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  • Writer's pictureSteph Waite

It's okay if you don't love teaching your kid to ride a bike

Just between you and me, I begged a friend to teach my kids how to ride their bikes. As much as I love spending an entire day on my bike, I quickly learned that knowing how to ride a bike and knowing how to teach someone are pretty different. I felt ineffective at best and like a monster at worst, loping down the sidewalk after my daughter yelling “pedal!” She wasn’t thrilled with it either.

How do you ride a bike? You pedal fast enough that it stays up, for starters. What an enormous act of courage and faith. You’re scared. You’ve never done this before. You’re not even sure you can. And if you don’t get it right, it might hurt when you fall. But the only way to avoid falling is to do it faster?! It’s a wonder any of us learn how to ride a bike.

My daughter begged me to put the training wheels back on. She had just turned seven, and I refused. We tried riding in the grass (softer if you fall but certainly not easy). I did that thing where you run along holding onto the back of the seat. She never got up the confidence to pedal fast enough, and running while crouched over a kids’ bike doesn’t get easier with age. My daughter did not learn to ride her bike that season. Neither of us was having fun, and neither of us had the patience to push through the frustration.

Next spring her eighth birthday came and went, and she still balked at the idea of learning to ride, until she spent the day with a friend who was already an adept rider. She came home with a renewed interest, but had already outgrown the department store bike she’d never learned to ride without training wheels. We made a deal that if I got her a new one in the next size up, we’d both commit to the process.

Like most of us, she understood what you need to do to ride a bike. It’s that pesky matter of actually doing it. There were no instructions I could provide that would give her the confidence to just pedal the dang thing.

So I loaded our bikes onto the car and drove us to a huge, beautifully paved, completely empty parking lot. I also brought my first pair of cycling shoes with cleats. We were going to learn something new together.

This time, instead of running after her barking orders, I gave her a pep talk. You know how to do this. I know you’ll be able to, it’s just going to take some practice. You might fall. I might fall with my feet stuck to these pedals. But let’s try anyway. I handed her bike over to her and rode off across the parking lot on mine, awkwardly shoving my right cleat into its respective pedal.

We rode around and around the lot, giving each other a wide berth. She fell when she took a turn too sharply or slowed too much. I’d yell across the lot, you alright? She’d wave and climb back on. I avoided offering instruction, because my daughter inherited my curly hair and my stubborn, independent streak. We stopped often for water breaks in the open back of the Subaru, which I’d parked in the only shady corner. Within about half an hour, she’d taught herself to ride. (I taught myself to ride with clipless pedals!)

My parenting pro-tip for teaching your kid to ride a bike? Show them the basics, and then let them figure it out. Let them fall, let them fail, and praise their persistence.

I also have a five-year-old, and I’m handling things differently this time. No training wheels, for starters. He’ll ride a balance bike until he gets confident and comfortable. He’s still wobbly, but he’s learning at a pace that he chooses, with no parental pressure or expectations. I also take him out on a trail-a-bike to get him comfortable with balance, speed, and pedaling (and to nurture that biking joy). I think this is the year he’ll make the switch to his big boy bike, a full three years earlier than his sister.

This I feel guilty about. I wish I’d done this differently from the get-go. My girl is strong and tough--and she’s our guinea pig as we find our way through parenting. I hope this is character-building and not therapy-inducing, and that when she looks back on learning to ride a bike, she remembers most of it fondly.

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