Teen Bike Rejection Syndrome

Great advice: Just enjoy the #icecream (and ride your bike) #Fremont #bluebird #Seattle #everydaybiking #familybiking #getoutside #urbanbiketour #coastlife #urbancycling

Let me start by admitting two things:

  1. Of the many parenting issues I’ll likely face in my lifetime, this one is minor
  2. This issue definitely falls into the ‘first-world-problem’ category

Even though this issue seems trivial in the grand scheme of parenting woes, it’s one that Tim and I have been pondering, discussing, obsessing over and pondering some more: What does a ‘bike family’ do when their teen rejects her bike?

Let’s be frank: Teen-bike-rejection is a huge pain in the ass. It personally affects me, my transportation and activity choices, how I choose to spend money, and more. It’s thrown an enormous wrench into my blissful family bike life. (Not quite this huge, but close.)

Now that's a Wrench

Now that’s a wrench!

That said (deep breaths!), I know that rejection of bikes is a minor blip in the grand scheme of raising a teen. Surely I can flex my nimble parenting muscles and roll with it. If this is as bad as it gets in the next 10 years of parenting, I’ll count myself lucky. (I threw that in for all of you seasoned parents who are likely chuckling to yourselves about my petty little teen-bike issue. Go ahead and enjoy a knowing smirk or laugh at my expense.)

Other than a few Twitter and Facebook rants, I’ve been pretty silent about this issue.  Because, even though I (occasionally) write a very public blog about my family bike adventures for the world to read, I aim to balance sharing useful information while keeping the kids’ personal thoughts and emotions out of my story. This article gives a pretty good lowdown on how I try to (mostly) refrain from talking about my kids online “out of respect for their autonomy”.

Without completely dragging my kids personal story into this post, I’d like to share some of our struggles with continuing our family bike life now that one of our kids is a teen, and the other a tween.

I know at least one parent who shares my frustration. A few weeks ago, our blog friend, Stacy, commented on an Instagram photo I posted where I admitted that I’d ‘forced’ my son to join me on a ride. Stacy wanted to know how I did that. Turns out Stacy has a kid who doesn’t want to ride either. Maybe there are other parents of teens out there, who are going through the same frustrations, and might benefit from some solidarity (sister)?

Xtracycle Passenger Panda

If you’re a parent who rides bikes for transportation, raise your hand!

If you’re also doing transportation biking with your kids, give yourself a double fist bump! And if you’ve already raised kids on bikes all the way into their adulthood, jump up with your hands in the air and let out a loud ‘Whoop’!

You all deserve kudos, but the last one there, Wow. You get super kudos. Oh, and while I have your attention, maybe you’d answer some questions from your number one fan?

Yes? OK, here they are:

  1. Did your teen like riding bikes for transportation?
  2. Did they stop riding at some point?
  3. Did they ever hate bikes?
  4. If they stopped riding, did they go back to bikes? Or did they continue to hate bikes into adulthood?

Please write back soon! I’m dying here and need answers.

Kids and the Fall of Bikes

A lonely time at the bike rack this last day before winter break.

These stats, that highlight the decline in the number of kids who walk and bike to school, are repeated often; “In one generation, the percentage of children who walk or bike to school has dropped from 50% to 15%. Safe Routes to School National Partnership, 2007Safe Routes to School: 2007 State of the States Report

Lately national bike organizations (People for Bikes, National Center for Safe Routes to School, The League of American Cyclists) along with local walk and bike organizations (Bike Works, Cascade Bicycle, Washington Bikes, Walk.Bike.Schools and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways), have worked to encourage more kids and families to ride bikes.

The million dollar question/mission: How can we all work together to get back to the bike and walk participation percentages from the 1960s and 70s?

Why don’t we see more kids on bikes clogging our neighborhood streets? It seems most bike advocates wonder (and talk) about elementary aged kids. After ushering two kids through elementary school, I’ve learned that the decline in elementary bike-to-school participation is more of an indication of parental reluctance than kid. Elementary aged kids LOVE to bike. And they’d probably ride every day, if only they could get their lazy-ass parents to ride with them, (or let them ride alone).

Bike to Middle School Orientation: Roadwork -- check out those signals!What about teens? We all know that teens eventually stop believing everything their parents say. (As they should!) Parental needling aside, don’t teens want some of the freedom that bikes provide? I’d think that once teens had a sweet taste of independence and freedom, they would want to ride bikes. If nothing else; bikes provide a quick get away, enabling teens to quickly gain distance between themselves and their parents.

