Teaching kids to eat right is like teaching them to a ride a bike.

As in eating, many parents inadvertently, but quite deliberately, teach their kids bike riding habits that they’ll have to unlearn before they’ll be able to successfully peddle off into the sunset.

If you’ve been following along, you know that’s what happens in the food arena: The best intentions sometimes produce the worst habits.  The same goes for bike riding.

Give your kids a break. Teach them to ride right (and to eat right) from the get-go.

Training wheels are the bike version of “child-friendly” foods.

You probably think I’m nuts, but stay with me here.

Training wheels seem like a godsend. They allow young children to start riding quickly. What seems easier and safer at first, though, frequently turns out to be more difficult and more dangerous down the road.

Think of training wheels as the chicken nuggets of the cycling world: They look like the real deal, but they teach the wrong habits—and they do it by underestimating what kids can really do.

There are three components to bike riding: Balancing, Steering and Pedaling.

Training wheels prioritize learning to steer and pedal over learning to balance. This would be OK if, at the same time, training wheels didn’t make learning to balance more difficult in the longrun. But they do.

Here’s what happens with training wheels:

  1. Kids learn to start the bike in motion with their feet firmly planted on the pedals. You can’t do this without the training wheels.
  2. Then, while riding along, the training wheels stop the bike from tipping over so kids can be impervious to how they move/hold their bodies.  Some kids develop the habit of rocking side-to-side more than they should—especially because it takes a lot of energy to get the bike moving from a standstill and body motion produces power.
  3. When the training wheels come off, kids don’t know how to start the bike with one foot on the ground so they lose their balance as they transition their feet to the pedals.
  4. Whenever the bike starts to tip, but especially at the start, kids don’t instinctively put their feet on the ground fast enough to stop a fall.  (Just the other day I saw a child tip over. His feet stayed glued to the pedals the entire time.)

Fear of falling takes over.  And it’s justified.  Training wheels teach kids habits that make them more likely to fall. Then, kids have to unlearn these habits in order to ride a bike for real.

Training wheels assume children can’t learn to balance, steer and pedal at the same time. They can.

I’m wary of treading on training wheels, a true American tradition, but perhaps you’ll forgive me when you hear my story.

I walked into a bike store when my daughter was 4 to buy her a bike with training wheels.  While I was there I saw a woman with her 2-3 year old son and get this: the boy was riding a bicycle without training wheels.  I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had never seen such a young child riding a bicycle solo; I didn’t think they were capable of it.

Moments later I found myself chasing this mother and son down the street like I was a crazy-woman. Trust me, this was totally out of character, but I had to know: Was this some miracle-boy? A kid who was extraordinarily talented in the bike-riding department?

This is what the mother told me…

The key to teaching young kids to ride a bicycle without training wheels is to give them a very short bike so their feet comfortably reach the ground.

On a very short bicycle kids:

  • Push themselves along without using the pedals, while learning balance and steering.
  • Naturally start moving their feet between the ground and the pedals as they get comfortable balancing and steering.  Over time, they get more comfortable pedaling too.
  • Instictively put their feet on the ground when they lose their balance.

And, on a very short bicycle kids can easily avoid falling because they can actually touch the ground, flat-footed, instead of on their tippy toes.

I didn’t make this up.  Apparently this is how they do it in Germany (at least that’s what the wonder-boy’s mother told me).

Regardless of where it comes from, this technique works.  Not only did my 4 year old successfully skip training wheels, but that summer lots of other 4 year old kids in our town did too.

If I haven’t convinced you to ditch the training wheels, here’s one more thing to consider: Kids who learn to ride properly from the start will probably go further in life.

And not just because they’ll know how to ride!

Training wheels prioritize immediate gratification over self-control. However, according to a recent New York Times article, research shows that it’s self-control that is linked to success in education, career and marriage.

Fortunately, self-control can be taught through fun activities like bike riding.  The key is to, “harness the child’s own drives for play, social interaction and other rewards.”

Read the article Building Self-Control, The American Way.

So skip the training wheels…and the “child-friendly” foods.

Go right to the habits you want your kids to learn for a lifetime of happy biking and for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~