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Parents' View

Learning to Ride a Bike: Nudge or Let It Happen?

By Mark Trainer


Dad and son riding a bike
Photo © Veer

I remember exactly when I learned to ride a bike. I was six, and I made it from the garage to the backyard without training wheels. A great memory. My wife doesn't know exactly when she learned. I think that difference explains how we felt about helping our daughter learn to ride a bike. I didn't believe it was going to happen without some nudging, she thought it was a matter of just letting it happen.

Balancing on two wheels is a pretty improbable thing for anyone to do, much less a seven-year-old. As a parent, it reminded me of her walking, nighttime potty training and swimming. You struggle to keep the anxiety out of your voice when you say, "You'll get it, honey. Really you will." It's just hard to see the steps that are going to move her from not knowing how to knowing. And not all kids get it at the same time. Our daughter has friends who've been riding on two wheels since PreK. Did they learn early because their parents effectively nudged them toward it or because their parents just let it happen?

I don't know what I imagined would happen if she never learned to ride a bicycle. A circle of children pointing and laughing? An awkward silence when the question inevitably came up in her Harvard admissions interview? Not being able to take a bicycle tour through Napa Valley with a future partner? Not my daughter!

There are a few different ways to teach a kid to ride. You can do the training wheels, bending them up more and more until they're unnecessary. Sounds great in theory, didn't work for us in practice. You can lower the seat so her feet can touch the ground flat and let her coast downhill until she gets her balance right. Depends on how hilly the area you live in is. We had to settle for a flat length of sidewalk. And what we always hung up on was that first launching, that leap of faith that is pushing hard enough on one pedal to achieve the speed needed to balance at the risk of a bruising fall. When I looked at it from her point of view, I wouldn't have been too eager either.

Throughout summer we suggested, as gingerly as possible, playing on the bike. We tried everything, and were still left, as winter settled in, without much progress. My wife and I watched as she sheepishly teetered and made endless adjustments to the position of the leading pedal. As she grew more and more frustrated, I said, "Come on, one big push." My wife said, "Maybe we should take a break." I conceded and turned toward the house. My daughter didn't. With one somewhat-large push, she lurched forward and managed to get her feet on the pedals for two rotations, after which she caught herself before she fell over. Amid whoops and cheers, she tried two more times without as much success. The last time she pushed the bike to the ground and stormed inside.

There weren't many chances to ride over the snowy East Coast winter. It was months before she said she wanted to try her bike. I hauled it out of the garage, got the helmet and returned to the scene of the autumn's frustration. How long would it take, I wondered, to even get back to that point where she'd been willing to take the leap of faith just those couple of times? She climbed on, dithered over how her pedals were positioned, and picked up right where she'd left off. Two full rotations, then she caught herself from falling. I should have cheered or clapped, but I was a little stunned. And then she rode down the block. When her mom came home she showed her again and again (and again and again...)

I'm not ready to embrace the "just let it happen" philosophy entirely. Someone has to say, "Hey, remember that bicycle in the garage?" Someone has to say, "Try again." But I realize now that when it comes to leaps of faith, I ought to have taken my own advice. Beneath her fear and frustration — which were more than evident through those months — was a process far less evident: a simple coming together of coordination, determination and confidence, a private schedule that will not be hurried. You just have to keep offering the opportunity — that's the nudge — and bring your faith that however improbable it seems, it someday will just happen.


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Mark Trainer is a writer who lives in Washington, DC with his wife and two children. He is working on a collection of short stories about fatherhood.

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