5 Things I learned parenting (mostly) by bike

I spent the past year and a half parenting one, then two kids (now 1.5 and 3 years) mostly by bike. Here are some of my takeaways:

1) It’s totally doable for many people (depending on where you live and work, and other complications).

2) You may end up wanting to be more car-lite than you were before kids (many/most young kids hate car seats in various phases of their lives and scream while in them, and love box-bikes and buses and trains; also, biking may well be your only reliable way to get exercise)

3) You may end up wanting to be less car-lite than you were before kids (the tyranny of naps cuts up your day so much, it’s nice to get from A to B faster. Plus, getting car rides from friends when you have kids is pretty much impossible, and installing/uninstalling car seats in rental cars is a pain, and your time is at a premium)

4) Think through contingency plans. What if it’s too icy to bike but your work and daycare are still open? What if you’re sick? What if you’re sick like half the winter? (You may well be sick like half the winter)

5) Rewarding children is good parenting and preserves your sanity. Keep rewards at the ready.

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Allan Rudwick
6 years ago

Getting a good rig is key. I spent a while upgrading when I should have just spent the big $$ to get a great rig up front

Michael Andersen (Contributor)

Great short list! Here’s a personal question that hopefully won’t get me in trouble: any thoughts on navigating the politics when your co-parent is bikey, but a lot less militant about it than you are?

Our son is 9 months old and has been riding on our handlebar seat for two months. My wife and I have relatively few points of tension in our relationship but the difficulty of deciding whether to travel by bike or car is seriously maybe the biggest one these days. In our case gender is deeply intertwined with this: leg strength, self-image, childcare burdens, etc.

I am so so confident that if we used our car only for trips of say 5+ miles, we would all be happier. And she gets this, and is great about it. But she just doesn’t feel it as strongly as I do, and then ends up feeling guilty about almost every trip she takes in a car. That guilt is my fault and I need to do something about it. But I also feel like we’re setting the norms right now that are going to shape our son’s childhood.

Bonus: I also resent my parents for gifting us their old car in anticipation of our son’s birth.

Cheap alternative to therapy, I realize. Anyway, advice accepted.

Alex Reedin
Alex Reedin
6 years ago

Well, one thought is that trying to change your spouse through direct pressure on things that don’t really matter that much (to the family, not to the world) is even more futile/counter-productive post-kids than it was pre-kids? But, it’s tough to give up on things that feel to you like they matter even though they don’t. I’m struggling with that and second-guessing small-dollar purchases with my husband right now.

Also, I’d question your belief that your lives would definitely be better non-car for all short trips. What about the stress, unpleasantness, annoyance, time-sucking, and feeling of being othered/endangered that currently comes with the exercise and endorphins and connection to community and nature of non-car transportation? For me, the calculus is on the side of non-car transport for many trips, but it’s not a slam-dunk – I can totally see how for people who experience more stress and unpleasantness and less connection and fun from the same activity the calculus would be on the other foot.

My husband is not bikey – he likes biking for short distances (<3 miles) when the temperature is between 65 and 80 and it's not raining and he didn't do a hard workout the day before. Before we had kids I tried to convince him that biking was fun outside these narrow confines and got nowhere. By the time we had kids I didn't really bother anymore. The one time I did sort of badger him into biking with the kiddos in marginal conditions, our 2-year-old whined to not have the raincover on, and then the rain arrived earlier than forecast and it poured on the way home with our 1-year-old screaming literally the entire way home. Pretty much killed any desire of mine to sell him on biking.

I think I'm the one with the car-guilt in our family. I've mostly moved beyond it with the following beliefs:
*It's hard to maintain personal sacrifice for the common good in an American culture that is so individual-focused. You get no social reinforcement, just weird looks and safety nannying.
*Mostly because of our infrastructure and culture, biking rather than driving is often a personal sacrifice.
*No amount of personal change will solve climate change/auto-dominance/sprawl/inequity/etc. The solutions are substantially all in government policy.
*Therefore, don't beat up on yourself for your amount of driving, worry about being positively civically involved instead.
*But that's close to impossible with a young kid(s), so worry about being happy instead and promise to yourself to be positively civically involved later. (It helps if you were positively civically involved pre-kids).

Eric Leifsdad
Eric Leifsdad
6 years ago
Reply to  Alex Reedin

As my kids get older, I’ve started to include the experience and character they get as part of the cost/value decision. Feeling like you need a car and the whole car infrastructure to get to your friend’s house vs the freedom of being able to bike there (not sure about this for near future stubborn 7/8yo who might suddenly seize the freedom and ride off to win a debate.)

If we were still using gasoline, I would also include the cost to my kids for that ecological and political impact along with the costs of using parking space and being part of the traffic which makes our substandard roads inhospitable for family biking. Where can I pay some optional extra road tax to build infrastructure that offsets my driving? How much per mile would we need to spend to have as much positive impact as riding instead?

Michael Andersen
Michael Andersen
6 years ago
Reply to  Alex Reedin

Belatedly: thanks, Alex.

As with Eric, it’s not so much for me about the social costs as about the benefits of exercise and the lack of stuck-in-traffic stress.

6 years ago

Thanks for the article! I have a 1.5 year old and I’d like to start riding with him. I don’t ride much but am pretty comfortable on a bike. Any suggestions on getting started? Gear, routine, mindset, etc?

Alex Reedin
Alex Reedin
6 years ago
Reply to  Joe

A lot of people find the easiest-entry way to start is with a trailer.
*Cheap (I got mine for $100 on Craigslist)
*Weather protection
*Don’t have to be paranoid about tipping the bike over / solo crashes
*Kid far away / hard to hear / talk
*Impossible to see kid, really
*Can be cumbersome to park, lock, & store
*Slows you down a little (not all that much)

Other people do an on-bike seat, also an easy way to start
*Cheapish (also in the few-hundred-dollar range; you may need a beefy rear rack and then a seat on top of that; I’d also advise a hefty two-legged kickstand. A place like Clever Cycles can help).
*Close / easy to talk to kid
*Easy to see what’s going on
*Tipover danger
*No weather protection

Gold-plated, best for young kids in almost all ways – box bike
*Weather protection
*Tipping the bike not a big deal
*Easy to talk to kid
*Kid has awesome view
*Expensive (thousands of dollars)
*Heavy/slow (can be mitigated by buying expensive, lightish box bike or getting e-assist)
*Can’t hop right on and ride well (but you adjust 100% within a week)

There are also longtails (big mostly-normal bikes with the rear wheel further back to allow an extralong rack) but they sound like overkill for a single 1.5 year old to me (depending on how strong/suitable your current bike, assuming you have one, is).

Not sure, everyone is different. If you need to get a kid to daycare, biking can take longer (not just the travel time, but also the loading/unloading/locking time), which can be hard to adjust to. Getting as much as possible done the night before, no excuses, is the only thing I’ve found to work. Programmable coffee maker, lunch packed, bag packed and loaded on the bike, next day’s clothes on the kids to sleep, the works.

Getting kid used to biking:
Start slow, with kid playing with/in/around stationary bike/trailer
Then push the bike/trailer while you walk
Then short rides
Rewards, chocolate

I dunno, I was already pretty sold on biking for transportation when I had kids and I desperately didn’t want my dependable, hard to avoid, mental-health-preserving exercise and outside time to be taken away. So I made it happen. Not sure how to advise someone just starting out.

6 years ago
Reply to  Alex Reedin

Wow, thanks for the great response! I’ve been leaning toward a seat on the back.

I especially like the ideas about getting him used to it by introducing slowly. Much appreciated.