Look, Dad! No hands! The travails of teaching kids to bike in the city
Mark Twain once wrote, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”
This is true. Riding a bike is potentially dangerous, particularly in this era of turbo powered autos and text messaging. But if you don’t tangle with the cars, biking is an enriching activity that is not only fun but also good for your health, and in my years as an urban cyclist, I have come to understand the dangers, and avoid them.
Still, I can get anxious about these dangers when riding with my kids. Even as an “alterna-dad,” I still have some qualities of a modern helicopter parent. My wife and I micromanage every second for our sons Dean and Grant, who are 10 and 7 years old, from coaching them on each spoonful of cereal in the morning to an overly involved tuck-in routine at bedtime.
Our family lives in a historic neighborhood of 100-year-old row houses in Washington, D.C., less than two miles from the White House and within earshot of the tiger’s roar at the National Zoo. Quaint as our neighborhood is, our kids do not cross the street without us holding their hands. They do not ride the bus, take the subway, or even walk to the corner store without us.
So it is no shock that our kids do not ride their bikes around the city without us by their side. As we ride I issue instructions with each push of the pedals and each turn of the handlebars. It is like I am the puppet master, controlling my bicycle riding marionettes. I instruct my boys to avoid each obstacle and every potentially dangerous encounter as we roll. But I want to teach my kids how to navigate the urban labyrinth without a parent hovering over them.
Here are some rules I’ve set in an effort to keep my boys safe:
- No helmet, no bike. This is a no brainer. Ever since the days of training wheels there has been this simple rule. My boys also have blinking head- and taillights on their bikes as well as headlamps strapped to their helmets.
- Tell dad if your bike is not working. A problem on a bicycle rarely fixes itself, and something as simple as an underinflated tire or a set of worn-out brake pads can cause a crash or collision. I check their tires for air and lube their chains regularly, and periodically, I’ll put their bikes in the stand and give them a glance.
- Fuel up! Eat and drink before each ride, and if it is going to be a long one, bring some sustenance along. A car will not work without fuel, and neither will a person — and beyond that, a hungry, moody child can be tough to motivate (and manage) on a bike.
- Look and listen. On straight-aways, I instruct my boys to look far ahead and to take frequent glances back. When going around a curve or turning down a street, anticipate the presence of a car, truck, or pedestrian by listening. Large vehicles like garbage trucks may beep as they back up. Listen for this stuff — and avoid the large trucks all together.
- See that you are seen. When stopped at an intersection, waiting for safe passage to cross, make eye contact with the car drivers to be sure that they see you. Don’t just go when the light is green or the signal says walk, as there may be a car taking a right turn on red or ignoring the signal altogether. And when riding, ride close enough to the center of the lane that you’re visible to approaching cars — and well out of the “door zone.”
- Give respect and get respect. On the street, share the road. Just as a cyclist deserves his turn at a red light or stop sign, so does a car driver. On the sidewalk, be courteous of pedestrians. Try not to spook people. Make safe passes granting other people a little space. Always giving a polite audible warning, such as “on your left” or “excuse me, can I get by,” as you make the pass.
It’s a lot to remember, but with reminders and experience, kids get it. Lead by example and reinforce appropriate cycling behavior. I’ve been riding on the city streets with my boys since they were really young, so I don’t have to bark an order every step of the way as I did on our first rides. There are even points on our rides home from school where I let them ride on their own.
At one point in the ride, the boys like to peel off down a bike path that splits between a dog park and a soccer field, while I ride straight on the red brick sidewalk, then migrate back onto the street. With one last instruction to “be smart and be safe,” we part ways, then race to a street corner just past the park. We regroup and roll onto the street where we ride together as a pack again.
At other points, 7-year-old Grant will shout, “Alley way!” The boys split off down a back alley while I stick to the street, allowing them to ride untethered, making decisions on their own cycling, safely outside of my shadow. It’s all practice for the days when they’ll ride with friends without adult chaperone.
The dangers are out there. I imagine that I will always worry about them. But I can prepare them for what’s out there — and to help them be safe.
So … get on your bike with your kids. You will not regret it. As long as you teach them well, and give them the tools they need to navigate the urban jungle.