Teach Your Children Well

Nelle Pearson of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association is collecting stories of parents, especially in Northern Virginia, who taught their kids how to ride a bike and didn’t have a good place to go.

I learned on a dead end street in Albany NY. There were no curbs, just lots of grass for crashing. On my first solo, I rode the length of the street and t-boned a passing car. For the record, my brother Jim, who is one year older, swears it was him who did the t-boning. Either way it was a hell of a start.

Jim and I used training wheels but my sister Margaret who is 2 1/2 years younger than I learned how to ride the hard way. While I was in school, she pushed my bike down the driveway, jumped on and rode it up the neighbor’s lawn across the street until she crashed. Then she’d get up and do it all over again. She would not be denied.

I watched a friend’s son learn to ride on a tennis court. He was determined to shed his training wheels while we were visiting. He got on, rode a few feet and crashed spectacularly. After a few sniffles, he got on again and Voila! he was free!!!

My son was another mighty determined learner. Our street is part of a loop of streets in the neighborhood connecting to a main road. The main road is a busy two-lane nightmare born of Fairfax County’s thoughtless housing policies of the 1960s – 1980s. My son stayed mostly on the sidewalk and, with supervision, in the street in front of our house. We would take him to the local school parking lot where he could ride with less precision. Finally, we took off the training wheels and ran after him as he wobbled down the middle of our street. After running ourselves ragged, we posted one parent here and the other there and, with a starting shove, he rode between us.

His first solo ride happened after he begged me to ride around the neighborhood on the sidewalk. Mom was inside so I made him promise to stop at every single driveway. He promised. Off he went. Soon he was out of view. Mom came out. “Where is he!!!!!?????” “No worries.” Minutes seemed like hours. Soon he re-appeared around the clubhouse turn. You never saw a prouder kid when he stopped in front of his mom. A few years later, on a single speed bike, he rode BikeDC (in the rain) and the Tour de Port in Baltimore with me.

My daughter wanted nothing to do with crashing. It was totally undignified and would mess up her pretty dress. At one point she was riding down the street and careened toward the curb. Down she went. She slid head first right into the storm drain. Her helmet lodged in the opening as she came to a stop. This may be why, these days her favorite bike is a Subaru.

Teaching a kid to ride a bike is one of the great joys of parenting. Here are two bits of advice.

First, my sister had the right idea. Training wheels are a waste of money and actually make learning to ride harder. Think about it. The number 1 hardest part about riding a bike is learning to balance. Training wheels defeat this. Also, with training wheels your kid has to master steering, balancing, braking and pedaling all at once. This is overload. So either get a balance bike (the kind with no pedals) or make one. Just take the pedals off your kid’s bike and push the seat way down so your kid can duck walk the bike. As he/she gets more confident raise the seat. Once they have mastered balancing, put the pedals on.  There are tons of how to videos too like this one.

My second words of advice are DO NOT TAKE YOUR KID TO THE LOCAL BIKE TRAIL!!!! I live near the Mount Vernon Trail. My kids did not ride on it until they had been riding without training wheels for two years. Bike trails are narrow. They have bridges and cross streets and trees and other obstacles. And other trails users fly by at scary speeds. Trust me, this is the last place a new bike rider wants to be. Instead, take your kid to a local school parking lot. Let him or her ride far away from any cars or other obstacles. Even better, if you live in or near Alexandria, take your kid to Jones Point Park. It’s right next to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the south end of Old Town. Under the bridge there is all kinds of space to ride around in circles. There is also a water fountain and a bathroom. And playgrounds nearby for when Junior has maxed out on the biking thing.

Your kid is going to crash. It’s part of the process. Kids are made of rubber. Really. They heal incredibly fast too. Back in my day we learned how to ride without helmets or pads. We did not die. Your kid won’t either. Boo boos can be treated with hugs, mom spit, bandaids, and popcicles.

If you are the kid of parent that transmits DOOM whenever your kid falls down, pay somebody to teach your kid to ride. Sounds crazy? We paid a swimming instructor to teach our kids to swim. Miss Bonnie didn’t let them drown, not even once. Your kid will survive.

I guarantee you one thing: watching your kid ride a bike on his or her own for the very first time will stick in your head for the rest of your life. It is one of life’s most joyful moments. Even without t-boning a car.