Why Training Wheels Don’t Work

Snapshots of life at home.
May 11 2012 12:33 PM

Down With Training Wheels

They train kids how not to ride a bike! Why balance bikes are better.

father teaching son how to ride a bicycle
For generations, training wheels have been the standard way of not teaching children how to ride a bike

Photograph by Stockbyte.

Gentle reader, let your mind wander back to the day you first learned how to ride a bike. Who can forget such a magnificent moment?

It’s an iconic scene: The child is nervous on his shiny new Schwinn, but he trusts his father—and his training wheels. On the sun-dappled day they are finally removed, the child is confident that his training wheels have prepared him to ride a bike—that they have trained him. His father runs beside the bicycle, holding onto the seat, and then lets go. The child triumphantly sails forth—face down, into the pavement.

Oh, the memories!


For generations, training wheels have been the standard way of not teaching children how to ride a bike. It’s a time-honored childhood ritual: fumble with wrench, remove tiny wheels, watch child fall on face, repeat.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Compared to the rub-some-dirt-on-it old-timeyness of training wheels, balance bikes—those wooden, pedalless bikes you’ve definitely seen if you live in Portland or Brooklyn, and you’ve maybe seen if you live somewhere else—look like a newfangled waste of money, a meta-bike, a parody of the kinds of crap consumer-culture parents will buy. (They will buy a bike that literally doesn’t work!) But the balance bike isn’t newfangled at all. It is a direct descendant of the first proto-bicycle. And its popularity is growing for very good reason: It corrects the tragic historical error of training wheels.

Kid on a balance bike
Balance bikes are better

Photograph by David Morgan/iStockphoto.

It’s unclear when training wheels became popular, although historians suggest the early 1900s seem most likely. But it’s apparent why they became popular. They were an obvious solution to an obvious problem: How do you convince someone to climb onto something that is obviously going to fall over?

It’s easy to forget how counterintuitive the act of bicycling is. For starters, to steady a bicycle, you have to turn in the direction that the bike is leaning. This is so unconscious that when you’re riding a bike you don’t know you’re doing it. Children know they’re doing it, though, which is why they have such trouble. It just feels wrong. The intellect, as Mark Twain wrote after learning to ride a bicycle, “has to teach the limbs to discard their old education and adopt the new.”

To make matters worse, in order to ride a bike, you have to be willing to embrace its precariousness. As Archibald Sharp, an English engineer, wrote in a seminal book on bicycling in 1896, “If the bicycle and rider be at rest, the position is thus one of unstable equilibrium, and no amount of gymnastic dexterity will enable the position to be maintained for more than a few seconds.” To lose your nerve is to lose your balance.

So it isn’t surprising that aspiring riders wanted some greater stability, especially when bicycles were still a wondrous sight. “We can't imagine today how huge the fear of balancing was among the adult population,” the German historian of technology Hans-Erhard Lessing explained in an interview. “People would hardly dare to take their feet off safe ground.”



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 1:52 PM Julian Casablancas’ New Album Sounds Like the Furthest Thing From the Strokes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.