Learning to Ride a Bike
I remember my first bike, but I don’t remember learning how to ride it. That was a little frustrating for me when I went and tried to teach my boys to ride their bikes. I couldn’t remember how I felt, and I thought I would have a harder time empathizing with them about learning. One look at their cute little selves on a bike and that thought was dispelled. I’m convinced of one thing which is, no matter what approach is taken in teaching a kid to ride a bike, it takes patience and a willingness to see the kid crash a few times. But, it’s not that bad. Kids are low to the ground, resilient to injury and, as long as they have a helpful parent, always willing to try again. Some kids I have seen seem to fear bicycles. I suspect the fear comes more from not wanting to fail than it does from a pathological fear of bicycles (I’ve written another article on failure which is definitely applicable here). My kids learned at different ages. Neil learned when he was still 3, but Alan just learned a couple months ago, shortly after his 5th birthday. My teaching technique was the same with both so the difference can only be attributable to their personalities. Like I said, patience. Alan didn’t show the same level of intensity as Neil. Therefore, he took a little longer to get the hang of it. No matter. The process was the same, just slowed down a little. Here it is:
Yes, even kids need pep-talks. Pep-talks and lot’s of hugs. Having a positive mindset makes learning much less stressful. It reminds me of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. We remember that Calvin imagines that his bicycle is alive and, every time he approaches it, it jumps on him. He always walks away bruised and scratched mumbling something about how the bike was out to get him. It’s funny to think of a bike with teeth, but that’s just how fear works. Fear causes us to rationalize where there is no reason. Calvin must have fallen once or twice while learning to ride, and since then he has rationalized his failure in a very unique way, the bike did it. When we look at it like that we can see how important it is to have a healthy perspective on failure. When kids can overcome fear of failure then they can easily be taught to ride a bike – or, for that matter, anything else.
Of course balance is the primary ingredient in successful bike riding. There are a few things we, as parents, can do to help our kids learn balance.
1. Tricycles can be mastered easily. The beauty of them is not necessarily in learning to balance, but in learning to steer. I thought it was impossible to crash a tricycle, but that was before I saw Neil do it. I guess I forgot that kids don’t know that turning the handlebars quickly results in the front wheel coming to a sudden hal – the rest of the bike, though, keeps going. Kids start on tricycles anyway so it’s a moot point, but I think they teach kids that minor adjustments with steering go a long way.
2. Scooters are a good way to teach balance without the risk of major injury. The mechanics are slightly different with scooters, but the idea of shifting weight to maintain balance is the same. Scooters are also easy to bail out of when crashes happen.
3. Training wheels aren’t terrible, but they are also not that great. They essentially make the bike into a tricycle so I don’t see the point. Most people don’t put them on correctly anyway. They should be set slightly above the point where the rear wheel meets the ground. If they are flush with the tire then kids don’t get any sense of leaning to turn. It also makes braking dangerous in that it decreases the friction of the rear tire (where the brakes are) to the ground. I would skip them entirely. Besides, new technology is being developed now that will make the training wheels obsolete.
4. Holding onto a kid while he learns to ride is a pretty good idea. But, holding onto the bike should be avoided. Gripping the bike itself does not allow the kid enough control. It’s better to grasp the rider’s shoulders so that the bike is free to move beneath him. In that way he will be able to learn balance without the risk of falling. Holding onto the seat or the handlebars makes the kid into a passenger when he should be the driver.
5. Removing the pedals is the best way of all to teach balance. Most kids have a natural inclination to stick their feet out anyway instead of braking; why not let them for a while? There are actually companies that make bikes without pedals, but that’s just stupid. Why would I spend that kind of money on a bike with no pedals when I can just remove the ones I’ve got? Duh. The companies that sell these things say that kids can learn to ride earlier because the frames on those bikes are smaller. I’m sure Lance Armstrong didn’t have a contraption like that, and he learned to ride just fine. Don’t waste money on someones clever attempt to separate us from our cash. Anyway, removing bike pedals, as long as the riding is done on flat land, is a perfect way for kids to get the hang of balance without fear and while still having fun scooting along by themselves. When the time is right we slap the pedals back on.
Nobody likes seeing kids in emergency rooms, least of all parents. Bikes are dangerous enough without inexperienced riders hurling themselves down steep, paved inclines. I met a guy once who saw me teaching Neil to ride his bike. He was an older guy, and he said he had taught his three boys and his daughter to ride their bikes when they were little. He told me to take Neil to our local park and have him go down the hill (which wasn’t very steep) on the bike. Now, why didn’t I think of that? Sending Neil down a grass hill served two purposes. It saved my back from being hunched over hanging onto him and it allowed him to ride on his own without anything to crash in to and being on nice soft ground. The only catch is that there has to be a hill with a gradual enough slope so the experience is fun and not terrifying. Oh, and did I forget to mention wearing a helmet.
I say the only necessary piece of equipment is a helmet. Some parents outfit their kids until they look like the Michelin Man with all the knee pads and elbow pads. I think that’s stupid. Scrapes and bumps happen and they teach kids what not to do. Kids who wear too much safety equipment turn into bumbling, incompetent adults who are the ones we see in blooper videos on Youtube. There is a good reason that we all have nerve endings; they teach us that mistakes hurt. Painful, but not serious, crashes teach us coordination and agility in the same way hitting a thumb with a hammer teaches us better aim.
Those are the basics of learning to ride a bike, as far as I can tell. The process is completely fun if embarked upon with the right attitude. Patience, a willingness to see a few crashes, and enough brains to minimize risk where necessary while allowing enough freedom for adventure. Some parents enjoy watching their kids bicycle for fun, and then there are some other parents who push for excellence too early, trying to make the next super athlete. Giggle at the small failures and everybody will enjoy themselves.