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Teaching Kids Balance Can Be A Lesson For Parents

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To be a parent is to be constantly reminded that almost everything you thought you were doing right for your children will one day turn out to be wrong.

The wisdom on whether your baby should be put to sleep on his back or stomach, whether fevers should be treated or left to run their course, seems to change every few years. Parents used to think nothing of letting their children bounce around like pingpong balls in the back of a car. Now, children are strapped in the back like astronauts waiting for blast off.

The latest revised revelation may be: Training wheels don't help a child learn how to ride a bicycle. In fact, training wheels might postpone their progress by teaching children to pedal, rather than keep their balance.

As David Gordon Wilson, an MIT professor of engineering, told Nicholas Day in Slate this week, "It's hard to see how training wheels can inculcate any of the desired balancing habits unless they are off the ground."

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other groups around the country recommend that you just lower the seat of a two-wheeler and have your child push themselves along the ground with their feet — which my mother always said would ruin my shoes.

The idea seems to be that children will soon tire of scuffing their heels and pick up their toes to soar on two wheels, acquiring balance. Then, they can pedal.

Most of us can't recall our first steps, but the first few moments in which training wheels are removed and a child sits up on a bike under her own power, whizzing past trees, lampposts and running dogs, can be a rapturous memory. Parents have to let go because we can't keep up. We exult to see their joy, even as we get a twinge inside to know it's just the first time that we'll see our children fly off without us.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has scheduled several dates this summer for what they call Freedom From Training Wheels events. I hope they're in flat spots of the city, not Nob or Telegraph Hill.

Several companies now manufacture what are called balance or glide bikes: light wooden frames with a low seat, big rubber wheels, but no pedals. The first time I saw one in a store window, I thought it was a prop for an overgrown toy soldier.

This latest lowdown on the limitations of training wheels might remind us that today's Next Big Thing — whether it be glide bikes, social media platforms or the latest mobile phones — will be old hat soon enough. The blue-jeaned billionaires at Facebook might do well to remember that. And we can never learn enough that the real trick in life is balance.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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