Skip the Training Wheels

skip the training wheelsThere’s a word for people who brag about their kids. That word is boring. You’ll pretend to care as you hear about “reading at age 3” or “5 goals in a single game” or “won a Nobel Prize”, but you don’t. You’ll mumble your go-to phrase (mine is a glassy eyed “That’s AWESOME!”) and hope they’re done until the next belt test or whatever.

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Although I have come to realize that my own children are (breaking news) quite awesome, I try to avoid talking about them with anyone outside of family. Except for funny things they do wrong – people like those stories.

But today’s an exception, and I’ll ask you to indulge me for the greater good of society and stuff.

Here we go:

Both of my kids learned to ride a bike at a really young age, and they’ve never used training wheels.

You thought “Skip the Training Wheels” was going to be some sort of metaphor? The joke, sir or madam, is on you!

Teaching them to ride a bike was one of the easiest things I’ve done. My eldest, in fact, was pedaling like a big boy just after his 4th birthday.

As much as I’d like to brag about their superhuman reflexes or incredible athleticism, they’re pretty normal kids.

Their success came from starting with a balance bike. Both of my boys were on one before they were two years old, and the rest is history.

balance_bike

What is a Balance Bike?

A “balance bike” aka a “walking bike” aka a “run bike” aka a “Fred Flintstone bike” (OK I just made up that last one) is a bicycle with no pedals.

You just sit on it and start walking or running.

Like this:

Sorry – that wasn’t it. Try this:

We saw a little kid cruising around our neighborhood with one when our eldest was still an infant. We had no idea what we were seeing. Some quick internet research confirmed balance bikes were indeed a thing, and we bought one just shy of his 2nd birthday.

At first, he was just walking while lightly seated on the bike. Fairly soon, though, he started pulling up his feet and gliding with the momentum. He was learning to balance (I believe, but am not certain, that’s how they derived the name).

After a bit, even a two year old can run and glide so fast with a balance bike it’s hard to keep up with him. The bike is so low that a spill was no big deal, and since he just put his foot down whenever he got imbalanced, spills were very rare.

At age 3, my son was flying on his balance bike. He would cruise down a nearby hill at high speed, laughing like a maniac. He was doing so well that he was ready for a “real” bike for his 4th birthday.

But there was one more key factor to my brag. Without it, my sons would have been damned to the same training wheel loserdom of the other kids in the neighborhood.

In Praise of Laziness

Laziness is seriously underrated as a source of innovation.

Some of the greatest breakthrough discoveries were likely inspired by laziness:

  • Wheel
  • Bucket
  • Bow and arrow
  • Sail
  • TV remote control
  • Delivery pizza

…and I’m sure many others.

There were a bunch of ready-to-ride bikes for little guys at the store, all with training wheels affixed. That jibed with my firm belief and experience that of course you need training wheels to train on a real bike.

My son, however, decided on a totally boss Lightning McQueen model that came in a box. With some assembly required. I needed to put on the handlebars, the front wheel, and (wait for it…) training wheels.

With a spark of indolent inspiration, I started to question whether he’d need training wheels at all. Riding a bicycle, I told myself, comes down to balancing, steering, and pedaling. He was already a master of the first two from his balance bike. And putting on the training wheels would be, like, extra work. So I left them off. In the interest of science.

Ready for Takeoff

He was really excited for his first pedal bike ride. I lifted up the back wheel and let him try pedaling, so he knew what he needed to do. We were ready!

I was positioned right behind him, ready to run like a duck with my legs wide ‘round the bike so I’d be close enough to catch him when he fell. ‘Cause of course he would suffer a cataclysmic crash – that’s what you do when you’re learning to ride a bike.

I remembered my own first rides without training wheels. They were like early NASA missions – nail-biting, adrenaline-filled affairs ending in disaster. I distinctly remember complete confusion and terror from the ol’ “go faster and you won’t fall” maxim. Finally, with God knows how many wipeouts, with scabs on top of scabs on elbows and knees, and with me (and probably my dad) close to tears, I finally conquered my wild steed and achieved the victory of a crash-free ride. I think I was 7.

As my 4 y.o. son took off for his inaugural pedal bike ride, he wobbled a bit but very easily righted himself. After about 10 seconds, pedaling was effortless. He cruised all around the neighborhood, told me it was really easy, and went in to have a snack.

My younger son started even earlier than his brother on the balance bike. He waited until he was 5 to graduate to a real bike, but on the same day he crossed over, he was already pedaling like a pro.

The Case for a Balance Bike

Biking is first and foremost about balance. Both of my sons had countless hours making the tiny adjustments needed to stay balanced before they ever tried a real bike. Their muscle memory meant they didn’t even have to think about it (it was like riding a bicycle hahaha). Training wheels were worse than unnecessary – they would have actually set them back – and many a balance bike aficionado would tell you that’s exactly the point.

We bought the Mini-Glider, and it worked fine for both of our boys from ages 1-5. However, I didn’t like the fact that it had a hand brake, since I suspected their first “real” bikes would have pedal brakes (they did). Thankfully my boys never used the hand brake in our fairly flat neighborhood, so they didn’t have to unlearn that.

If I were buying one today for a young kid (1-4), I’d definitely consider the Strider 12.

Even if your kids are a little older and already on training wheels, I’d recommend switching to a balance bike (they come in bigger sizes) and then skip training wheels altogether.

While balance bikes are gaining in popularity, a lot of folks I know still haven’t heard of them. They were much more fun for our kids than tricycles or scooters, and they made the transition to a real bike incredibly easy.

And as a final bonus, when someone starts to brag about their five year old who speaks Mandarin, published his first book, and discovered a new star, you can tell them, “That’s so sweet! It probably makes him feel better for still having training wheels.”

 

Do you have any stories of fun-filled character building from learning yourself as a kid? If you have kids, how did they learn to ride? Are you already a balance bike veteran? Let me know in the comments.

 

6 thoughts on “Skip the Training Wheels

  1. I LOVED my training wheels. I was heartbroken that my parents wouldn’t let me keep them when I went into sixth grade. 😉 I eventually learned how to ride a bike sans training wheels. I guess it’s just a metaphor for how I hate change. 🙂

    • I’m right there with you – I’ve never been a fan of change.

      Training wheels were cool, and riding without them was even cooler. It was that short painful transition period that wasn’t cool at all. Change isn’t just bad – it can hurt 🙂

  2. Hahah, congratulations Paul. You’ve officially proven that you can write about anything, and I’ll read it with eager anticipation. Can’t say I ever imagined spending my mornings enjoying a post about toddlers riding mini bikes, yet here we are.

    • Many thanks. My wife told me one more consecutive tax post and I’d be voted off the internet, so I had to mix it up. But this was one of the more whimsical topics waiting in my queue, so I’m glad it didn’t offend (if all critics were as goodhearted as you!).

      The good news is that while kids may be far down the road, now you’re armed with the right information to ease your wizard’s apprentice in learning to bike.

      Thanks again for the note!

  3. I think I first saw a balance bike on Shark Tank and I thought this is brilliant. So when my son gets old enough we are definitely going to get one. Hopefully my son doesn’t learn by falling into the bushes like me 🙂

    • Falling into bushes still beats my choice of fences and pavement!

      Walking bikes (or things a lot like them) predate pedal bicycles, so I have no idea how the training wheel mafia managed to bury them for so long. I’m glad that they’re finally getting more popular, but your and my kids will need to find some new traumatic challenge to build some character 🙂

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