Ah, the first bike ride! A joyful rite of passage, right? For parents, it just doesn’t get better than running alongside, steadying the small bike, giving a push and...Look at our kid go! Or...not.
If your child is anxious (heck, if you are anxious), learning how to ride a bike can be stressful. The first few times my husband and I tried to teach our daughters to bike it pretty much started with whimpering and ended in howling (our daughters’ and our own).
Often, kids believe if they were “naturally” good at something it would be easy for them, and if bicycling is daunting they must not be cut out for it. In biking, and in life, the key lies in facing our fears, persisting through discomfort, and practicing until the new becomes natural. How to teach a kid to ride a bike tutorials abound online but if it seems implausible that your nervous child will ever take off on two wheels, don’t despair. In trying to overcome my own fears and help my kids rein in theirs for my book Some Nerve, we all learned to bike and gained some valuable life lessons along the way. Here are my 9 tips for getting reluctant riders to ride:
1. Get help.
Although most of us imagined coaching our kids through this milestone, in reality parents may not be the best at this particular job.
Kids and parents carry all kinds of baggage. My husband is a natural athlete. I had a terrible fear of biking and crashing. Together we produced a ridiculous mash-up of “C’mon, just do it!” impatience and “Be careful, slow down!” mixed messaging. When we called out “LOOK UP, LOOK UP” our kids probably heard:
“LOOK UP, YOU’RE GOING TO CRASH!”
“WHY DON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME?!?!”
“THIS ISN’T HARD, WHY CAN’T YOU GET THIS?”
“THIS IS WAY TOO HARD… LOOK UP!”
On the other hand, if a teacher, neighbor, favorite aunt or friend calls out “LOOK UP” without all the history the child hears simply: “LOOK UP.” For us, enrolling our kids in a Bike New York “Learn to Ride” bike class took much of the emotional anxiety out of the equation. Without the fear of disappointing mom or dad, they were free to simply follow directions and learn. And we were free to take pictures and cheer!
2. Stay positive.
Whether you’re teaching them yourself or just there for moral support, stay positive. Anxious kids worry about letting their parents down. Use a benevolent, assured voice that projects “You got this. Great job.” and nothing else (no muttering “why can’t you just XYZ”). Keep directions short and clear (“Pedal-Pedal-Pedal” is better than “Keep moving your feet - Pedal faster - Do you hear me?” etc). Tell them ahead of time that you may raise your voice so they can hear you but that is not the same as yelling, and that as long as they are trying you will be proud.
3. Set realistic expectations.
Resist saying “This will be fun!” or “It’s easy!” Riding a bike is fun; learning to bike can be hard. Acknowledge the fears and the reality, but clearly state that fears don’t get to be in charge here. “Yes, you might fall, that doesn’t feel great. But you’ll get back up. It’ll be so worth it when you’re biking!”
4. Set up for success.
Make sure everyone is well rested and fed. Hungry and cranky is not a good combo for biking, or anything else! And make sure the bike fits (or is even a little small) for the lesson. I know, it’s tempting to size up on a bike but it’s way harder to learn if the bike’s too big. Your child’s feet should be able to plant firmly on the ground with them sitting on the seat at its lowest setting. We bought a bike for our daughter Gigi to “grow into” and every time she landed on her tiptoes she was afraid of tipping over. It made it impossible to relax. If needed, borrow a smaller bike for the lesson.
5. Set limits, not deadlines.
Use a timer (decide what works for your child’s age and temperament - 30 minutes a day for 3 days in a row for example). That way no one has to worry about the lesson going on “forever.” If kids start taking 5 minutes to tie their shoes and 15 minutes for a potty break (hello, delay tactics!) pause the clock. Half an hour of honest effort from everyone, parents included, is what counts. Don’t set deadlines, though. Every child learns at different rates. Make them feel good about their effort no matter how long it takes.
6. Practice positive self-talk.
When our daughter Ruby was learning to swim she clung to the side of the pool saying “I can’t!” Her swim teacher said “If you say I can’t then you won’t. Let’s say I’ll try.” It’s normal to be afraid of something we’ve never done. I can’t feels true to anyone who can’t imagine taking a leap into the unknown. Saying “I’ll try” takes us out of our fearful self and into our brave self, the one that says “This might be hard, I might not get it right away, but it’s okay, I can try.” This is a great one to model for your kids. Do something that’s out of your comfort zone. Let your kids see you get scared and try anyway. Whenever a family member is up against a big challenge, remind each other to say “I’ll try.” And remember, we all have a huge history of success with this, having learned - when we were just babies! - to get up, walk and run!
Some kids want to learn to bike and it’s worth it to them to fall down a few times to get it. Others feel no such inner pull. If it’s more important to us that our kids learn to bike than it is to them, the promise of a small reward like an ice cream outing can help them buy in. Don’t go crazy promising Disneyworld though – if the stakes are too high it will only add pressure.
8. No drama, Mama!
This is for the anxious moms out there. Steel yourself: Your baby may fall. Your baby may cry. They will survive! Resist the urge to fuss or scoop them up and take them home. Trust me, as someone who always quit when I was ahead AND when I was behind: if you quit when they’re scared it will be that much harder to get them to try again. Kindly but firmly get them going again so they can end on a high. Your baby may yell at you, refuse to move, pitch a fit. Do not take the bait! Take deep breaths. Say a mantra (mine is “This is a wave; I am the ocean”). Smile. Keeping your own anxiety in check will help everyone keep calm and pedal on.
9. Eyes on the Prize.
Everyone feels out of control on a bike in the beginning – even adults. When I learned to bike at the age of 43 I kept careening toward the very things – potholes, a fence, a ditch - I was trying to avoid. It was nerve-wracking for me and everyone around me!
“Where your eyes go, your bike goes,” my teacher said. “Don’t fixate on the obstacles. Focus on where you want to go instead.” This may be the most important life lesson of all. When we say “Look Up” what we’re really telling our kids is we have a choice: to focus on the things we fear, or to keep our eyes on the prize and power our own path forward. We are in control.
Teaching anxious kids to bike can be a bumpy ride. But take heart: that sweet moment when your child takes off balanced, confident and true will come, and when it does, it will be all the sweeter for the courage you cultivated to get there.
Patty Chang Anker is a fear-facing expert, writer, speaker, and coach. She is the author of SOME NERVE: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave(Oprah.com “Downright inspiring,” Parents Magazine “Mom Must Read”) and an anxiety expert at PsychologyToday.com. Her writing has appeared in Dr. Oz The Good Life Magazine, O Magazine and Npr.org. She recently faced her own fears of open water swimming, fast biking, and profuse sweating to became a triathlete. She and her daughters are no longer afraid of bicycling – but they are still afraid of clowns.