In Defense of Training Wheels

I have a four year old. He’s a pretty average kid, smart but not advanced, which means that this summer we have plunged into the world of biking, swimming, and reading. These are all activities that we enjoy as a family, and they are also solo activities. At four he is big enough and mature enough to learn to do them himself.

We’ve been noticing that Danny’s learning style is an interesting amalgam of Drew’s and mine. From me he gets a slow and steady style that makes him nervous to try new things without a little support. And from Drew he gets a lightning quick intellect that makes him want to conceal any gaps in his knowledge or abilities. It’s a challenging combination for parents who aren’t trained teachers.

That’s where the training wheels come in. Danny’s journey to biking competency has had several steps. We started him on a great tricycle when he was 2 that had a parent handle on the back allowing us to push and steer. The tricycle taught him to pedal and to steer while we kept him from tearing up the neighbors lawns or collapsing in frustration when he ran off the sidewalk for the tenth time that walk (and we still had to get home). It wasn’t long before the handle could come off and he was racing the sidewalks with the big kids. When he was 3 we got him a bike with training wheels. It was a bit tall for him, so we had to wait for him to grow into it, which he finally did this spring, just as he turned 4. Danny was so proud to be riding a big boy bike, but he couldn’t quite get the balancing down. A biking neighbor gave him a balance bike and I put him on that for a couple of months to learn how to balance on a bicycle. One afternoon this summer Danny asked me to take his training wheels off. I did it, and we tried to get him riding, but he couldn’t manage more than 6 feet before he ran off the sidewalk or fell over (or both). It was frustrating for us both, and he wasn’t getting anywhere, so the training wheels back on and put him back on the balance bike for a few more weeks. In the meantime he was also riding a trail-a-bike behind his dad’s bike, learning not to wiggle side to side. When he went back to the training wheels again his balance had improved. We emphasized that he wanted to ride quietly, so that he couldn’t hear the training wheels on the sidewalk. And tonight Drew pointed out that Danny had managed this several times! But rather than remove the training wheels, Drew raised them so that they get used less frequently but are still preventing Danny from falling over. I imagine that Danny will be riding without them by next spring, and certainly by his fifth birthday.

Danny has been swimming more than ever this summer. In Madison we lived near a zero-entry swimming pool (that’s an artificial pool with a beach-like roll in shallow end, equally accessible to small children and those with physical limitations) and a lake. For his first three summers Danny played in shallow water he could walk in, watched over by lifeguards. I enrolled him in swim lessons, but those turned out to be water safety oriented rather than swimming skills lessons. This summer, however, we have access to a private pool with no life guard (like a hotel pool) that is 3.5 feet deep in the middle and 5 feet deep at either end. I wondered how I could manage my two small children in such a pool. I tried putting Becky in my trusty water ring sling, but my little fish did not want to be confined. So after talking to a neighborhood mom who used to be a swim instructor, I got the kids some water wings. It was a revelation. Becky was crazy happy to finally be free of Mummy’s arms. And Danny suddenly had confidence and was able to play with his friend. I’d been trying to teach Danny to kick with no avail, but once he was floating free and trying to keep up with his friends kicking came quite naturally. This fall he will begin independent swimming lessons. After almost two years of preschool Danny finally has the classroom skills that will allow him to benefit from formal lessons.

What’s my point? My kid benefits from a graduated method of learning. If you throw him in the deep end or push too hard, more often than not he’ll freeze up and reject the activity. I understand; I’m the same way. That doesn’t prevent us from learning or from participating in new things, but it is good to know and understand.

As I search for advice in teaching my kids some of the basics of life (and with a 1 year old and a 4 year old, I’ve got a lot of basics to cover) I find a lot of condemnation of training wheels and water wings. A lot of people write that supports such as these breed a reliance on the assistance items that delays learning. They advocate a fast immersion teaching method, proclaiming that it teaches proper techniques quickly without engendering bad habits. Maybe it does for some people. For me and for my son lightweight supports such as training wheels, water wings, quick reference sheets, and the like allow us to get out there and participate while honing our skills. That’s not preventing learning, it’s enabling it.

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2 Responses to In Defense of Training Wheels

  1. Beth says:

    I can completely agree with this. Sometimes and for some kids, it’s the right thing to never use the training wheels, but for others, it’s just never going to work. Amber was terrified of the water, and after a year of weekly swim lessons with 3 different instructors who ranged in style from “kind, patient, and loving” to “drill instructor” but all of whom insisted she put her head in the water and learn real strokes instead of teaching her to doggie-paddle, she was still clinging to the instructor’s neck for the whole session. I finally gave up and just put her in a life jacket when we’re near water. She’s so much happier that way, although she’ll still get out and leave the pool to dry her face if she gets a splash of water on her nose.

    Teaching baby steps can enable learning; it may be hard to get out of a rut later, but for some kids the alternative isn’t “jump straight to success” it’s “call it quits.” People who have kids likely to jump straight to success and write books about it sometimes seem condescending to the others, but that minimizes individual differences between children.


  2. Christina Kantor says:

    Nicely written. This is one if the many parenting issues where you have to trust knowing your own kids’ needs and temperaments more than you trust the experts advice. Ben is like Danny, and I believed in the “no crutches” approach, until his toddler swimming instructor tried to get him over his hate of getting his face wet–by tricking him, and letting him go under water unexpectedly. Ben-very verbal at 2.5, explained that he did NOT like this at all. He refused to get in the pool with that instructor after that. We switched to lessons at the Y, where they use flotation devices. What a wonder! Suddenly he “got” how fun swimming was, and needed no more encouragement. Now he is decent swimmer- though it took til age 7 to put his face under voluntarily. The lesson you articulated so well here was that I needed to look at my son, not “expert” recommendations to figure out what to do.

    I sometimes “bribe” him, if I think fear is keeping him from trying something he will enjoy (like the biggest water slide at Kalahari). He gets extra “good behavior” points if he tries it. Then I am not pushing him, just giving him a chance to reflect on whether a bit of hesitation or doubt is stopping him, or if he really feels unsafe doing something. (In fact this method helped us diagnose his ADD, because he still could not get through his spelling homework despite all the points he was promised. He really could not concentrate, despite a great deal of motivation.)

    Thanks Jen and Danny and Becky for this thoughtful post. Looking forward to more.

    Let’s ask Lance Armstong if he ever used training wheels.

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