a case for training wheels

I’m a single mom, and I’m also a pedal parent.  There aren’t many of that combo out there, and I’m darn proud to represent.  Riding my bicycle for fun & transportation and sharing my love of it with my kiddo bring a lot of light into my life.  Earlier this summer, my kiddo finally learned to ride their bike and it’s awesome!

Yesterday I was at a park, sans kiddo, and watched a two-parent family with three kids on bikes [st]roll past.  The parents were trying to teach the middle child—about 5 or 6yrs old—how to ride without training wheels, and they were having limited success.  Their son was alternating between wigging out and then riding quietly as the father did the pushing and balancing for him.

I felt absolute compassion as I smiled and contemplated reaching out to them with some hard-earned advice.  But I didn’t.  Because one day, when I had a grumpy kiddo on a bicycle, a passerby offered me unsolicited advice and made my day crappier.  I didn’t want to do that to them.  After they left, I finally figured out how I could’ve couched the advice without imposition, but I’m sure they’ll manage without it, too.  That’s when I realized that I wanted to write this post.

If you’re on the up-and-up about cycling with children, you’ll already know about those tiny little bikes, sometimes made of wood, that don’t have pedals.  The seat is close to the ground and, without pedals, little kids can experiment with running their bike or balancing it.  This is how you get incredulously young children to be ready for bikes with multiple gears and hand-operated brakes before they start kindergarten.

Our Story

I always tell people that my family missed the balance bike boat.  I simply didn’t know about this option, even though I was a stickler for cycling.  I clocked many, many miles with my young kiddo on the back of my bike for our daily commutes, even in inclement weather.  Bicycling was certainly fun for me, but it was also a vehicle of necessity, an inexpensive and relatively efficient way to get around.  Even though we’d graduated to an Adam’s trail-a-bike, it simply didn’t occur to me to have kiddo on their own bike.  (It would’ve also more than doubled our commute times, I’m sure.)

Around kiddo’s fourth birthday, a friend gave us a hand-me-down 14″ kids bicycle with training wheels.  When kiddo’s other parent moved out of the country over a year later, we inherited a second bike of the same size, also decked with training wheels.  I’d tried once or twice to teach kiddo how to ride at a park and took the training wheels off the first bike.  The last time we tried this, kiddo was miserable, I’d been way too pushy, and we’d had to put the training wheels back on for our defeated retreat home.

When we moved to our current apartment, one of the bikes had to go, so I donated the first bike (which had always been way too heavy) to Bike Works.  Kiddo didn’t get as much use of their bike as I’d hoped but it was enough to throw the training wheels out of alignment.  I decided to let them get wonky and stay wonky.  Kiddo could lean to either side and get help from one of them, but they didn’t both touch the ground at the same time.

This Spring it occurred to me that my kiddo, who’d often complained that they hated bike-riding, much to my chagrin, was being dragged to errands around town, which is rife with hills.  Of course they didn’t get how fun biking is, because they were having to ride all the hard stuff.

So, during Spring Break, I put our bikes on the bus to the University District, where we could ride on the Burke-Gilman Trail, a mostly-flat cycle- and foot-path in Seattle.  We dressed for the weather and I packed water bottles, a bag of almonds, and a wrench.

From the U-district, we rode first to Gasworks Park, where kiddo had a great big fit, threw down their bike, and said with venom that they hated it!  I waited patiently.  I said we had a long way yet to go and that they were gonna need to get back on their bike eventually.  And they did.

Next, we encountered some young teenage boys with a skateboard and kiddo really wanted to try.  The boys were sweet and helped kiddo try it out in a parking lot flanking the Burke-Gilman.  Ignoring the lesson, kiddo face-planted, but shook it off.  Then, magically, they said they were ready for me to use the wrench I’d brought.  I dutifully pried off one of the training wheels and threw it in my backpack.  We got back on our bikes and kept going.

It was so much quieter!  Kiddo had spent so much time on a bicycle and knew how to balance, but just wasn’t yet ready to do so without training wheels.  With only one training wheel, and the boost of self-confidence from having chosen to take one off, kiddo rode balancing, only occasionally touching the third wheel to the ground.  I spent the rest of the trip just trying to get them to observe basic road safety, chiefly staying to the right on the path!  But!  It was so liberating!

2013 April bikerideWe rode all the way to the Ballard Locks, and then to Myrtle Edwards Park on Elliot Bay, and then up to Lower Queen Anne on the new bridge.  We ate some cheap deli food from a grocery store and then took ourselves and our bikes back home on the bus.  In total, we rode about 11 miles!  I did not hesitate to lavish kiddo with praise for having been such a trooper.  I would tell the story to friends and kiddo would beam with pride!

Fast forward a couple months, a week before kiddo’s seventh birthday.  I bargained with kiddo that we would ride through a park on the way to the grocery store.  Just as we rolled in, that last training wheel and its hardware literally flew off the bike.  I called after kiddo, “Your training wheel!”  Kiddo called back, racing on un-phased, “That’s okay!  I don’t need it!”

Ever since, kiddo has been dynamite on two wheels, even asking to ride.  When we visited my family this summer, kiddo managed to handle a bike way too big for them with aplomb.  After a long trip away from me, kiddo’s first day back featured a request to ride bikes.  Just today, we rode up a  couple crazy hills and kiddo passed me on the way up!

The Takeaway

If you want to teach your kid(s) to ride bikes, and to love doing so, here’s my advice*:

1 – Have fun!
Bikes are so much win.  As when trying to encourage adults to ride, the most important thing to convey is just how much fun it is to do.  Ride for getting around and for pleasure.  Go on kid-friendly rides.  A great one here in Seattle is Bicycle Sunday.

2 – Carry your child on your bike
I think that kids can easily catch on to the fun part when they don’t have to work at it all the time.  Riding in a child seat, trail-a-bike, or cargo bike also helps kids feel what it’s like to balance and maneuver on two (or more) wheels.

3 – When/if your child is young, offer a balance bike
If they’re older or they’re just not into it, remember that you have other options!

4 – If your child is older/bigger, slap some training wheels on their bike
Just make sure you don’t put them on perfectly.  Make sure that there’s a little space under both training wheels when the bike is perfectly balanced.  This Kids Bike Size Calculator can help you make sure your child’s got [roughly] the right sized bike.

5 – Graduate to a “rolling kickstand”
When you see and/or hear your child balancing more easily on their bicycle, try taking off just one of the training wheels.  Even if they can pedal & balance, this helps with one of the trickiest parts of bicycling: mounting & dis-mounting without getting hurt!

6 – Did I mention, “Have fun”?
Seriously.  This means not pressuring your child–or yourself–into something they’re just not yet ready for.  If we fall while we’re having fun, it doesn’t sting as bad as when we’re slogging along begrudgingly.

Our family had a bit of a dead zone in our cycling history, but it was just part of the process.  It’s also totally worth how sweet it is to ride alongside my kiddo today!  I hope that you and your child(ren) find your sweet spot with riding.  I’d love to hear your stories about how you or your kid(s) learned/are learning to ride!

*As with any parenting advice, please remember you that can take it, or leave it, or even tell me where to shove it 🙂


One Response to a case for training wheels

  1. familyride says:

    Yes! We went the balance bike route and the kids had terrific balance, but no pedaling experience. I’ve decided that balance bike plus tricycle or balance bike plus bike-with-training-wheels is the way to go! (Or fancy and pricey like Gyrowheel, if you can.) I think a trailer bike could also help a kid get the pedaling down, but the used one we found back then was just too big (though super fun for my son and super core-strengthening as I tried to keep us upright during his wild pedaling for me 😛 ).

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