Back while I was teaching, my wife and I moved to a 42 acre farmhouse about 20 minutes from the university. My father-in-law was ecstatic; he had been a dairy farmer for the past 40 years, and he insisted that we get a few head of cattle. So I headed to the sale barn to pick up some young heifers, which are cows that have not yet given any milk.
Well, as it turns out, one of the heifers I bought was pregnant. Four months after I bought the heifer, on a Sunday morning, it started to calve…but there was a problem. The calf’s foot was turned sideways, not allowing it to exit the would-be cow. As a mathematician, I hadn’t a clue what to do, so I called my father-in-law, the dairy farmer. He was full of advice: “Oh, you just push the calf’s foot back in, reach into the heifer, grab both feet, and tug!” Well, I tried that, and I tried it again. And again. I asked for more advice. I tried some more.
After an hour, I finally admitted that I simply could not pull the calf out.
I called the local veterinarian. He showed up, a lean man of about 5′ 4″. He took his shirt off, soaped his arms, and in three minutes had gotten the calf out. As he was washing up, I asked him, “Doc, I am a big, strong man with expert advice. How on earth could you get that calf out when I couldn’t?”
“I’ve studied the Rule Book. I am familiar with the basic moves. I’ve played the game before, and I had the right equipment.”
I paid him, and he left me with a calf, a cow ready to milk, and a story.
Professionals: Yes, they make a living doing whatever it is, but in the process professionals inherently possess five attributes (I added one that I observed):
•They have studied the rule book. They are familiar with the game that they are playing, and every game has rules.
•They are familiar with the basic moves. We stress “basic moves,” as most professionals don’t even have to resort to fancy moves. They usually only have to execute a few basic moves, but execute them reasonably well. After all, professionals practice over and over again what they do, and practice tends to “make perfect.”
•The professional comes to the job with the right equipment.
•The professional has “played the game before.” This means that the professional has encoded a sense of reflexes and even experiences so that the professional’s reactions become automatic, skilled, and certainly not reactions of emotional despair.
•The professional comes to the task with the right attitude. They know if the problem can be solved. They have the where-with-all to solve the problem. If the problem can’t be solved they will recognize that up front and tell you so in a heartbeat. The silly notion, for example, of taxi drivers taking you around the block in order to run up the meter is just that – silly. Taxi drivers usually make money by having lots of short trips so that more people can pay the high cost of the first portion of the trip. You need to get out of your mind the notion that the professional is ripping you off, or milking the job, because that is very seldom the case.
In what follows we are going to share some, but not all, of our professional secrets. Our intent is to provide some form of framework to allow you as parent to (1) know if you should be trying to do the job yourself, and (2) if you decide to go ahead on your own, to have some idea as to how to emulate a professional. Let’s get started.
Study the rule book. If you are serious, the first thing you should do is to read up on the topic. We recommend the sections of this web site flagged for parents and the lay public.
Become familiar with the basic moves. This is hard for us to describe in word form, but the first move is to believe in the bike and believe in speed. If you are going to pussy-foot around and go slow with your child, you are only compounding the problem. We could write volumes on this topic of the basic moves, but we hope that in reading all the varied portions of this web site that you’ll gain some feel for the basic moves.
Bring the right equipment to the game. For starters, you need to be objective about the bike thatyou hope to use. This is sad to say but a large percentage of the reasons why kids can’t learn is that the bike used, most likely purchased originally in some discount or mass chain store, is an ill suited bike. The most common problem is that the bike is of a BMX or racing style, with wrong proportions. The crank set (also called bottom bracket) is too high, and the crank arms are too long. This combination forces the pedal to go way too high as it comes up and over the top, and your child will lose balance and feel uncomfortable because of the poor ergonomic aspects of your bargain or even shiny “BMX” bike. That precious department store bike was designed with only one purpose in mind – to get you to buy it and pay money at the check-out. Do you recall how it shined and how the child liked its “cool” look? It wasn’t designed to be a good bike for the child, especially a child experiencing difficulty in learning.
The next thing to do is to strongly consider the purchase of a bike training handle. A bike training handle is an after-market handle that you can purchase and fairly easily attach to your child’s bike. If you can’t get the handle attached, your neighbor’s 16 year-old kid can usually do the job. The handle is up and behind the rider so that you or another adult can run alongside seeing that the child is both guided and prevented from falling. The purpose of the handle isn’t for you to forever be holding onto, but to be there more as a safety feature. You need to be prepared to catch the child as if you are using “the back of eagle’s wings.” Please refer to our section on “Bicycle Theology.”
The “equipment” must also include a proper riding surface. Avoid sidewalks. Avoid even streets. The best surface is a paved vacant parking lot. Saturday mornings often mean that some commercial business parking lots are available. Another option for a riding surface is often a church parking lot so long as you don’t arrive when a wedding, funeral, or other event is scheduled. In selecting a parking lot, look for one that is level, and free of obstacles and serious hazards like pot holes, storm grates, concrete light pole bases, and steep inclines.
