I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been having since my wife and I have been showing you the video of our son riding a REAL bike, with no training wheels, at 2 years, 3 months of age.
After our friends with toddlers get the balance bike we talk about in the video, a lot of them are telling us that their child is not nearly as good as my son is on their balance bikes. They tell us their children are not as aggressive on their bikes. They are behaving more cautiously and are taking less risks. So I wanted to try and help these parents, by addressing some reasons why, in today’s article.
Why Some Toddlers Can’t Ride Balance Bikes
First off, I wanted to say that I don’t believe my son is extra special (I mean, he’s special to us, but I don’t think he’s super gifted, coordination wise). I don’t attribute his ability of being able to ride his balance bike to him being genetically gifted at all. Instead, I attribute it to us getting him a Strider Bike for his 2nd birthday, which is one of the most popular balance bikes on the market today.
If you aren’t familiar with what a Strider Balance Bike is, it’s a type of bike that doesn’t have pedals, or training wheels.
These balance bikes work off of the premise that you can teach a child to ride a bike easier by focusing on teaching them to BALANCE first, instead of peddling. When parents get their children bikes with training wheels, they learn LOTS of bad balancing habits that add years to the amount of time it takes to learn how to ride a bike WITHOUT training wheels.
The process works like this:
- Child straddles the bike and walks with it between his legs with hands on the handle bars. This gives the child a feel for what happens to the bike when he turns the handle bars.
- With some coaxing, you then get your child to sit on the seat as he straddles the bike. This gives them a much greater feel for what happens to the balance points of the bike when they turn, and starts to teach them what it feels like to lean into a turn.
- Child builds up confidence and eventually starts walking faster and faster. If the child gets out of control, it is very easy for them to put their feet down to prevent them from falling. This helps the child push themself, but in a way that doesn’t end up with him having bloody knee caps.
Where Toddlers Struggle With Balance Bikes
When we’re talking to parents whose children seem to be struggling with learning how to ride their balance bikes, I notice that these children are having one of three problems.
- The child needs to be sitting ON the seat while straddling the bike.
- The child needs to become more “coachable” — Or the parent needs to become a better coach.
- The parents need to work more on teaching their child to be less risk aversive.
To be fair, I think most parents fall into the first category instead of the second or third. I think this is partly because the type of parent who even gives their child a Strider Bike, or some other balance bike, is interested in teaching their child to be less risk aversive. But for some parents, I think it would be wise to consider some exercises in helping your child to overcome being risk aversive.
Let’s first talk about getting your child to sit on their Balance Bike
The first suggestion I can give here, is to do a lot of experimenting with the seat height on your child’s balance bike. Each child will be different, but you are aiming to not have your child’s seat so high that he feels he has less control, and not so low that you are making it HARDER for him to take a stride.
When I was teaching my son, I spent the first day just letting him walk with it, and NOT focusing at ALL at sitting. I wanted to give him the freedom to not feel like I was judging him.
On the second day, I spent the first half of our ride letting him do whatever he wanted, then gradually started working on him sitting, with all his weight on the seat; hands on handle bars and his feet on the ground. (No striding, just sitting, teaching him that he wasn’t going to fall over by sitting down) I think striding at this point, and not having your child just sit, is what is psychologically preventing your child from sitting and striding. It’s a funky balance point if they’re not used to it. They have so many other components going on at the same time that adding sitting becomes too much to handle. It is juggling too many tasks all at once for them. So break it apart, and focus on just teaching the sitting by itself.
Once your child is sitting in a way where he has ALL his weight on his butt, here’s the sneaky trick that I accidently discovered…
We were at an intersection in my neighborhood. It’s an intersection where there is a little slope where the curb goes down to the street (wheelchair accessible). My son was at the top of that slope when I asked him to sit. So when he sat, and released the weight from his feet, guess what happened to the bike?
It started to roll forward on its own; forcing my son to stride with it as it moved!
Keep in mind that the slope was VERY mild, and the act of rolling forward was not enough to induce fear in my son. So I made sure that I praised him heavily for riding while sitting down and it was all downhill from there… literally
For the rest of the week, I did all of the practices with him, while he was going down very slight declines in our neighborhood. During this time, I constantly praised him for sitting instead of standing while on his balance bike.
You could really see his face light up when I praised him. But keep in mind, this is not a self-esteem exercise. This was a coaching exercise. The praise was not just “Good job!”- it was “You sat ALL the way down while walking that time!”.
I call this type of praise, “Specific Praise”, and it is very different than “General Praise”. “General Praise can actually be very damaging when it comes to motivating children and getting children to learn things, as I learned from a book by Alphie Kohn, called Unconditional Parenting. I cannot stress this enough.
