Welcome to Capable Kids Q&A, where you send me your dilemmas about lovingly nudging your kids towards a thriving can-do spirit, and I pull together the research, expertise, and wisdom out there to bring you encouragement and ideas. (Thank you for sending your great questions; keep them coming.)
Q: How can I encourage my 9-year-old only child to learn to bike ride? It’s one of my favorite summer leisure activities and I want him to join me!
A: Some of my nieces and nephews just hopped on the bike at age 5 or 6 and rode off—and that was that when it came to learning a two-wheeler. Other kids take to swimming the same way: confident, headlong, fearless. I did not have those children, and it sounds like you don’t, either.
It’s a tough balance. You want to respect the child’s interests and feelings, but also nudge them out of discomfort into rewarding, challenging things. In some ways, swimming was an easier call for me: It simply MUST happen. It’s a survival skill, not a hobby. (For our family, with three cautious, sensitive kids, that meant a LOT of patience and persistence over many years. But that’s a story for another day.)
Biking is more challenging in some ways. Kids don’t NEED to learn to ride a bike in the same way they need to swim, and yet it’s a life skill that we assume every older kid and adult has. Plus, it’s fun to do together, and you want to enjoy biking!
It’s perfectly appropriate to say to your son, “Hey, guess what? Our April project is going to be learning to bike ride!” When it comes to life skills, kids don’t always get to choose.
That doesn’t mean we’re dictators; you can show respect for his reluctance (and, I’m assuming, nerves) by going consistently but gently. Allowing for a month means you can say, “We’re going to take it slow—we’ll do just 5 minutes of practice every single day.” It also means you can take incremental steps: At first, tell your son not to put his feet on the pedals; he’s just going to walk the bike with his feet and, when he feels comfortable, lift his feet and coast for a second or two. Let him also wear knee pads and wrist/hand guards if he wants.
And if he’s not pedaling solo by the end of the month, just start a new month with confidence. Your consistent message? “Hey, I know you’re not excited about this, but I know you can do this, and you’re going to be so proud when you get it. Remember when you did [other hard thing]?” (Building on other successes, or “mastery experiences,” feeds confidence. For more on this, see my article on self-efficacy.)
I love this question because it simply boils down so much of what it is to encourage our kids’ capability: 1) we express unshakable confidence that they’ll get there (whatever “there” is in any given situation); 2) we respectfully acknowledge their discomfort while showing them how to move forward through it; and 3) we are patient with missteps, failures, and the slooooow walk to maturity.
I hope this helps, and I’d love to hear how it goes!