Recently, I was at the bicycle store getting my bike tuned up for the season. While I was waiting for my bicycle, I watched as a mom and dad were attempting to teach their daughter, around the age of eight, to ride a two-wheeler. Her twin sister had apparently learned this skill sometime ago and was quite comfortable riding around the parking lot in what would shortly become her new bike.
As I observed the interaction between the parents and their daughter, I struggled as I held myself back from interfering since I felt that my involvement, as a stranger, would be inappropriate. But, the image of this girl’s obvious fear and embarrassment stayed with me, so I decided I would share my thoughts here.
Two things became very clear to me as I watched the parents and their daughter interact. The first was that the parents were frustrated. The second was that, in that moment, their daughter wanted no part in learning how to ride a bicycle. The more her parents yelled at her to, “just pedal” as they pushed the bike along, the more she complained that should could not.
In our excitement sometimes to help our kids learn new skills, we sometimes forget how complex and emotionally loaded some situations really can be for some children, especially when teaching your child how to ride a bike.
Take going up to the counter and ordering an ice cream sundae. For some kids – they can’t do it fast enough. But, others might have so much internal chatter that the task seems daunting. Will the person hear me? Will I explain what I want correctly? Will he get angry if I ask to taste a flavor? Will the other kids be pushy if I take too long? Throwing our kids into certain situations and assuming they will just “catch on,” if we push enough, can leave a child feeling insecure, embarrassed, and mostly misunderstood.
So, let’s get back to our girl and the bicycle. Here she was being expected to overcome an obstacle she had clearly faced before – and in public no less. Now let’s assume that her parents truly want to help her achieve this important milestone, so that they can all enjoy family bike rides together, and the happiness that will bring.
There are several wonderful articles on the Internet that can help parents properly and safely teach the mechanics of riding a two-wheel bicycle.
However I want to focus on some of the finer points where our parenting skill and style play an important role:
1. Never, ever, ever put a child in a position where she may feel embarrassed and assume that the eyes of onlookers may motivate her to “toughen up” and perform. There are plenty of private places you can find where your child can learn to ride relatively discreetly (i.e. a dead end street, a parking lot where the business is closed for the day).
2. Remember that when a child is overwhelmed it creates STRESS, and STRESS shuts down the Executive Function skills, needed to perform. Riding a bicycle requires balance, pedaling skills, braking, looking where you are going, and pacing. Reduce the number of mental steps your child has to focus on by breaking down the process into small components. When teaching your child how to ride a bike, consider finding a private place where there is a long yellow line that she can use as her visual guide to focus on or where you can drawer some chalk lines. Let her practice braking while you balance the bike and move it forward along side of her. Have the seat just high enough, so she can touch the ground with her feet, if she needs to as she practices balancing.
3. Ask what questions, perhaps concerns she has before she begins her journey. When we are able to verbalize our fears to a caring person it can have the effect of reducing the worry.
4. Patience. The process of getting comfortable on the bicycle and practicing may take the good part of the afternoon. It might even take several sessions. Don’t add time pressure to the mix or you are sure to raise the anxiety of you and/or your child.
5. Be positive and encouraging. This may seem obvious, but often we sometimes fail to recognize that even the effort to get on the bike might have meant overcoming a big hurdle and worthy of acknowledgement. We always want our kids believing that they CAN succeed – it may just take more time, practice, and different strategies to learn and master a new skill.
As with anything we want to teach our children, getting their buy-in is a major step. Just because we may think it is the best, most important thing in the moment, pushing them may set up a struggle that will make forward movement challenging. Sometimes it’s best to accept his/her “no” and gently plan for a future time while acknowledging her concerns as real for her. Growth happens!