Lessons Learned From Teaching My Kids to Ride a Bike

My kids learned to ride on two wheels at ages 6, 5 and 4, and I think it had everything to do with the experiences we created for them as parents.

If you’re short on time, here are five takeaways from this post:

  1. Use the lightest bike you can find for your child.
  2. Skip the training wheels.
  3. Remove the pedals, and reinstall them once your child can glide and balance.
  4. Support the child by holding their armpits or shoulders, rather than by holding any part of the bike.
  5. Bribery is totally acceptable!

I distinctly remember the feeling of learning to ride on two wheels, but only vaguely recall the process. I must have been six or seven years old, and had ridden with training wheels for a while. My dad raised them, then removed them and ran behind me, holding onto my banana seat. His back must have hurt, because he was over six feet tall and I was very small for my age.

One day, while my dad was at work, my neighborhood friends were riding around and I wanted to join them, as usual. Forgetting that my training wheels were off, I hopped on and pedaled, wobbling a few times before realizing what was happening. To my surprise, instead of falling, I was riding! This new skill gave me pride and independence.

Although I was never particularly good at it, I have always enjoyed riding a bike. Some of my favorite childhood vacation memories include riding on paths in Cape Cod (this probably had to do with the fact that my family had rented a cottage with my best friend’s family) and on the sand at low tide in North Myrtle Beach.

Whenever the weather cooperated, I rode to my college summer jobs to save money on gas and get some exercise.  I bought a vintage Bianchi road bike for triathlons (OK, one triathlon), swapping the toe clips for caged pedals after a lot of falls. Day-long bike tours are some of my favorite memories from studying and traveling abroad, where many friends had two bikes: a decent bike for everyday use, and a beater for festivals.

Riding with my first child… or not!

Naturally, when I became a mom, I wanted to enjoy biking with my son. When Noah was a toddler, I was too afraid to put him in a rear-mounted child seat – and probably rightly so, because Noah was off the charts for height and over a third my own weight at the time. I found a rigid, two-child bike trailer at a garage sale for $15. Unfortunately, I could not fit it in my car to take it anywhere, and it was so heavy I could not ride around my hilly neighborhood.

The next summer, I bought a cheap trail-a-bike, which was fairly hefty and, due to my short stature, could not be mounted high enough on my seatpost to avoid rubbing my back wheel. The grandparents and my husband were able to use it, but as for me, I was 0 for 2 so far. Meanwhile, my good friend really enjoyed using a high-quality trailer, and her kid ended up learning to ride at age 3!

When Noah turned five years old, I bought him the best brand new bike I could afford from Walmart. Hey, a cheap bike is better than no bike! I read that removing the pedals was a good technique for teaching kids to balance, but never actually tried that with him (all it requires is turning the pedal nuts toward the rear of the bike using a wrench). Noah was six and a half before he was able to ride it without training wheels. I was pregnant at the time, so my husband did the running-behind-the-bike drill, and we have an awesome video of my son riding on his own for the first time and crying.

Trying again

Along came our second son, Josh. He was a lightweight, and I wish I had gotten a chance to bike with him as a toddler, but I got pregnant again around the time I could have safely put him in an infant seat or trailer. So, I personally never even attempted riding with him.

Josh’s first bike experience was around age 2, on a rear Bell infant seat on my husband’s bike, and then at age 4, with training wheels. When Josh was five years old, we duct-taped wood blocks to the hefty old trail-a-bike so that his feet could reach the pedals and took him on the nine-mile ride to the Santanoni Great Camp in Newcomb, NY and on the carriage roads in Acadia National park.

Later that summer, Josh saw little boys riding on two wheels at the Rollins Pond campground and informed us that he was going to ride his bike without training wheels when we got home. Well, this is the kid that claimed he wanted us to be “a rock-climbing family,” and then cried on the first boulder we set him on at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. Just imagine the tears when we actually took the training wheels off. We bubble-wrapped him and told him to man up. Just kidding! But I’ll have to upload a picture of him in his protective gear… Bubble wrap would not have been much of an addition.

Over the next two weeks, five-year-old Joshua learned to ride on two wheels with much the same technique as Noah, except that he had a much smaller bike and we started a year earlier.

Third time’s the charm!

I was determined to get our daughter riding on two wheels sooner and have a more peaceful experience. My parents had traveled to Europe and sent me pictures of toddlers and preschoolers riding bikes on the streets. Their hosts explained that every young child learned to ride a “bike scooter” around the same time they learned to walk – we would call this a “balance bike.” Having mastered balance as a toddler, most three-year-olds rode a pedal bike, never having relied on training wheels.

If children in Europe could do this, surely my own three-year-old daughter Selah could, right? So I bought her a balance bike. It weighed very little, and while most kids her age might be too big for it, it was perfect for my petite girl.

…Except that she hated it. Wouldn’t ride it at all. She knew a “real bike” had pedals, and she wanted some. In ten months of ownership, I think I got her to try it twice.

The balance bike went to some good friends when we moved, and I hope their girls have enjoyed it. The Huffy trail-a-bike got sold on Craigslist before our move, as well.

By this point, we had a tiny four-year-old and a really great summer of family cycling opportunities planned out. I didn’t want to buy another trail-a-bike, although I knew there were better, lighter options available. A Google search turned up a really helpful website, Two Wheeling Tots, where I learned that a bicycle’s weight relative to the child’s weight was a huge factor in being able to ride on two wheels. I was able to find a relatively lightweight bike for Selah, and within four ten-minute training sessions, she was off and riding on her own!

The teaching process that actually worked for us

For Session 1, we left the pedals off the bike and put the seat low enough that Selah could put both feet on the ground (we had to remove the reflector in order to get the seat low enough, but have since reinstalled it). Similar to her balance bike experience, she was not impressed. But she did humor us and try “scooting” along, and then liked lifting her feet off the ground as we pushed her by the shoulders/armpits, NEVER letting go. The goal of this session was to build trust.

Session 2 was not as successful as we had hoped. We put the pedals on at Selah’s request and again ran alongside her, pushing by the shoulders/armpits, intermittently letting go. When we let go, she cried. Every time. A parental powwow later that evening resulted in agreeing on a bribe: a square of chocolate for each commute to the neighbor’s house without tears.

Session 3 went much better, thanks to the chocolate. We ran from our house to our neighbors’ about 50 yards away, and back, twice. There was some whimpering, but (after reminders) no crying, so four squares of chocolate were paid out. I will upload a video from Session 3.

In Session 4 we kept the chocolate ready and extended our times “letting go.” Rather than the four required laps to our neighbors, she started pedaling in only two. That was it! She could ride on her own!

The following day, I ran miles beside and then behind Selah as she gathered speed, learned to brake and turn, and learned sidewalk etiquette. I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination and was sore for days afterward, but it was totally worth it! Our whole family could ride on two wheels now!

We just returned from our first camping trip of the summer to Cades Cove, where we biked the 11-mile loop road.  It was a challenge!  You can read about how we fared here!

I would love to hear how YOU taught your kids to ride! If you have more tips, comments or questions, let me know in the comments!

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