Avoid the spotlight. Your child doesn’t need a cheering section, so leave as many unnecessary people and kibitzers at home. Grandpa, siblings, and neighbors can be surprised later. You don’t want them present unless deemed necessary and for a specific purpose.
Select a time of day when the child is rested, and preferably when it is cooler so that the child feels comfortable with longer length protective clothing. Riding gloves are a good idea as the child might fall and road rash will cause pain. If you don’t have riding gloves, consider garden gloves the type used when working on thorned plants. Pain, if it occurs, will normally shut the learning process down.
Come to the game with some experience.
If you are really serious, you should approach your special needs child with a few practice plays under your belt. Try going out onto a parking lot and running with a riderless bike, or getting a sibling who can ride to serve as a trial guinea pig. We note that the Wright Brothers had each flown hundreds of flights prior to the first powered flight on December 17, 1903 – because they had practiced extensively with gliders. Our recommendation is that you get your equipment ready and then offer services to neighbors with able-bodied children. Under your tutelage, your neighbors kids will learn quickly, you will gain in confidence (leaps and bounds), and your neighbors will love you for what you are doing.
Come to the game with the right attitude.
This is hard to convey, but we note that a frequent factor for children not learning is improper parental meddling and pressuring of the child. Yes, you are emotionally involved, but please do not allow your emotions and fears to get in the way of objectivity. Parents tend to do a number of things, some of them detrimental:
•They get the child all worked up and excited, often days in advance. The fearful child is sure that they will fail – and disappoint or let down the parent. In short, don’t build up the event, but rather treat it almost as a non event. We’d be happier if you didn’t even tell the child in advance that you are scheduling a bike learning experience. We must comment that one type of child requires advance notice – the child with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. They don’t do well with the idea of surprises.
•Keep your mouth shut. In pilot training flight instructors use a more polite phrase, “Minimize conversation.” A child intensely trying to ride a bike doesn’t need a parental megaphone blaring in their ears. All people learn based on three modes of learning – oral, visual, and kinesthetic. We want the bicycle to teach the child kinesthetically. If you’re going to bombard the child with oral commands or even encouragement while riding, the kinesthetic will freeze as they will try to comprehend what you are shouting about, and they become more prone to failure. Keep your mouth shut. Minimize conversation. Talk to them gently before and gently after, but keep your mouth zipped shut while they are riding.
•Be careful about your choice of words when working with learning children. Parents tend to throw out words like “turn right,” “steer,” and “turn.” These are adult abstractions that mean little to children, especially when under the pressure to ride a frightening bike for the first time. Even the concepts of right and left are often not in place by the time that children are trying to learn to ride. They don’t need your oral help, and they certainly don’t need you shouting out in words that only bewilder them. Save up your entire urge to shout out commands for the Little League Tournament where you will behave like all the other over-agitated parents.
•In conversations, the parent will at times bring up negative ideas and thoughts. “This bike is tipsy.” “This bike is fast.” “Do you think you might fall?” Forget all the negatives. Instead, think and talk positive. “This is fun.” “Your grandma will be so proud.” “Wow, we’ll have to get you a new bike.” Of course, do this before or after the ride – not during.
•Learn to let go. Please, please, learn to let go. By holding on, you totally change what the bike is doing, and thus, the child may learn incorrectly. Even on our adapted bikes, we are always telling people to let go of the handle.
•Be patient and never let the child know that they have not done well.
•Allow the bike to be a bike, allow the bike to move forward.
•Never promise what you can’t deliver. If you say “You won’t fall because I’ll be here to catch you,” you have dug a hole. A time will come when the child will fall and you won’t adequately react in time. The child will realize that you are a liar, and not trustworthy. Instead say, “I’ll be right beside you and I’ll do my best to see that you don’t fall.”
•Know when you are over your head and out of your league. If your child is going downhill and not progressing, know when to quit and to call the professional in. Quite frankly, we have skills, attitudes, experience, and equipment that you can’t touch or even dream of.
Yes, other devices and methods are on the market as options for you. Bicycling magazine‘s editors published a fairly neat little pamphlet, circa 1991, about how to teach your child. Their method involves four steps. It amounted to the first step being initially taking the pedals off and coasting down a slight incline. The second step is coasting but with feet on the pedals (now reattached). The third step is to again go down inclines but to pedal gently. The fourth step is to proceed to start regular riding. Another bike instruction method was published, Richard’s Ultimate Bicycle Book, 1992, pp. 114-115. This method is similar to the previous, but with a slight variation. The first step is to remove the pedals and then to allow the child to shuffle along. Next, the child can coast and balance with feet up. The third step is to attempt riding by pedaling.
These types of published methods are actually great ideas if several things are true:
1.You are restricting yourself to able-bodied children
2.You use standard bike configurations
3.You aren’t dealing with deeply engrained training wheel learned behaviors
4.You aren’t dealing with ill-configured bikes notably BMX styled racing bikes
When we work with large numbers of special needs children, these cited methods are hardly up to the job. Our response was to develop a special line of adapted bikes; and we actually use an array or sequence of adapted bikes with most children. We have also developed our own pedagogical techniques or procedures.