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Don’t Rush It -- the Bike Will Still Be There

September 16, 2018

My first memories of riding a bike roll back to when I was about 7. It was late summer. I was spending the week at an older cousin’s house. The gentle slope of her backyard was the perfect grassy expanse to learn. My aunt faithfully pushed, and I’d push down on the pedal, the wheels would turn as I gripped the handlebars until I’d gain a few seconds of wobbly freedom. Joy! But then, in an instant, the moving, discombobulating pair, not in synchronized harmony, would culminate with me and the bike on our sides in the forgiving grass. Indeed, it was at least a fairly safe place to fall, and indeed, I can remember my aunt staking her stoic patience and sturdy claim in the ability of my little-girl-who-wanted-to-learn-how-to-ride-a-bike hardiness!

I thank her for that and, yes, I soon would learn to master the skill.

The most peculiar thing is that I do not really remember the pain of skinning a knee or the fear of falling on the hard ground, which I’m certain happened more than a few times before I got the hang of it. What I do remember is my aunt giving me the space I needed to try again. And most importantly, I loved the feeling of freedom once I got the sense of both balancing effortlessly and coordinating with it the pedaling to propel myself forward.

I’m sure there were fits and starts and a Band-Aid or two along the way. But those impressions pale when I consider the control I gained once I learned to motor down the sidewalk on a pair of spoked wheels and bear down on the brakes to bring my bike to a full and controlled stop whenever I so chose.

My bike was my ticket to ride.

I rode around the blocks that made up my neighborhood. I rode to carry out errands for my parents, whether it was going downtown to buy a red pack of Pall Malls for my dad or a loaf of Wonder Bread at the local A&P for my mother, missions that encouraged me to assert my independence and gave me the chance to build trust and respect with my family and the community in which I lived.

I rode across town to my best friends’ houses with the wind in my hair and a wave to neighbors along the way.

I felt myself moving under my own power. I’d reached a milestone that helped to build confidence and probably helped to shape who I was and how I viewed the world in which I grew up.

Riding a bike on my own also carried with it the responsibility of learning larger lessons that come with such rites of childhood passage, like my parents’ cautionary words: “Do not take candy from a stranger.” This translated into, “Make sure you get the goods, get the right change back and get yourself home safe!” I believed I could do those things because the adults in my life believed I was capable. Plus, when you can ride a bike on your own, you are a free agent for hire.

Whether first learning how to ride a bicycle is filled with images that consciously stay with you or not isn’t really the point. I’ve talked to just as many people who’ve had vivid recollections of their early moments, both of victory and of failure on a bike, as those family and friends who just can’t recall the triumphant or defeating specifics of any one particular instance, and yet, both camps have plenty of stories surrounding the times they spent riding their bikes on their own.

The thing is, once kids master the skill, they feel pretty good about it, which is why parents should avoid pushing too hard before a child is ready. And being ready means a child will show a desire to want to try.

For those parents who might be eager to see their child achieve motoring success sooner rather than later, the trick might be to strike a balance between guiding a child through the challenge of overcoming fears that can rise with learning to first handle a bike on one’s own, and knowing when to ease up and try again later when the child is willing to try, try again.

As exciting as it is for parents to see their child achieve success, it’s important for parents to remember that each child is unique and that honoring that difference can save parents and children a lot of angst when those subtle and not-so-subtle nuances are recognized. In other words, just because your child’s older brother learned to handle a bicycle bravely without training wheels when he was 4 doesn’t necessarily mean your younger child will follow suit.

Here are some helpful tips if your little gal or guy is getting ready to take on two wheels for the first time.

n Encourage your first-time rider without forcing. Keep the moment of getting on a bike for the first time light and fun.

n Even before your child sits on a bike, it’s fun and informative to point out the parts that make up the whole amazing invention. Knowing, for instance, the function behind the pedals, handlebars, tires, fenders and chain-guard will help dispel some of the unknowns that can sometimes lend themselves to a child’s fear.

n Gauge your child’s feelings. When your child becomes worried or tearful, it’s a strong indicator that he isn’t quite ready for the two-wheel task, so end on a positive note by easing up without giving up. Let your child know she can always try again later when she feels more ready. This could mean taking a few weeks off before resuming lessons.

n Understand that each child is developmentally unique and grows at his own pace. One child at 5 years of age might master the balance or coordination that a child of 7 is still working on.

n You know your child best, so if your little rider is prone to adventure or shy and more cautious about new experiences, honor that proclivity and give your little cyclist the emotional space and growing time he needs to slow down or come up to speed.

n Make sure the bike fits your child. Don’t try to put a child on a bike into which he will grow one day. Consider your child’s height and correctly match wheel inches and other details at SmartStart bikes by Schwinn. I found this site, which is super helpful: https://youtu.be/ ApAVbQmDOGI.

n Practice in a place that is safe, like a grassy lawn, a level drive, an ample sidewalk, or a quiet schoolyard or park. If your child is older and first learning, keep in mind that anonymity might be key. Practice at a place where she won’t bump into friends who have already mastered riding without the aid of training wheels, especially if peer pressure will detract from her confidence and focus.

n Try practicing without pedals at first so your child can easily sit on the bike and feel the ground with both feet.

n Be prepared to get in a lot of running alongside your novice rider.

n Be patient and kind. Know when it’s time to call it a lesson, and note the effort as a first step toward success even if your child has not mastered riding on his own yet.

n Have your child wear a helmet and safety gear that fits properly.

n Have fun.

n Understand that your child will eventually learn how to ride a bike when he is truly ready and that is truly the most important of all.

Learning to ride a bike is a process that takes time and requires a lot of moving parts. For some kids it happens quickly, and for other children it may take a little longer. It’s all good. The important thing is for parents to be patient and positive and tuned in to their child’s readiness.

After all, it’s like riding a bike: Once you learn, you never forget.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University and writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parent forward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .

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