Thoughts about Getting Children Engaged in Cycling

smile_cross

Many avid cyclists would love to share their joy of cycling with their children, but some find that their children aren’t interested at all. I am lucky – for now – that my son shares my love of the sport. How did this happen?

It’s a good question, and I cannot claim to have found the magic bullet. I think the most important aspect is that your children need to discover cycling for themselves. If you push them into any sport, there are typically two outcomes: They either become compliant clones of you without much personality of their own, or they rebel against you and never touch a bike. Neither outcome is what you want.

My son showed no interest in bikes for a long time. It was only when his younger sister taught herself to ride with a neighbor’s bike, that he, too, wanted to learn to ride. We have an alley with infrequent traffic and they typically rode there with the neighbor children. We then went on some rides around the neighborhood as a family, and we took the opportunity to teach them how to ride in traffic and anticipate problems before they occur.

A year or two later my son graduated from a $3 yard sale one-speed to his first real kid’s cyclocross bike (shown below). Then he started to enjoy cycling. We equipped his bike with a custom-made rack, fenders and lights. I made up outings that the two of us could go on, like around Magnolia (5 to 10 miles), and I’ll have to admit to adding an enticement of a stop at a local ice-cream shop.

CrossingLean1

We rode together to music lessons, basketball, soccer, museums… He soon started riding by himself to his activities. Then, one day, he decided to “go on a ride” by himself. He tried to retrace a route we had taken before. He got lost and discovered some interesting streets and sites. When he found his way home, he clearly had been bitten by the bug of cycling. He tested his new-found freedom by riding places that I thought a bit challenging, but he did OK. He learned to navigate by landmarks, such as the ship canal that bisects Seattle, and he always found his way home. (He knows our phone number, just in case, and I taught him how to fix a flat.) When he’s “bored”, many times he’ll decide to go for a ride or out for a run.

islabikes_road

When the Islabike test bike arrived last summer, he read in the product description that it was suitable for cyclocross, and he wanted to try that. The result was a wonderful season of ‘cross last autumn. Lately, he’s joined me on longer rides on this bike. We’ll see where it all goes. He is still young, and his interests range wide. I don’t know whether he’ll enjoy cycling for the rest of his life – for the moment, I am just enjoying our rides together.

The impetus for each step in his cycling came from him, and I think that is important. On the other hand, my daughter had little interest in cycling for a few years, and that was OK, too. Both have to develop their own, unique personalities, and it’s my job to connect to them in their own worlds, rather than try to drag them into mine.

To summarize, my suggestions include:

  1. Don’t push your child toward cycling, but allow them to join you when they want to. Make sure your rides together are suited to their abilities.
  2. Buy a good bike for your kids. The cheaper ones are usually not much fun to ride. Don’t worry that they’ll outgrow it – good bikes have high resale values, so you’ll get most of your money back. More importantly, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to have them enjoy cycling.
  3. Trust your kids, and work with them to increase their responsibilities and range. Don’t be afraid to let them ride by themselves once they have shown that they are competent in traffic.
  4. Let your passion be a habit that your children observe in you, and allow them to define their own passion.
  5. Be proud of your child(ren).

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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30 Responses to Thoughts about Getting Children Engaged in Cycling

  1. Luis says:

    Years ago, I tried to get my sons interested in hiking, backpacking, and camping. These things were my passion. It didn’t work. We all ended up frustrated and unhappy. Later, when my older boy went off to college in Portland, OR, he “discovered” bikes. Our joint cycling interest went in reverse of what Jan writes about here. I followed my son’s lead, and ended up passionate about cycling. So, with us, the love of cycling went from son to father.

    In other words, I did what Jan suggests, “it’s my job to connect to them in their own worlds, rather than try to drag them into mine.” I haven’t lost my older interests, just added a new one that I can share with my kid. Besides, his enthusiasm is fun to be around, even if I didn’t share that particular enthusiasm.

    So, trust your kids and follow their lead. You may find a new activity that you love and just had never considered before. Fencing, anyone?

