Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Best Way To Learn to Ride A Bike (And Then What We Did)

My friend had a pedal-free “balance bicycle” that her toddler used.  The kid could barely walk but she would scoot around like a mini Dale Earnhardt.  Apparently balance bikes are all the rage in Germany.   The beauty, my friend explained, is that having learned to balance on their behinds, the kids effortlessly transition to two wheel bicycles avoiding the whole troublesome training wheel stage.   This is the best way to learn how to ride a bike.  Just not for my kids.

To make a pedal-free bike, you can just temporarily remove the pedals from a regular child’s bike.   However, to give my child the utmost advantage, I splurged on a beautiful, European, wooden, spoke-free, pedal-free balance bike for my daughter.  She wasn’t interested.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate.  She was excited for about 2 minutes, until she tried it and couldn’t balance on it.  Then she actively disliked it.   Many tears, months and arguments later, I bought her a bike with training wheels.

“What’s the hardest thing about learning to ride a bike?”
“The pavement.”  That’s the punch line I learned as a kid, but it turns out there is something harder.   
Not cars, those would be harder, but I was smart enough to avoid them.   I took my daughter to the Rails to Trails bike path, which is free of motor vehicles and relatively empty mid-morning on a weekday.  I helped my daughter into her helmet and kneepads.  My daughter got on her bike and immediately she was off.  It was going great.  I could feel the joy radiating from her.  She looked back at me with a huge grin, and before I could say, “watch where,” her bike veered off the path.  It was like a roadrunner cartoon.  She bounced down the rocks, (harder than pavement), and landed in a sticker bush.  This is not the best way to learn how to ride a bike.

Fast forward several years.  We now have a second child who is very athletic yet still completely uninterested in riding the balance bike.  She wants a bike with training wheels like her sister’s.  We give her her sister’s bike.  With helmet, padding and lots of warnings to look where she is going, she’s off riding up and down the bike trail.  She loves her bike with training wheels and wants to ride it all the time.  Feeling badly for older sister, we buy a second bike with training wheels and try to encourage her to try again.  Very reluctantly older sister is biking with training wheels again, though slightly slower than a typical 80-year-old woman walks.  Is the training wheels step useful?  Not really.  They learned the pedalling motion from their tricycles so all it maybe gained them was some familiarity. 

By now, my eldest daughter is 7 and all the kids her age are riding around on two wheelers.  When I asked mine to try without training wheels she looks at me like I’m crazy.   I make her try anyway, on a pink hand-me-down bicycle given to us by a neighbor.  We start on the sidewalk, with me holding the handlebar of the bike.   I run beside her, to her nonstop chorus of, “Don’t you dare let go! Don’t you dare let go!”  Her hips sway like Shakira’s as she pedals and I struggle to keep the bike up right and straight.  I strain as I do the work of the training wheels she has come to depend on.  There is no question, if I were to let go, my daughter would veer off or into the sidewalk.  This isn’t working.  I tell my daughter to practice scooting and see how far she can glide.  She practices for exactly as long as I make her.  Eventually, I give up.

So my girls do not learn how to ride a bike.  I don’t push my younger daughter worried about the psychological effect on the eldest should the youngest succeed.  My girls learn to ride a scooter.  My eldest takes to rollerblading.  “Rollerblading is harder then biking,” I tell her.  “Not for me,” she said.  A year goes by. “You are eight now.  Why don’t you try biking again?”  I ask.  “I prefer rollerblading.”  My youngest daughter is now 5.  Finally, I decide she deserved a chance to learn to properly ride a bicycle. 

On Friday October 18th I have my 5-year-old push with her feet and scoot along the sidewalk.   I realize she’s ready.  Then I take her to a cul-de-sac.  Finding a wide, open space is one thing I finally did right for learning to bicycle.  It was so much better than a bike path or side walk, because she can wobble and snake without falling off.  I steady her as she starts, run a few steps beside her and let go.  “I’m doing it!  I’m doing it!”  Sometimes she swerves but there is space for her to right herself.  Before long she is even able to kick off from stationary.  “Mommy, let go, I can do it!” she says.  Saturday she can’t wait to go riding again and to show off to her sister and father.   She gets on with confidence and bikes to the end.  Not content with stopping to about face, she wants to master the turn and is frustrated.  “Calm down, you are doing great,” her father tells her.  “Honey,” I say, “you just learned how to ride yesterday.  It is going to take time to learn moving turns.”  It did, about two minutes.  Then she was riding and turning like a pro.  “You’re so good, I’m going to faint!” her older sister said,  “Can I try?” So this was the psychological effect!  It finally got her willing to try. “You’re rollerblading,” her younger sister answered. 

That afternoon, on Saturday October 19th, while her younger sister was at a play date, I took my willing and determined eight-year-old to the cul-de-sac.   Riding wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as she thought it would be either, at least once she got moving  “Go, go, go!” I’d encourage, “Angular momentum is your friend!”
“Gravity is a harsh mistress,” she would answer back.  In less than half an hour she could do it.  I needed to steady her while she put her feet on the pedals, but once she got going, she was riding on her own.   We fetched her father who was amazed and proud.  She went back and forth between us.  When she’d reach one of us, we’d help turn her around until she too said, “don’t, I can turn around myself.”  Then she realized her turn was too wide and added, “Sometimes,” before crashing into the curb and overturning.  Kudos to her though, she got right back on and kept practicing.   

She came inside just before her sister’s play date ended.  “Don’t tell her that I learned to ride,” she said.  “I’ll pretend to get on for the first time and just start riding and my sister will be amazed!”   We played along as she timidly got on the bike and then told us to let go and took off.   Her little sister said, “it’s still my bike, right?”  We removed the training wheels off of the other bike and the 8-year-old happily took this smaller bike, while the 5-year-old stuck with the bigger pink one.  I suggested the reverse, but they’re both happy, so I am too.  After our tough journey, I’m so proud of my two bicycle riders!

By Cara Eisenberg
Please visit www.caraaboutyou.com for information about Cara's children's books.