Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tied to Training Wheels

There's a news story circulating on the net just now claiming that modern science has rendered obsolete the age old child-rearing tool of training wheels. Enlightened parents are hereby advised to get their kids up on two wheels with a "balance bike." Science has proven the superiority of this approach unequivocally. As one article states, "It corrects the tragic historical error of training wheels."
The balance bike corrects "the tragic historical error of training wheels". Please!

Call me silly, but I actually took this as a personal affront. I taught my son to ride a bike with training wheels, just as my dad taught me. For all I know, every one of the Spencers right up the patrilinial line (patri-line?) did the same as far back as the invention of training wheels. And now, we're asked to shake our heads at our wrong-headed, old ideas and throw training wheels onto the technological trash heap of lobotomies, electroshock therapy and eight-track tape players.

Not that I have anything against balance bikes. These are quite popular among my cohort of parents here in Budapest, and I'm actually planning to give one a go when our two-year-old outgrows her three-wheeler (see above video, from when Sequoia was 14-15 months). The logic behind them seems sound enough: on a little balance bike, kids can support themselves with their feet and when they coast with their feet up, they learn balance -- balance without the distraction of pedaling.

The case against training wheels, meanwhile, is that they offer stability but give no opportunity to practice balance. On  a  bike equipped with training wheels, the child learns only how to pedal.

Or so the argument goes -- despite the fact that countless children actually HAVE learned how to bike via training wheels. The research against them was published several years ago in a book Cycling Science by MIT engineering professor David Gordon Wilson. He was quoted in the above article as saying, "It's hard to see how training wheels can inculcate any of the desired balancing habits, unless they are off the ground."

Wilson is apparently the philosophical godfather of a new movement / programme in San Francisco called Freedom from Training Wheels. I've never been to a "Freedom" event, but the web page reveals an undercurrent of zealotry. One instructor is quoted: “Never introducing the training wheels means you never need to take them away.” As if training wheels were a pernicious addiction.

I would say this is all a bit over the top. Although I understand the theoretical arguments, the fact is, training wheels can help a child learn to bike. Perhaps they just need to be used properly, keeping in mind Prof. Wilson's comment above. As my father did with my bike, the training wheels were installed so that they were firmly against the ground. As I learned to pedal and gained experience, they were raised bit by bit, so that they no longer rode firmly on the ground. Eventually they were raised 3-4 centimetres above the ground, so that, as I would pedal down the street, they would touch tarmac only intermittently or when I cornered sharply. I wasn't aware of it, but when I would ride in a (more or less) straight line, I was balancing on the front and back tires and not relying at all on the training wheels.

When my father finally removed the wheels and pushed me down our driveway for my first unassisted ride, I remember riding off straightaway without any trouble at all.

I took the same approach with our first born, Lance, and it worked fine. There was one false start -- I took him to the park one day and removed the training wheels to see if he was ready. I pushed him around for an hour, working up a minor backache in the process. But he wasn't ready for it and we finally gave up and put the wheels back on. A few months later, we had another go in the square next to our house. This time, he succeeded. And his several weeks of training wheel practice had enabled him to pedal like a demon as he developed his balance and cornering skills. Lance was just 4 1/2 at the time.

It could be that his little sister, taking the 'balance bike' approach, will learn at a younger age. If so hat's off to David Gordon Wilson. But I'll always have a place in my heart for training wheels.


Bikeurious said...

Wait - what have you got against lobotomies?

Greg Spencer said...

That's one for my sister blog --

Liz said...

you should try a Glide best glide bike out there