even eliminated in the future is best done at an early age. It worked for me.

Brompton Urban Challenge

I’m a massive bike fan. For ease of use and positive engagement with the environment around you there is no better transport option (other than walking possibly, but lets save that argument for another day). If you are in the market for an inspiring piece of writing on the power of the bicycle as an instrument of experiential understanding, even enlightenment within cities, you can go no further than Kasey Klimes.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

And thats what I love about the Brompton Challenge, it combines a machine that is the perfect bicycle for the city┬╣ with an event that helps us to experience and understand our city with a deeper level of intimacy.

If you’re looking for a little adventure this coming weekend (Saturday 10th October) in Melbourne, you would be hard pressed to find better.