  2. David Pearce says:

    An update on my two younger nephew’s bike learning experiences:

    The 11-year-old learned to ride his bike and loves it. He now rides to his friend’s house by himself, & rides to his swimming lessons and piano lessons–sometimes on the same day!–by himself. It is a blue Specialized “Rockhopper” that his older brother–now a high school junior–rode into the ground ten years ago, and I refurbished with lots of new stuff, wheels, shifters, etc. Mission accomplished. I gave the bike to him, I said, “It’s your bike now: I won’t pester you about raising the seat. If you have any desires or needs about the bike, you can talk to me when you want to.” He hasn’t expressed any desire to go on longer rides, but maybe there are too many electronics and competing interests. I consider my job done. It’s his business now! :-)

    The 8-year-old is a work in progress. This was the red Specialized “Hotrock” that I found set out in the trash–looked like someone had backed into the rear wheel in the garage. Same thing, refurbished, new wheels, etc. Fixing up bikes is so nice! Once you brush the cobwebs and cat hair away and clean off the wheels & brakes, they look SO NICE and shiny! This bike is the perfect size for the boy: just a five- or six-speed rear derailleur, diminutive kickstand. Sure, I invested some $100-$150 in new wheels, cables & all the bells & compasses, & some hours of labor, but I got the bike for free.

    However, this boy is a little stubborn about riding the bike. He actually has ridden it some and learned to balance, but he hasn’t adopted it yet. He keeps claiming his clattering old Razor scooter is as fast as a bicycle, while his brother runs rings him. My job here is also done, at least until “the click”. One day, there will be a “click” inside him, and he’ll say, “I think I’ll give that bike another try”, at which time the red Hotrock will be faithfully waiting for him! :-)

  3. David Pearce says:

    By the way, the picture of Leander in the red jacket biking in front of the tall yellow-leafed trees is really stunning and soothing. For my part, I could see it turned into a beautiful print for purchase, or part of a calendar, etc. Really nice, thanks.

  4. anniebikes says:

    I wholeheartedly agree on all your points, Jan. I’ve found them also to be true in our own family. I’d like to add two points that are working for us, especially if you live in an area where it’s safe to let children cycle on their own. When my older son (age 15) asks us to drive him somewhere that’ within cycling distance and the weather is fine, we insist he rides his bike. It’s worked so far, especially because my husband and I set the example. Our 12 year old boy doesn’t ask, but rather takes off on his bike all the time – we marvel when he leaves us a note to let us know where he is! The other issue I take note of is complying with easy to fix requests. For example, one son complained his seat was too hard so I put a cushioned saddle on his bike. Little adjustments can make the difference between having fun or viewing a bike as a torture machine. For the time being, I’m just happy both of our boys are cycling for transportation, which is huge in the scheme of things.

  5. TobinH says:

    Ha…this advice rings true for wives and girlfriends too.

    • heather says:

      Sexist comment! As a woman who has always cycled, it continues to baffle me that men would not seek out a mate who enjoys cycling, especially the type to read cycling blogs, spend hours on bike forums and loves to ride for commuting and fun. It would be very difficult me to even entertain the idea of dating someone who is not into cycling! If you want your girl friend or wife to take up riding, you have to wait for them to decide to, and for goodness sake NEVER buy a bike for them as a surprise or what you think they’d like, or what you want them to ride.

      • If you want your girlfriend or wife to take up riding, you have to wait for them to decide to, and for goodness sake NEVER buy a bike for them as a surprise or what you think they’d like, or what you want them to ride.

        I think that is what the original comment meant to convey, so I don’t think it was intended as sexist. As you say, everybody needs to discover cycling on their own…

      • TobinH says:

        I certainly didn’t intend it to be sexist. I just meant that trying to push your hobby on your significant other is just as much of a mistake as pushing it on your children. Let her buy the bike she likes and enjoy cycling, or not, on her own terms.

  6. Vince DePillis says:

    Funny how it works out. Elder daughter started riding pretty early and commuted from Fremont to Garfield highschool her first year. She was diehard, and was one of very few kids riding to school. She rode all over Manhattan while in college, and now in DC.

    Younger daughter would have nothing to do with it in high school or college– maybe because she was a bit more plugged in to the social scene and more aware social expectations (which do not include riding a bike to school). But when she got to San Francisco she started riding just to get around, and is now a completely hooked.

