Why I, a father, don’t wear a bike helmet

Martin Rupf
Zurich, on 21.03.2022

Why do mums and dads always have to be role models in every possible aspect of life? A plea for more parental disobedience.

We parents have to – no, want to – be good role models for our kids. As we know, bringing up children is less about the (often futile) attempt to teach them something, and more about behaving so admirably that our kids follow our example and learn from us. In short: we primarily raise children, not through our words but through our everyday actions. Parenting consultant Maya Risch said as much in the following interview with Galaxus.

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Of course, most parents have trouble living up to this ideal. Hey, we’re all only human. We have good days, we have bad days and most importantly: aren’t we better role models for our children when we don’t always behave admirably? At least then, we’re being authentic. (This argument always holds.) To be honest, I don’t want to portray a goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou image to my children.

I personally struggle with my role model duties a little more than the average person (something my wife would attest to at the drop of a hat). The reason? I’m not much of a stickler for rules and etiquette – in fact, I like to push boundaries once in a while.

The three categories of rule

The way I see it, rules and guidelines fall into three categories:

1. Rules I’d follow, even if I didn’t have children

These are the rules that make sense to me – the ones I’d follow even without the incentive of fatherly obligation. These include things like not dropping litter, not harming other people and ... hmm. Unfortunately, I’m drawing a blank now. I could still smugly mention «respecting others». But how does that work at the dinner table? Aren’t I the one sitting, gleefully slagging off other people? And what was that about «no devices at the table» again? No problem. I’ve made it clear to my kids that watching ski racing doesn’t count as «TV».

2. Rules that only partly make sense, that I still follow as a dad

Then there are the rules which only partly make sense to me – just enough so that I see the point in following them as a role model. One example of this is crossing an empty road despite there being a red man signal. If I were alone, I’d stride proudly across the deserted street. But if my children are there, or if other children are standing at the zebra crossing, then I dutifully wait for the green man signal. I don’t want to be responsible for a kid getting run over purely because they picked up jaywalking from an idiotic adult.

3. Rules that I understand, but ignore nonetheless

And then there are rules which pretty much make sense to me, but which I only rarely follow. The prime example of this is wearing a bike helmet. When I’m riding my racing bike or cycling for long distances, I always wear a helmet. But when I take a gentle bike ride with my kids, it would never occur to me to wear a helmet – something which has earned me some punishing looks from other parents. In fact, some parents have said straight to my face that, as a role model for my children, the least I could do is wear a helmet.

59626166 "For most people, this is how a family bike ride is supposed to look: everyone with helmets on."

And of course, my kids asked me at first why they had to wear a helmet when I didn’t. My persuasive, obvious answer was: «Cos you’re kids and I’m not.» There is, in fact, no rational reason not to wear a helmet. Accidents can happen on short, leisurely bike rides, too. Not only that, but you can’t dismiss the obligation to be a role model completely out of hand. That said, I’ll continue taking helmetless bike rides in future. First of all, wearing a helmet would rob me of a little piece of my freedom. Secondly, isn’t cycling without a helmet also a small (immature?) act of resistance against a society obsessed with regulating and banning things?

But, first and foremost, helmetless cycling makes a statement against the role model obligation imposed on me by others in every possible aspect of life. I’m also just a human being – and one who’s a bit rough around the edges at that. I just hope I don’t encounter any rough edges the next time I’m riding my bike without a helmet.

Update: No I’m not a tin foil hat wearer – or a tin foil helmet wearer

Given the high number of responses to this article – which I’m thankful for, by the way – I feel obliged to make a short update to this article. You got me! I never wear a seatbelt in the car. I let my kids play with knives and fire unsupervised. I don’t even let them wear their high-vis safety vests in the morning because doing so would contradict my fashion sense. Come on, let’s be serious for a second. I’d definitely describe myself as a responsible father who very much values following rules and respecting the norms around interpersonal behaviour. What’s more, I don’t see my occasional failure to wear a helmet as an act of rebellion. Quite the opposite. At the end of the day, it’s about teaching your children to cope with rules in a sensible way (by the way, wearing a helmet on a normal bike isn’t compulsory). So if I’m going for a leisurely bike ride on a dirt road where there are no cars (we live in the countryside) then I don’t wear a helmet. Sure, a buzzard could swoop onto my head, but I’m happy to take that minimal risk.

This cyclist is riding in an exemplary manner - just like I do when I cycle to work.
This cyclist is riding in an exemplary manner - just like I do when I cycle to work.

You’re probably asking «why do your kids have to wear a helmet then?» Easy. Because they might fall even without any outside interference – something that doesn’t happen to me unless I’m cycling while drunk. Which, I, a responsible father, would of course never do! One user commented: «The interesting question for me now is: what are your kids learning from your behaviour?» I can answer that for you. I want to be a role model for my kids by teaching them how to correctly assess dangers and risks. What I don’t want to do, is raise them to unquestioningly follow every single norm.

As ever, I find the reaction to my article fascinating. Ultimately, it’s up to us as individuals to decide whether, and most importantly, in which situations to wear a bike helmet. And actually, it’s okay to have different opinions on it. The comparison with wearing masks, however, is ill-advised. Of course I wear a surgical mask wherever they’re mandated. After all, I’m not a tin foil hat ... er helmet wearer.

One of my colleagues on the editorial team sees things a little differently. You can read her response to my opinion piece here.

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Half-Danish dad of two and third child of the family, mushroom picker, angler, dedicated public viewer and world champion of putting my foot in it.


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