Speaking of stats, how do the stats look for teens?

I couldn’t find national stats specifically related to teens. But I do have some anecdotal information. Our friends and fellow Bike to Bryant elementary-bike-to-school organizers; Clint, Leslie and Lisa, continued bike to school promotion in middle school through Eckstein Bikes. While a decent percentage (I don’t know the number, but my eyeballs tell me it’s pretty good) of Eckstein kids walk to school, the bike numbers are still pretty bleak, with under 2% of the student population regularly riding bikes to school. On dark winter days, that percentage dwindles even further. This group of parents has discussed at length the methods to crack the middle school, bike-to-school-code. But maybe the code cannot be cracked. Maybe teens simply don’t want to ride bikes?

Why don’t more middle and high school students ride? Does school start too early? (yes!). Are parents afraid? (yes!). Do kids have too-heavy backpacks and musical instruments to carry? (yes!). Maybe middle-school kids just don’t want to ride bikes to school. (yes! More on this phrase and it’s origins later). Like I said, our daughter certainly doesn’t want to ride; she rejected her bike-as-transport-to school more than a year ago and now vastly prefers walking. Though she’d prefer a ride (in a car, not on the back of a bike!) even more.

I know some teens who ride bikes to get where they need to go, but not very many. I see more teens on foot and on buses in the neighborhood than on bikes. I’m not sure why more teens don’t ride, but I can make a few guesses. Social pressure. The cool factor. Maybe even parental concerns about safety or perceived safety.

They Just Don’t Want To

Most of the time, my teen doesn’t want to ride at all. For anything. When we plan family outings, her first question is usually, “Are we driving?” If we’re driving, she’ll come along. If we’re riding, she’ll often stay home. [I’ve been thinking about a future post about millennials and car ownership/drivership. Are millennials not driving because they are using feet, bikes and transit? Or are they choosing to stay home and socializing via smartphones instead of going out? Hmm…I might explore that later, this is long enough for now.]

Two #Bromptons split off for a little shopping while the other two tried to stay warm outside #doublebrompton #fourbromptonadventure  #Bromptontravel #Vancouver #bikeYVR

Bikes in Brandy Melville, Vancouver BC

The stars (all of them, not just the ones we can see from Seattle on a clear summer night) must align before our teen agrees to ride with us. Is the destination worth it (will there be ice cream or pie or good burgers or sweet coffee drinks when we get there?) Is it raining? Will it rain? Is there a possibility for shopping along the route? Will anyone see us who knows her? Can a friend tag along? (also quite rare since her friends don’t regularly ride bikes).

Other variables include typical teen challenges such as: mood, homework schedule, and whether or not she feels like spending time with us. (I realize not wanting to spend time with parents is par-for-the-teenage-course. But I imagine that adding bikes to the mix makes it even worse). Because our old blog pal Smudgemo is painfully spot on: most of the time, “They Just Don’t Want To”. ( A little aside, I know Smudgmo’s blog is defunct, but I still really like the title and the phrase, and I repeat if often)

The GirlsI used to bike all over Seattle with my kids when they were young/small enough to carry on an Xtracycle (Editor/husband’s note: Those legs!). When the kids were young, my biking limits were self-inflicted: if I was willing to carry the kids, I could go anywhere I wanted on my bike. But now that I have a teen and a tween, who are independent thinkers (and seriously, hooray for this!) and who ride their own bikes, my limits are now determined by my kids’ desire to ride. And because their desire is low, our family-cycling adventures have all but evaporated. It’s not that I *can’t* ride certain places with my kids (because of safety or other external factors); my kids just don’t want to ride very much.

Side note: the teen factor is the main reason we rushed to complete our family two summer Pacific Coast Bike Tour before our daughter turned 13, while both of our kids still wanted to do it. I can’t imagine the bribes I’d have to throw down now to get her to ride 2000+ miles wearing stinky/ugly bike touring clothes for three straight weeks. (I won’t even mention sleeping in a tent with her family every night).

Finally, here’s some biking advice I’m qualified to dole out: If you have family bike touring dreams, get it done before your kids reach their teen years!

