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Riding A Bike: Safety and Developmental Issues for Parents

Bike riding is one of those activities that many kids attempt to do year ‘round. Many kids seem oblivious to the elements – rain, sleet or even snow! When I talk to kids about outdoor fun, I emphasize three key points:

1.      Anything outdoors can be dangerous.

2.      Things that move on wheels always require a helmet

3.      Adult supervision is needed for everything – even if the adult isn’t right on site.

Rule #1: Anything Outdoors Can Be Dangerous

Kids honestly don’t get this until they are teenagers or older. You can teach them to look both ways when crossing the street and they can often repeat this back to you during the early elementary school years, but remembering to do it on their own is a different story. In addition to just remembering the “rules of the road”, young kids are not old enough to react quickly to unexpected dangers from traffic, neighborhood pets or other people getting in their way.

The other factors to consider are the outdoor element such as road conditions, weather conditions, and equipment failure. Kids need guidance to negotiate changes in all these variables as well as help understanding how these elements impact their activity.


Rule #2: Things That Move On Wheels Need A Helmet

I keep this one very, very simple:

Father helping son with bike helmet

(this applies for anything on wheels: bikes, rollerblades, skateboards, scooters)

We have to be a good example on this one! The newer helmets are very comfortable and, more importantly, protect the one organ that can’t be replaced or fixed if broken: our brains. Our brains are our every thing – we can’t really function without one.  Older kids get this completely and for younger kids I liken the brain to a computer hard drive – if it crashes, you lose all your data, permanently. Some parents worry this will frighten kids but that’s ok. Fear is acceptable when it keeps kids safe.

For other rolling things, like scooters or roller bladders or skateboards , there are other issues to consider with elbows and knees and pads are a good idea but not quite as mandatory as a helmet.

For kids that push the limits, take away the bike.  Remove a wheel if you have to! Honestly, tough love is better than your child suffering a head injury.  Remember, we can fix a broken arm or leg, or just about any other bone in the body … and most organs, but not a brain.


Rule #3: Adult Supervision Is Required for Everything

For young kids, new riders and kids on tricycles and with training wheels, you or another responsible adult or teenneed to be right there.  For teens old enough to ride bikes with their friends, you may not need to be physically present, but you need to be aware they are on their bike.  Know where your teen is biking to and with whom.  Make sure your teen has a cell phone that is charged as well as a bike repair kit in case of a flat tire.  And, if your teen is going to venture out with friends, sign your teen up for a safety class at a local bike store that includes how to change a tire.

What’s important for kids old enough to ride with their friends is they always have someone they can contact in case of an emergency.  Follow that rule and you’ll have peace of mind that you’re increasingly independent child is as safe as possible.

Keeping Kids Safe On The Road Learning

To keep your kids safe on the road, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers these tips:

  • “Do not push your child to ride a 2-wheeled bike until he or she is ready, at about age 5 or 6.  Consider the child's coordination and desire to learn to ride. Stick with coaster (foot) brakes until your child is older and more experienced for hand brakes.
  • Take your child with you when you shop for the bike, so that he or she can try it out. The value of a properly fitting bike far outweighs the value of surprising your child with a new one.  For more information on finding the proper fit, click here.
  • Buy a bike that is the right size, not one your child has to "grow into." Oversized bikes are especially dangerous.
  • Your child needs to wear a helmet on every bike ride, no matter how short or how close to home.  Many accidents happen in driveways, on sidewalks, and on bike paths, not just on streets.  Children learn best by observing you. Whenever you ride, put on your helmet.
  • When purchasing a helmet, look for a label or sticker that says the helmet meets the CPSC safety standard.
  • A helmet protects your child from serious injury, and should always be worn. And remember, wearing a helmet at all times helps children develop the helmet habit.
  • A helmet should be worn so that it is level on the head, not tipped forwards or backwards.  The strap should be securely fastened, and you should not be able to move the helmet in any direction.  If needed, the helmet's sizing pads can help improve the fit. “

The Magic Age to Learn to Bike: Only Your Child Knows

I personally feel bike riding is an amazing activity and can be a wonderful way for a family to spend time together.  But don’t push too hard if your child is a reluctant rider.  There is a wide range of normal for when kids learn to ride a bike and much of the learning curve is developmental and just plain emotional readiness.  Some kids are ready at age 5 but others not even close until middle school. There are even adults who don’t know how to ride! All we can do as parents is be there to encourage and nurture this age-old pastime and realize that, as with everything in sports, the focus has to be on the child. 

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD is a pediatrician living in the Boston area and the founder and Editor-In-Chief of www.Pediatricsnow.com.