  7. I’d agree with all of Jan’s points, except the one about a high quality bike, at least for the early years. I would clarify that statement by saying that you should look for a high quality, but used and inexpensive, bike to start with, before your child’s riding becomes refined to the point of being able to appreciate and enjoy the precision of a truly high quality bike that costs a lot of money. I really wanted to hook my kids up with nice, kitted-out bikes, but quickly learned that once kids first learned to ride, they just wanted to trash their bikes, and all that nice kit would have been wasted. I’d rather allow my kids to use the bike as an extension for them to experiment and push the limits, and enjoy the freedom of two wheels, and not have them feel ashamed for damaging their bikes. If you force your kids to treat their first bikes the way you expect them to treat your fine furniture, they’ll eventually lose interest and shut down. My kids are still on 20″ bikes, and they were bought used for very little, but were considered higher quality bikes when they were new (Trek KDZ Mtn–no longer made, and Specialized HotRock), both 6-speed. While my kids have been taught how to care for the bikes, I don’t scold them for dropping them on their sides or intentionally crashing into things or jumping off of ramps (what kid doesn’t love to do that stuff?). It’s all part of the learning process and helps build up the confidence to become a good cyclist. Once they’re mature enough to enjoy cycling more like an adult, they’ll graduate to nicer, higher quality bikes…

  8. GuitarSlinger says:

    The best motivator for getting kids on a bike today is the same one thats been in existence for decades . Necessity & Transportation ! Make it very clear that with the ever rising prices of cars , gas and insurance … especially once they’re approaching their teens that you won’t be buying them a car or helping to pay for the expenses of owning one . Amazing how quickly that’ll get a kid off the couch and riding . The passion hopefully [ and more than likely ] coming later . The other thought is to get them on a bike ASAP . With all the micro bikes [ pedal & push ] now available that didn’t even exist when we were kids you can get them started almost right after they’ve learned how to walk and while everything is still a huge ‘ adventure’/challenge to them . On the last point I’m in complete agreement with somervillebikes [ Somerville NJ .. my old home town perhaps ? ] Save the quality for later while not buying them junk in the mean time . Decent and ridable is good enough .

    • anniebikes says:

      That’s where we’re at with our boys. They have second hand bikes that are decent and ridable. I don’t worry if they decide to throw them on the ground, which does happen if you have boys! In a tight knit community, riding for transportation works for teenagers.

  9. champs794 says:

    I think kids will find their way, regardless of how much or how little pressure you apply. My (decidedly non-enthusiast) parents seemed like they were forcing me to learn. Then I felt pressure from the neighbor kids to ride farther. So of course after I embraced it, I graduated to a 10-speed road bike and rode it just long enough to come of driving age—riding a bike simply wasn’t cool, especially if it wasn’t a mountain bike.

    But here I am as an adult, car-free, and tooling around with drop bars and big wheels. A nice bike really did help.

  10. doug says:

    As the father of a nine-month old who is also pretty passionate about cycling, I am very keen on having her love cycling as she grows up. We’ve already started doing short trips with her in a trailer and a Yepp and so far she finds the experience tolerable, so that’s a start In a year or two we’ll probably invest in a dedicated kid bike like an extracycle. My coworker’s 2.5 year old is obsessed with riding in his, which is what I hope happens with Ada.

    My hope is really to have cycling just be a normal thing we do to get around. It would be really great if she caught the bug (it’s really hard to imagine anyone not catching the bug, but hey, I guess it happens?), but I am also prepared for no interest. Kind of.

  11. Paul Glassen says:

    My son started cycling from a very early age on a series of small-wheeled bikes. By the time he was in elementary school he would accompany me into town and back, 12 kms. each way. When he was nine we rebuilt a used custom quality road/tour bike for him. Then there was some cycle touring together and the first organized group ride. At nine he rode the 70 km. distance, at ten he insisted on the 100 km. Unfortunately, around that time he started riding more off-road. Then it was mountain bike and bike trials competitions. (With some encouragement from a bike shop where he worked in high school, he did manage to win a fall cyclo-cross series.) Eventually, to his parents dismay and alarm, he became a slope-style dirt jump competitor and for several years toured across north America and once to Switzerland and Germany. Now he is a university student in outdoor recreation management and works summers building mountain bike courses in city parks all across Canada. So, my advice; keep your kids away from those damn mountain bikes.

  12. bcebicycle says:

    As most of us know kids are as different as the bikes available to them. I definitely would steer clear of bikes that are of suspect quality. The good news with kids bikes is one can usually find a second hand one with very little use for about the same price as a new megamart bike. Great post, brough back some memories of my son and his early biking days.