Peers and Social Pressure (or “I think my friends think biking sucks”)

For my teen, reluctance to ride mostly comes from perceived social pressure. Biking is still not a normal mode of transportation for families in Seattle. Yes, some families do ride. And if you believe the headlines, family biking is exploding in Seattle.

Truth be told, and despite the headlines, transport volumes are still heavily weighted toward family driving.

I don’t have stats to back up my claim, but I do have eyes, and I see a river of cars clogging my neighborhood streets on a daily basis, even in bike friendly North Seattle. The majority of the family bikers I do see include parents carrying their kids on some sort of cargo bike or tag-along attachment. I rarely run across bike families comprised of parents and kids riding independently. Maybe this is the disconnect between the huge growth in family biking and the river I see otherwise. We’ve been there; huge family bikers when we could carry the kids. Much less so when the kids won’t ride.

If our daughter had a peer group that also rode bikes, maybe she would want to ride more? Or maybe not.

Our bright spot of hope (though it totally messes with my theories) is that our 11-year-old son does have friends who ride both alone and with their families. He spent the entire Christmas break riding between friends houses, the library and University Village on his own and with his friends. It’s completely different for him, he likes to ride. (Right on!)

In general, I aim to ignore stereotypical gender differences, but I do wonder if this bike-hate is a teen girl thing? Please prove me wrong and shout at me if you have a teen girl who loves bikes!

Tim and I like to think we’re early adopters. We’ve been doing this family bike thing since 2007, before the headlines and before it was hip. Maybe we’re just too early to experience an all-ages Seattle family biking movement with our kids? Maybe when Brad’s and Davey’s and Julian’s and Leya’s and Madi’s  and Sara’s and the kids from all the families on the Seattle Family Biking Facebook group reach full-time independent-rider stage, I will finally get to experience that river of awesome teen-bike riders flowing down my neighborhood streets. We can certainly hope.

Until then, we’ll make do. And try that thing they call parenting. That means we’re not going to cave to our teen’s wishes and stop riding (sorry Dear). But we’ve also decided that the teen-bike-battle is not the one we choose fight with all our resources.

We’ll still force both kids to ride with us sometimes. When it’s my birthday. Or they haven’t exercised in a day or two (or a week). Or the entire family is riding to get a Christmas tree. Or the sun is out and we think everyone should put down their devices and go somewhere. And when we just don’t want to deal with driving and parking.

These two Xs just can't seem to get enough of each other #doublex #xtracyclecouple #getaroom #instantbikerack #bikerelationship #xtracyleBut for the most part, we’ve settled back into being a bike couple, rather than a bike family; Tim and I plan many of our bike errands and adventures without the kids, and let them stay home more often than not. When we go somewhere as a family; to a destination farther than a walk, and we can’t call in one of the exceptions above, yes, we drive.

We have so many years and battles ahead that we don’t want to go to the mat over something that’s supposed to be fun . Nor do we want to risk snuffing out any (slight) flicker of a bike-love flame that may still reside (somewhere) in her heart. Because we’re still holding out hope. High school College. Yeah, that’s when it’s all coming back to two wheels.

Maybe.

How about you? Do you have teen bike struggles? Do you have teens who like to bike? If so, please share in the comments. Or on Twitter. Or on Facebook, we’d love to hear your story!

 – Anne (and Tim, whose edits make me look like such a better writer)

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21 responses to “Teen Bike Rejection Syndrome

  1. Thank you for this post…I have so many of the same thoughts, and a similar process. My teen son hates to bike, while my preteen (still?) loves biking/bikes. My 15-year-old started rejecting biking when he was still young enough that “it’s just what we do” worked. Now, it’s the perfect way to rebel against his weird mom. And yes, it’s a huge pain in the ass! More than that, I miss spending time with him (even though I of course work hard also to spend time with him in ways that work for him. Those ways seem fewer and farther between than even “normal” teen individualizing accounts for…).
    My son does have friends who bike to school, though only a few. I think his reluctance to bike is multi-faceted, including fear of suffering (working hard on the bike), loss of control (if he rides on the back of my bike), and looking weird to all and sundry. It’s also just a really easy way to individuate from me.

    Anytime you’d like to have tea and chat about this, I’d be up for it! I am finding it a frustrating issue.

    Thank you!

    • Thanks for the comment, Morgan! Parents of teens unite!

      I’ve been thinking about writing this post for almost a year. And after I wrote it, it took me awhile to “ship it”. I’m so glad I did. Although there aren’t very many comments here, there’s a lively discussion going on in the Seattle Family Biking group about it. It seems as if other parents have experienced the same issues….

