Teaching a child to ride a bike is easy when they do it themselves

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I loved riding my bike as a child.

Feeling the wind flow through my hair as I pedaled as fast as my wiry legs would allow gave me the first sense of freedom I can remember.

I want my children to experience that same feeling, so I couldn’t wait to teach my daughter, Celeste, how to ride without training wheels.

She had outgrown the bike she had been riding — a hand-me-down from her older cousin with pink training wheels — so my wife and I decided to buy her a new bike for her 7th birthday.

I took Celeste to the store, and as she and I walked the aisle for just the right bike (it had to be purple), I told her I would not buy training wheels. The only way she would ride her new bike was if she let me teach her. She agreed.

I had already scoured the Internet for hints on teaching a child how to ride a bike:

1) Hold the seat, not the handlebars. Kids need to be able to learn now to steer.

2) Set the seat low so they can stand while straddling the bike.

3) Stay away from hand brakes. Pedal brakes are easier to control.

4) Teach them on grass. It will hurt less when they fall.

5) Teach them on a hill so they don’t have to pedal. Just let gravity create the speed.

6) Practice balance on a beam.

7) Practice balance by standing on one foot.

If I could keep it all straight, I was sure I would be able to teach Celeste how to ride. We started on the driveway, which has a slight incline. I faced her as I straddled the front wheel and held the handlebars.

I told her not to pedal, just let gravity take her. She lifted her feet off the ground, and I jumped back two or three feet, enough so that gravity could catch her, but not so much she would lose control.

It worked. Kind of.

She didn’t fall, but nor did she go far down the driveway. So I took her to the grass on the side of the house, which is longer than the driveway. Holding the back of the seat and promising not to let go, I told Celeste I would run alongside her as she pedaled down the lawn.

But the lawn was too bumpy. A drunken Weeble Wobble had a better chance of balancing itself than Celeste had of riding her bike on the lawn.

We returned to the driveway, which she wouldn’t leave for weeks.

I felt defeated. She wouldn’t let me take her beyond the driveway to teach her how to ride no matter how much I encouraged her.

She could see all her friends riding their bikes without training wheels, some several years younger than she. I could tell she wanted to ride with them, but she still wouldn’t let me teach her.

So I stopped asking. I knew I couldn’t push her to ride the bike. She had to want to learn for herself. But I didn’t want her to forget about it either. I left her bike hanging on a wall in the garage where she could see it every day as she climbed in or out of the car.

It hung there untouched for 18 months.

Then on March 20, 2010, she asked me if I could teach her to ride her bike. She caught me off guard, but I did not make a big deal out of it. I simply said yes.

We tried the driveway once, but she didn’t like it. She said she wanted to try riding on the level sidewalk a few houses away.

Again, her request caught me off guard. I might have mentioned how the sidewalk would make a good place to learn because it’s flat, but I hadn’t taken her there before.

We stood at one end of the sidewalk, and I told her I would run alongside her while holding the seat. She told me not to let go, but I said that I might if I thought she could do it.

I could tell she was scared, so I made her a promise: I would run alongside her and if she fell, she would fall into me. (Yeah, I didn’t fully think that one through.)

She agreed. After several feet, I could feel that she had good balance, so I let go and ran alongside her for 20 or 30 feet when she stopped on her own. I knelt down beside her, my hands embracing her waist.

“Sweetheart,” I said nodding in the direction from which we came. “You see that tree down there? You rode all the way from there to here by yourself.”

She looked, but didn’t believe me.

“I wasn’t holding onto you that whole time. You were riding your bike all by yourself.”

She looked at me and smiled, making her Christmas morning smiles look like smirks in comparison.

Few moments in Celeste’s life have caused my eyes to well up, but that was one of them. I close my eyes now and still see the look of pride on her face when she realized what she had just done. And they are still welling up.

She didn’t just ride a bike on her own. She overcame her fear of falling.

She has wanted to ride her bike every day since, and her improvement amazes me. Only a fish in water seems more natural than a child riding a bike.

She has a younger brother. I wonder if I can teach him to ride just like I taught Celeste, but quickly brush off such thoughts.

I did not teach her how to ride a bike. I just happened to be the one running next to her when she taught herself.

This is a re-post of a column that first appeared in The Gazette on April 15, 2010.

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