  13. Frank says:

    Kids need to learn to ride a bike like they need to learn how to read, write, count, swim, cook, and wipe their own bum. It’s just part of growing up. Luckily, as long as parents don’t wreck it by leaning too hard or mollycoddling too long, they’ll all manage in the end.
    As a parent (or teacher), the most powerful tool you have is to be a positive role mode … to live what you speak.
    Because riding a bike makes sense. It’s efficient, sustainable, independent. (Different from “cycling” … which doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels).
    My littles ride to the park, drop their bikes, and play. They look at the other kids who ride their bikes around the park with some confusion, and can’t see how the fun of riding compares to the swing or the sandpit … 3 year old M saying “we ride to the park … not at the park”.
    I personally would rather my kids asked for a lift to the beach for a surf rather than stand on the side of an oval watching ‘em play soccer … but they’ll let me know.

    (oh … and my favourite thing to watch out for on gumtree is racing bmx bikes … light, bombproof, cheap)

  14. Every kid had a bike when I was growing up and my brother taught me how to ride my bike. I ride a lot now in the city and still love it!

  15. George A. says:

    “If you push them into any sport, there are typically two outcomes: They either become compliant clones of you without much personality of their own, or they rebel against you and never touch a bike.”

    Actually there’s a third outcome: your kid excels at the sport to the point where he beats your a$$ on a regular basis!

    I completely agree that you can’t push ‘em. My son and I race small sailing dinghies but although I introduced the daughter to the sport she didn’t care for it. On the other hand when I took the pair of them figure skating the reverse occurred– she took to it but he didn’t. Different kids, different personalities. The main thing is that I got each one to do something other than thumb wrestle a smart phone…

    For what it’s worth all three of us ride bikes in a utilitarian way. Although I have an old Raleigh Team Pro, my most often used bike is a 3-speed Phillips female model which I bought at a yard sale for $15 bucks. Yep, the classic “Fred” bike. With the addition of fold-able wire basket racks it’s perfect transport to/from the liquor store.

  16. When my daughter was at an age to start cycling, all we could afford was a rather poor bike-shaped object. Kate hated it. But a few years later, brother #1 (Jesse) learned to ride on a better bike, and then brother #2 (Isaac) followed. I built up a decent road bike for Kate and she became something of a speed demon! Jesse graduated from a Diamondback 24″ MTB to my Trek 560, and I built a smaller Trek 560 for Isaac.

    I never could get my youngest (Abram) to ride. He’s 15 now, and the rest are adults. Kate, now the mother of two, doesn’t ride at this point, but she never learned to drive, either, and has not missed it. Jesse gave up riding on entering college, though since his spouse will be entering MIT for graduate work in the fall, he has expressed an interest in cycling again. He’s more of a motorhead, though! Isaac was the most bike-friendly of the lot. He and I did many rides together, and took our bikes on many family trips. Cycling became his default mode of transport, and it’s only now that he’s in the army that he’s learning to drive (Humvees, which don’t dent easily).

    Abram continues to have no interest whatsoever in riding.

    I think I agree with all of Jan’s points, but don’t forget also that each child is unique, and some just won’t be interested…

  17. heather says:

    All good points. My husband so wanted his kids to ride when he was a single dad and trying to get them to school and day care and on and on. He ended up just pulling them in the bike trailer even when they were too old and heavy. They refused to learn, and he did not have a car. He so wanted to have the glorious experience of teaching them how to ride(I certainly remember my dad teaching me and how much fun it was), but they eventually learned with friends when they were older and living with their non cycling mom. They dreaded having to go out by bicycle with us during visits. One of them is finally riding a bike I gave her a few years back. She’s living on her own and no mom taxi service anymore. There is no transit, so she has no choice but to ride into town for her job. She discovered that it is fun, it means freedom, and it is putting her in shape. No matter how we encouraged her to ride, or that it meant freedom, she had to figure that out on her own.
    I do not know about buying good quality UNLESS the child shows a strong interest in cycling for a long period of time, or at an age when a frame could be used for a few years. Like going from 26″, to 650A, 650B or 700c if long reach brakes are used, changing crank arm lengths as needed?
    However, having a super lightweight fast road bike for the first time in years which has made an enormous difference in riding, I can see a better bicycle would be less discouraging for someone struggling on a cheap heavy clunker.
    Back in the late 70′s I was riding 2 wheels by 4 years old and off and away around the neighbourhood, and later further afield. Goodness knows what my mom was thinking! Did I ever tell her where I was going? My parents were not into putting us in sports so it was kind of up to my siblings and I to find a physical outlet. I would take the bike out into the country, find the bmx dirt trails or go and look at horses, goats and cows. It was freedom, I loved it and went on from there.
    I would emphasize safety like don’t talk to strange predatory people asking them for things or promising something, for girls especially so. If they are riding further than the local neighbourhood ensure they have a way of contacting you, know some safe public spaces to go to. At the very least they can ride away from danger, even if it is just a mean dog. I do recall going to a “block parent” house because I was scared of a dog, and once I fell of my bike and hurt myself badly. I was very very lucky though.
    Letting kids ride on their own when old enough teaches them self reliance, navigational skills, how to remember routes and understand directions, landmarks, where the sun is etc..