      I really think it’s going to be awhile, a long while, until biking is considered a “normal” mode of transport in the US. Until then, this will continue to be a struggle for parents who like to bike for transportation. We do our best, right? And hope that our kids have enough positive memories/vibes/thoughts about biking that they’ll come back to it some day.

      I’d love to have tea! Shoot me an email and we’ll make it happen!

  2. Could another factor possibly be hygene? Those years can be rough. Social standing, labels, all that BS. The dread of sweat. The potential of odor. Same reasons which keep many adults off bikes right? It’s hard to be a maverick and simultaneously struggle with fitting in.

    • Thanks for the comment, Max!

      It is an awkward stage, rough is right! I guess that’s possible although not the case for my kid. Her reluctance is all about the un-cool factor.

  3. Hi Anne. This subject is near and dear to my heart. While my husband and I are regular commuters (but not in winter here in VT) and bike tourists, our children, age 12 and 15, are not. However, we insist that they get to school on their own. Oldest takes the bus, youngest walks, rides bus, and this winter is riding in often below zero temps. – he only travels one mile.

    I gave up the battle with riding everywhere, all the time as a family. They will ride with us occasionally, for an easy family outing, or to get creemees, but generally they are into their own thing. It takes the pressure off from us as parents. The last thing I want to do is turn them off of riding and have them recall bad family outings when they were children.

    We live in a small city where our children can be independent and safely get around on their own. That includes riding across town to their friends’ houses.

    I express my thoughts on this subject here:
    http://anniebikes.blogspot.com/2014/06/encouraging-children-to-bike-tour-or-not.html

  4. We are in the same boar. Our 12 and 14 yo boys are pushing back against cycling more and more, but at least they long board most places in the Summer. As for cars, etc., I did not get my DL until I was 22, so my rule is no DL until they are a minimum age of 18 period. I am 44 and feel when I was growing up, there was a desire to get a DL and a car, but not always the expectation. Now, it seems like most kids feel it is a right to be given both.
    Good luck
    Devin

  5. Back in the day my older son (then 14-15) was an avid indoorsman. Looking for ways to get him out of the house, I told him he was too young to drive but that a bike was a great way to go anywhere “ANYWHERE?” he asked. “Yes, anywhere” I responded. “How about California?” he asked. “Yes, even California” I replied. Once he started riding and found out how fast he could get anywhere and how good it felt, he became addicted to all things bicycle. When he was 16-17 he said he was going out for a ride and would be back. Some time later in the day he called me from Bellingham. He’s since been all over the place, self-supported — even California.

    • Hi Eric, I enjoyed all of your comments and insight on Seattle Family Biking Facebook group. Thanks for taking the time to comment here too. The great thing about blog comments is they live on and benefit future readers. Some of our really old posts are still getting page views! I know future readers with teen kids will benefit from this too.The problem with Facebook comments, they scroll off the main page and disappear, never to be read again.

      Your son’s story is an inspiring one. You must have been proud when he called you. I know would be a proud parent if my capable child called me from an impromptu adventure!

  6. My kids are little still, but once upon a time I was a teenaged cyclist. I grew up outside of Corvallis, and biked to school (6 miles, mostly downhill) when my afternoon activities permitted. My only other option was the school bus, and I haaaaated the school bus. We lived at the beginning of a long circuitous bus route, so biking was actually faster, and for a social misfit like me (at the time), the lord of the flies atmosphere on the bus was miserable. Corvallis is small enough and flat enough that once I was in town, I could go absolutely anywhere. Pre-drivers-license, this was really appealing. I have this vague plan of giving my kids a really nice folding bike at 14-ish and keeping the transit pass full, and I hope that freedom is enough to keep them biking happily.

  7. My son is finally seeing how expensive it is to have a car–not even buying the car, but gas and maintenance. It’s been eye opening for him and he seems to understand my transportation choices more now, even if cost isn’t the main reason I had/have for biking and busing.

  8. Pingback: Bike News Roundup: Two guys travel to every Seattle park and write a book about it | Seattle Bike Blog

  9. My worry that biking for transportation would lose it’s luster in the eyes of my children was a huge reason that Kidical Mass Tacoma started when my oldest was just 7yo. She has no idea that my ulterior motive was to build her a support network of other kids that see biking as “normal” (or at least something they are capable of.) However, even as a 4th grader, I can already see her rejection of bikes on the horizon. Maybe bikes will be cooler by the time my middle or youngest are at that stage and I can avoid some of the push-back with them.

