Is your kid at that age? The age where they want to learn how to ride their bike without training wheels keeping them upright? Where they want to be granted the freedom to take to the open bike path unencumbered? Or they want to be like their friend Will who has been riding without training wheels for over a year now due to the fact that his parents clearly don’t care about Will’s general well-being? When do kids learn how to ride a bike, anyway?
Well, don’t panic! Just take a breath, set aside some time, and (GULP) consider teaching your kid how to ride a bike. It’s okay. I can tell you how. Or, I can tell you how I put my terror aside and did it anyway.
Now, I’m a reformed helicopter parent. Well, not fully reformed because if my 10 year-old suddenly became 4 again, my hovering tendencies would come right back in full force, so I’d be lying if I said that I somehow conquered my addiction to watching over every little step that my son took on my own because what really happened was that he got older and therefore better at walking. I did try to recover on my own but one event cemented my heli-behavior for the next few years.
When my son was 5, mere weeks before starting kindergarten, he was playing on an elaborate play structure with a few older kids. My wife and her friend were talking, not paying attention. I, on the other hand, was hovering and nitpicking my kid so much that I was ruining his fun. So I decided to give him some space and I sat down. Not 30 seconds later, I saw him miss a rung on the ladder and fall 6 feet to the ground. Arm, broken. I ran over and picked him up and he said words that echo in my head to this day: “Why weren’t you there to catch me?”
So, needless to say, when the prospect of my teaching him how to ride his bike without his training wheels came up a few months later, my first reaction was: “HELL NO!” We had bought him his bike (red, his then favorite color, more on this later) for his 5th birthday a few months before the Arm Breaking Incident of 2015. So when this discussion took place, just after he turned 6, he had already been riding with training wheels for over a year. To my wife, it seemed like a great time to take the parental plunge. Me, I was just, understandably, selfishly, terrified and we had an argument.
My wife won.
Choosing the best bike to teach your child to ride
Kids base most of their early decisions on their favorite color. It’s important to them. If a kid were allowed to be the CEO of a corporation, the first question they would ask their potential employees would be the identification of their favorite color. And they better have an answer. If they don’t, they will no longer be considered for the position of “best friend.”
When choosing the best bike to teach your child to ride, the color issue will be first on the agenda. But don’t let it rule your decision. Yes, find the right color (I’m not a monster!), but before you jump the gun and buy a bike based solely on the color, make sure it’s the right height. Also, read some reviews and make sure it’s a quality bike that your child could not only use right away but would also grow into and ride for years to come (you don’t want to buy a new bike every birthday). Most importantly, make sure it has the right brakes.
Kids’ bike brakes (mistakes)
So, as you have probably surmised from the last section, we jumped the gun and bought a red bike without even paying attention to the kind of bike it was. We went for form over function. We didn’t notice that this incredibly cool red bike had hand brakes until I was putting it together in my living room at 3 am the night before our son’s birthday.
This wasn’t a huge deal, but it certainly didn’t make teaching him how to ride any easier or less stressful. Luckily, since you’re reading this, you don’t have to make this same mistake.
Kids’ bike brakes come in different styles. Coaster brakes (or foot brakes) are an easier concept for kids to grasp. Hand brakes require a certain level of split-second decision-making skills, which if not honed may cause them to suddenly pull the left-hand brake, which would stop the front tire cold, thus propelling them over the handlebars and face-first onto the concrete. This scenario kept me up at night. If I had only paid attention to the bike I bought beyond the perfect color.
The good news is if you simply start the search for a new bike early enough, the options are vast and varied. You should not have to make a choice that isn’t the perfect color, fit, and doesn’t have your ideal brakes. Just don’t wait until the last minute like me and pick the only red bike at Toys ‘R’ Us (RIP Toys ‘R’ Us).
Kids’ bicycle helmets, bubble wrap, and other means of protection
Don’t worry about the amount of protection you give your aspiring daredevil. At this young age, they will have little proclivity toward embarrassment. Partly because most of the other kids riding bikes will be similarly suited up, but mostly because modern kids’ bicycle helmets and other padding available to protect their young brains and bones are, frankly, awesome. We bought my son a glow in the dark dinosaur helmet with a spiked Mohawk, commemorating his love of paleontology and my love of punk rock, and his elbow pads and knee pads looked like something out of Star Wars. Not only was he safe, but he was also the coolest-looking Stormtrooper on the block. This gave us both a nice boost of confidence heading into our first training-wheel-free session.
The true battle is your anxiety
Never let them see you sweat. Just like that old deodorant ad from the 80s used to say!.
The day that my son was born was full of unbridled joy…until the deluge of fears about the next 18 years and beyond flooded my mind. My kid learning to ride a bike was at the top of the list of terrifying events that I had been dreading since that day. How many attempts will it take? Will there be blood before there is biking? Will I ever let him leave the house again?
When the nerves kicked in, I knew I had a choice: cower in fear or press on. As adults, we know how badly the “best-laid plans” can go wrong and we could emotionally destroy our children by divulging these “truths” that we’ve come to know in life. So we don’t do it, because we know that reality comes to everyone in time. If you prematurely paralyze your kid with your own fears then you’ll hinder their ability to succeed.
Kids have their own anxiety. Don’t give them yours too. Press on.
The day came. There we were, 100 feet of asphalt stretching in front of us. By this time, my son’s use of the hand brakes wasn’t my main concern since he had mastered them to a degree while riding with training wheels, but as we know, sometimes kids panic and make mistakes so that’s exactly what I was fearing here: panic, left brake, handlebar flip, hospital. Seemed inevitable.
So my pre-game speech was basically: “Use both brakes!” When I thought it was ingrained enough into his helmet-encased brain, we both took deep breaths and gave it a go.
For anyone looking for an exciting climax to this story, I would like to apologize in advance. It was just the opposite. I said, “Ok, go!” and he began to peddle as I ran alongside him holding his bike upright by the back of the seat. After about 10 steps, I let go but I continued to run alongside him. He didn’t need it. He stayed vertical, steady, and biked like one of those teen pros from the 80s!
Well, not quite, but after he got to the end of the asphalt, he gently pulled both brakes and slowed himself down to a complete stop. First try! I couldn’t believe it. I was so proud. And I do believe that I had a little tear in my eye watching him jump up and down in ecstatic pride.
He only traveled about 20 feet in his maiden bike voyage, but in life, we both traveled miles.
He did more than ride a bike that day. He proved to himself that he could do something that he had previously thought impossible and he showed me that a little bit of trust with a dash of space can go a long way…and won’t necessarily end in broken bones.
We repeated the process a few more times, successfully, and it was clear that neither one of us wanted to push the envelope so we called it a day and headed to get an ice cream in celebration, which is an important step.
Teaching your kid to ride a bike isn’t rocket science. There is no right or wrong way. Every kid is different and will learn at their pace. Don’t rush them. But make sure that you’re not holding them back due to your own trepidation. Set them up with the right bike, the right protection, and then most importantly, give them the right level of confidence that they can do it. The balance will take care of itself.
Now, some might re-label me as a snowplow parent, which is someone who plows away all obstacles to ensure their kid faces no challenges on a clear path to success. Well, that might be true, but that’s another story.