Becoming A Better Balance Bike Coach
One consistent mistake I see parents make, as they coach their children on things like balance bikes, is that they break the number one rule of being a good coach.
As an ex Division I collegiate baseball player, I know a thing or two about good coaching and bad coaching. The biggest difference is that good coaches break down complicated tasks into small, easily mastered steps. Then they work on ONLY one step at a time.
You may have noticed that in the above section, I really broke down the parts of what it would take to teach my son to ride his bike. I didn’t just expect him to master sitting, striding, turning, hills and the fear of falling all at the same time. That’s why I worked on sitting by itself. And if you noticed, I didn’t just work on sitting, I worked on sitting with all his weight on the seat, praising him for good execution, and then moved on, making sure to not coach so much that I took the fun out of it. This process of breaking complex behaviors into small, easily managed components, has been beaten into my brain for so many years of playing baseball, that it is now just how I approach teaching naturally. But if it’s NOT natural for you, as a general rule of thumb, take everything you’re trying to teach your child to do, and break it into 10 separate, distinct steps. And don’t let yourself teach step 2, until step 1 is mastered.
Side Effects Of Being A Better Coach
One advantage that coaching like this may have given my son, is a strong willingness to listen to me. This may be because I have taught him many things using this process before. He does not question my instructions. Through repetition he has learned that instruction from me is helpful.
In contrast, I see many other toddlers simply “Tune Parents Out” when they start offering instructions… because their parents are lousy coaches. The most famous example I can think of, that doesn’t particularly relate to toddlers, but is a great example, is the parent, who, while trying to teach their child to hit a baseball screams, “Look at the ball!”.
Next time you hear a parent say this to their child, watch the child’s eyes. They aren’t listening… because they’re TRYING to watch the ball, and the advice is unhelpful. What they need is advice that keeps their hips from over rotating, or for staying on balance so they can watch the ball… but I digress.
The point is that parents don’t break down complicated processes into steps, so their children learn that advice from parents is unhelpful at best!
If this sounds like you, then I think one of the best things you can do to help your child be more willing to listen to your advice is to start breaking everything you teach your child into 10 separate steps. Doing this will regain your child’s trust in your coaching abilities and help you be able to do a wide variety of things in the future.
How Fear Of Taking Risks Keeps Children From Mastering Balance Bikes
The last piece of advice I have to offer is that I see a lot of parents out there who have conditioned their children to be so risk aversive that riding a balance bike becomes 10 times more scary than it needs to be.
This is something I talk a LOT about in my Imprinting Success Before 5 program, where I teach parents how to engrain success mindsets into children at a VERY young age.
One of the concepts that is very applicable here is my concept of “Pain Addiction”.
That might sound incredibly intense for a post about how to deal with toddlers, but let me explain with a quick story…
How I Condition My Children To Be Indifferent To Pain
When my daughter turned 14 months old, she decided that she wanted to start climbing up onto our dinner table bench like her brother. Most parents fear this process… we do not. Most parents are afraid their child will fall and hurt themselves. My wife and I EXPECT our children to fall. This is not something I just started doing. I wrote a post when my daughter was first learning to crawl called, Why I’m Glad My Daughter Fell Down The Stairs.
The point of the post, and this section of this article, is that young children have amazing levels of resilience. As long as their failure only causes a LITTLE bit of pain, they are more than willing to keep trying.
This was never more abundantly clear than when I watched my daughter fall off the dinner table bench for the first time.
As she was attempting to climb down off the bench, her foot slipped and she belly flopped right there on the kitchen floor, bonking her chin, and probably giving herself a bit of a gut punch. After I saw it happen, I quickly but calmly scooped her up till she’d calmed down (it only took a few seconds), then put her right at the base of the bench again and tossed my cell phone up on the bench, just out of her reach.
Because there is nothing more awesome to a 14 month old than a cell phone, I watched as she cheerfully climbed back up on the bench she’d just fallen off of to grab the phone, and then climbed back down, without incident, to play with it in my lap.
It was like the fall 60 seconds earlier had never happened.
By my observation, this is NOT how parents typically raise their children. When my children bleed, I quickly and excitedly rush them over to other people to show off how cool their “ouie” is. When they fall and hurt themselves, we help them get right back up to try it again.
So when it comes to riding balance bikes, I think that the more your parenting style allows your children to take risks, fail, hurt themselves, but then get back up and try it again, the easier and faster I think your child will be able to ride their balance bike.
Happy Balance Biking!