    As a young teenager I rode bikes all over town as something fun to do or to visit friends, but once I was 16 with a DL and access to the family car, everything changed. It took nearly 10 years for me to come full circle and embrace bikes again, and I fully suspect my kids will need to learn this transportation lesson themselves as well. I’m just hoping that as a parent I can help make it an easy lesson and not a hard one.

    This is a great post. Please keep sharing and asking the tough questions as privacy and time allow. We’re all in this together!

    • Thanks, Matt! A network is so helpful. Our 11 year old has a friend who rides and it makes such a big difference. They spend every weekend experiencing the fun, freedom and empowerment that bikes bring. There is definitely hope!

      I’ll keep sharing (and pushing for better infrastructure).

      I dream that by the time your littlest is 10 (and mine is well into adulthood and hopefully coming back to bikes), he’ll have a completely different experience biking around the city with his buddies!
      Ride on!

  10. I think it is the non-cool factor for teens. They don’t want to appear unconventional. Maybe in Amsterdam it’s not an issue? We need more protected bike lanes, no helmet required, etc for biking to become more of a standard transport option – that could help.

    Secondarily– I guess the other side is car culture and how music, movies, and TV make the speed and power of cars alluring (sexy!). Teens want the excitement and glamour of popular culture and frankly bikes are slow and usually dull looking. Just too practical, cheap and efficient. Dumb teens :).

  11. Hi Anne, thanks for an interesting article. You are right – it is not very big in the grand scheme of raising teenagers but I do empathize. My 3 children all rode to our local elementary school but they never rode to their middle or high schools which were a few more miles away and lacked any decent bicycle infrastructure. They did continue to ride for fun and exercise. Two of them were just 11 when they rode the STP for the first time. The “fun” part is our training rides always include a stop for breakfast and/or lunch. They are now 20, 17, and 13 and the oldest two occasionally humor their parents by joining us on a family bike ride while my youngest rode with us again to Portland this summer. I wanted to share because we just got back from a vacation to Copenhagen, and Stockholm – two cities with fabulous bicycle infrastructure. The first thing we did was rent bikes for the duration in each city. This has to be one of the best ways to take your children as teenagers to see Europe. Our family traveled around as a group with everyone enjoying their independence on their own bike. We covered so many more miles than we could have by foot, with no complaints or arguments, and I know the simple act of riding bikes kept everyone in a great mood. Our infrastructure here is slowly getting better but I really enjoyed showing my family what it could be like. https://www.facebook.com/simon.macpherson.37/videos/10207424565911708/?l=7600150747023925616

    • Thanks for the insight! Tim and I have both ridden bikes in Europe. We plan to take our kids on a European Brompton trip before the oldest goes to college. We told our teen that she will have to ride a bike if she wants to go. She reluctantly agreed. Riding bikes in a true bike city with real bike infrastructure is a definite must-experience for anyone, regardless of their love/hate/indifference toward bikes!

  12. Not sure how you feel about scooters/mopeds (under 50cc engine) for teens.

    But I do plan to reward my daughters for competent road cycling with the option to own a customized Honda Ruckus as a tactic to overcome all the points you’ve outlined in your post.

    In our home state of NJ, a moped license can be acquired at age 14 – a full 2 years prior to the learner’s permit. A customized ride can be assembled for under 4K – a substantially lower cost than my current project – an electric assisted Bullitt cargo bike (7K).

    • I’m not sure either. Right now we’re saying no license until the kids are at least 18. But we’ll see when we get there. Teens really don’t need cars in Seattle as long as they’re ok with using transit!

  13. The social scene for teens can be very individual. I remember in middle school how you simply had to have a pair of name-brand sneakers. It was the biggest deal imaginable. If you didn’t, it was as though you showed up to school wearing a burkha; you just weren’t paying the proper toll to be part of the social group.

    A couple of years later, it was irrelevant. So her reluctance might be pretty rational, and of course, it might pass. Or it might not.

    That said, you’re right. She’s picking fights, you’re rolling with it. It’s her job to pick fights, and you get to decide which ones are too jerky to put up with and which ones you view as acceptable.

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