Childhood transitions: Letting go of the training wheels

Childhood transitions: Letting go of the training wheels

Fourth of July has come and gone, which means only one thing: back-to-school sales.

Please no. I am not ready.

But as our 10 weeks of summer (by the school calendar) is officially half over, it’s time to do a midterm assessment.

What have I accomplished?

— Desk still cluttered (0 points).
— Photos not organized (0 points).
— Breezeway redecorating project under way — sort of (1 point; I straightened it up, at least).
— Grass not dead yet (5 points; let’s check back in August).
— Some flowers planted (5 points; weeds still hold roughly 2-to-1 advantage).
— Daughter learned to ride her bike (10 points, yes!).

A friend and I were commiserating the other night about how we’d just taught our youngest children — our babies — how to ditch the training wheels for good.

My daughter is 7 (almost 8), a bit of a late bloomer in this regard. I read somewhere that the average age for learning to ride is between 5 and 6. One of my nieces was zipping around on her tiny two-wheeler at age 3 (that whole third-child-keeping-up-with-the-older-sisters thing).

And at a Fourth of July parade, I saw a toddler running and coasting, Fred Flintstone-style, on one of those bikes without pedals. The idea, I am told, is to teach them balance without having to mess with pedals.

It’s not that my daughter had trouble. We just kept procrastinating, mostly because of our usual ineptitude with anything mechanical.

She had one of those cute pink bikes handed down from a friend, but it didn’t have training wheels. We bought a set for $2 at a neighbor’s garage sale, which the dad kindly installed for us. But they were never quite right. So we bought a new set, but they wouldn’t stay on either.

We finally took the bicycle to a bike shop, where they informed us that no one made training wheels to fit that type of bike anymore, unless we wanted to buy the $65 version blah blah blah ... No thank you. (Why does this always happen to us?)

We hated to buy a new bike just to use training wheels for a few months. So we borrowed yet another friend’s bike, with the training wheels still attached.
My daughter didn’t make much progress last summer. She is a lot of things — smart, obedient, willing to try new things — but she is not a big risk taker. She has a bit of my “guys, we’re gonna get in trouble for this” gene that always drove my friends crazy. And if she can’t master something immediately, she gets frustrated.

So while she made mild gains, she wasn’t terribly confident on the bike. And frankly, we didn’t try very hard. My husband and I didn’t have bikes at the time, and it just kind of fell by the wayside.

So, this summer, it became a priority.

The first week school was out, we got out the helmets, knee pads and elbow pads and hauled the bikes out of the garage. Of course, all the tires were flat. Undaunted, we pumped them up and set off for our nearby school.

On our first outing, she was still a bit nervous, insisting that I hold on to the bike while she pedaled. She had a wobbly half-hour or so, but by the end of the session she was pretty sturdy. And a lot more confident.

The next day, my husband took her out and — voila! — she rode by herself. I missed it, of course, because I was at work.

I wasn’t terribly surprised. She is nothing if not determined. And I had been through this before.

When my son was learning, also at age 7, I remember running alongside him, struggling to hold on while he rolled down the street.

Finally, when we got to the school, he said, “Mom, can I just try it by myself?”

And he took off across the blacktop. No looking back.

As I stood there, watching him zoom around the parking lot, I thought: what a metaphor for parenthood.

As an older mom, I’m more conscious of time passing, of the kids growing up and out of all the stages I’ve learned to love. Have I deliberately held them back, failed to teach them something important at the right time? No, although I may be a tiny bit guilty of not “letting go” fast enough. I don’t know.

I do know the whole bicycle thing went a lot more smoothly because they were ready — more than ready, probably. And they had plenty of happy hours riding their bikes with training wheels or their scooters (which also help with balance, I am told).

That same friend and I were talking about our tween-age sons and how we’re happy that they still like Legos and Star Wars and chasing each other around the yard. There’s plenty of time for the heavy stuff to come, for all those things they’ll do “by myself,” without us. Maybe waiting to make some of those transitions will help them in the long run.

In the meantime, there are no more training wheels at our house.

Anybody want to buy a used set?


Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues, social services and the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her column appears in the paper every other Tuesday. Leave a comment below,  contact Julie at 351-5226 or or follow her on Twitter at


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peabody wrote on July 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Thanks for the great column. Having just taught my own son to ride a bike, I highly recommend the experience. It's something about their youth, the danger of a bad fall, seeing the "switch" go off, standing there and watching them go... there is nothing like it.

Julie Wurth wrote on July 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm
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Thanks for your comment! I wholeheartedly agree - and am sorry I missed the actual 'moment' with my daughter, although I saw the buildup. Despite all my angst about them growing up, I felt really happy and proud when they did it. Very satisfying as a parent!

Here's a fun video/song by Justin Roberts you might enjoy on the same subject by (thanks to Laura Bleill of for the suggestion/YouTube link!)

ErinMB wrote on July 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Congratulations to your daughter! :) (I didn't think you publicly displayed her name so I didn't) I'm proud of her for being brave, and I liked the mention of your niece too :)

Even if he didn't look back, he will one day appreciate these stories and the endless amount of patience you have with your children.

Julie Wurth wrote on July 21, 2011 at 9:07 am
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I hope so, Erin! :) I'm glad you appreciated the niece story - still have vivid memories of that tiny bike. Thank you!

Mike Howie wrote on July 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm
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On one of my younger son's early bike rides in a new neighborhood, we went tooling down the street and he lost control, as children will, and steered right toward a tree surrounded by railroad ties that formed the border of a flower bed. He stopped by virtue of the front wheel hitting a tie, and I thought that was that, until he let out a screech and we realized -- too late -- that bees or some other stinging insect had built a home in the railroad ties and he had disturbed them.

It was a while before we rode our bikes again.

Yet I then have a vivid memory of him riding his bike later in another new neighborhood, going up the road until he disappeared around a bend, and that loss of visibility brought about a level of anxiety that I'm sure you can imagine, until he came whizzing back -- downhill -- and there was another source of anxiety. He was discovering things, and so was I.

Julie Wurth wrote on July 21, 2011 at 9:07 am
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Ouch, poor kid! Those are great stories!

No one said letting go was painless, for parent or child, right? Every step does bring new anxieties. I don't even want to talk about driving yet. Save those stories for later. :)

Meg wrote on July 22, 2011 at 12:07 pm

You're right. There's nothing like that "c'mon, you can do it, I'm holding you, keep pedaling!" and then suddenly (even though it may not actually be suddenly) they ride off down the sidewalk or street. I cried all three times it happened to me!

Julie Wurth wrote on July 23, 2011 at 10:07 am
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Me too! Although the second time it was because I missed it. But they're so proud, it takes the sadness away pretty quickly. :)