    • I think the lessons about safety should be taught anyhow. It’s important to remember that the risk of children getting abducted is very, very small. That is why those stories make the national news.

      Getting hurt in traffic accidents is a greater risk, but again, it’s better for children to learn how to ride in traffic at an early age, rather than being thrown into traffic when they are 16 and pass their drivers’ test.

      Perhaps the biggest risk is children having all kinds of health problems at age 40 because they haven’t formed a habit of physical activity…

      • B. Carfree says:

        “Perhaps the biggest risk is children having all kinds of health problems at age 40 because they haven’t formed a habit of physical activity…”

        There’s no perhaps about it. We had to rename adult onset diabetes to type 2 diabetes simply because so many children developed this obesity-caused disease. We’re seeing teenagers with heart disease because they never exercise.

        Two years ago, researchers found that the BMI shortcut for estimating whether one is overweight or obese is now completely invalid because the current crop of Americans have such low muscle and bone masses that BMI now grossly underestimates the amount of body fat. They concluded that as many as two-thirds of American adult females are obese (>30% body fat).

        All those sedentary health problems cost not only lives but significantly degrade the quality of life of far too many people. Our roads are far from perfect, but I would much rather take my chances with the rare car impact than face a near-certain early death and/or infirmity on the couch.

  18. thebvo says:

    It’s gotta have pegs! The bike needs to be able to get tossed around.
    Take him or her to a BMX show/ competition. That’ll get em hooked.
    But really what it comes down to (IMHO) is freedom and independence. The bike is a child’s first chance at choosing their own adventure. Even if it’s just circling the block 50 times everyday during summer vacation and hopping off every curb trying to “get air.” That’s what I remember. I’ve always wanted my bike to take me somewhere, whether it be to the mall, a park, school, or down hwy 1 it’s always been about adventure. Give a kid a bike and a curfew and they’ll figure it out.

    • “The bike needs to be able to get tossed around.” Yes, exactly! This is what I was alluding to in my earlier post– your kids shouldn’t have to worry about damaging it, which may be difficult for a parent to allow if the parent buys their kid an expensive bike early on. Let ‘em crash, do tricks, anything.

      • I have mixed feelings about this. I also believe that children should learn to take care of things, and to use them appropriately. That said, I remember when I was a child. We used our kid’s bikes for BMX long before BMX bikes were available in Germany – with the result of a broken fork and torn up lawns in our garden. Our parents stepped in, and our BMX careers ended before they even had started.

    • David Pearce says:

      I like your last line a lot!

  19. David Pearce says:

    Speaking of Jan’s last comment here (July 9, 8:32 a.m.), I was privy to this little vignette at my sister’s house in Charlottesville (Va.) this past Monday. My sister had to work that day, when she is usually off on a Monday, and we might go for a ride. She has a suburban house with a U-shaped, two-entry driveway. On going out to the garage at about 2:00 p.m., I happened to secretly see through the garage door windows, two middle-school kids using a little corner of her property and the lower part of her driveway for BMX tricks! By the telephone pole at the corner of the property, there is a little hillock, a down-and-up, on which these kids were attempting to get some air on their mountain bikes, and then using the driveway to loop around and do it from the other side! When I texted my sister about this, she said let them be, and I did. And yes, they were eroding away a nice little red-dirt path in the lawn near the telephone pole!

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