The overwhelming majority of children will end up using hand brakes over coaster brakes for one reason or another.
So with that in mind, how do I teach my kid how to use bike hand brakes? There's no real right or wrong way to go about this. In fact, we've laid out seven different options that combine braking technique with specific kid's bike features.
Balance bike hand brakes
By now, through our busy parent's guide to kids' bikes you've probably heard of the whole balance bike phenomenon. Balance bikes are pedal-less cycles that serve as an alternative to training wheels. The idea is that toddlers just starting out can learn balance first, and then once they get their first pedal bike they're good to go without the trainers. Well, in most cases no pedals means no brakes… at least coaster-style foot brakes. Some models now come with hand brakes to shorten that learning curve as well since the little ones can practice braking while still having their feet to help as they get used to the levers.
Walk the bike first
Whether or not your kids start out on a balance bike or a training-wheel bike, it's a good idea to have them practice braking while walking it before riding. This is a great way for them to figure out the right pressure to apply before they're completely off the ground. Otherwise, they're more susceptible to falls from unnecessary high-pressure squeezes.
Brake with both hands or just the right
Make sure you teach your child to use either both brakes at once or the right-hand brake only, otherwise there is a risk of going over the handlebars. This is because a left-hand solo squeeze locks the front wheel without slowing the rest of the bike, meaning an endo is possible. If you're having a hard time with this, talk to your local bike shop about loosening the front brake slightly to reduce this risk until your child forms the right braking habit.
Right brake only
One way to make absolutely sure your kid avoids hurting themselves from user error is to buy a bike that comes with only a right-hand brake. For instance, Guardian's bikes use the brand's award-winning SureStop system featuring a single lever. When engaged, it activates both the front and rear brakes at the same time. With only one choice, there's no opportunity for them to make the wrong one.
Brake modification – Dual control brake levers
A DIY alternative to the out-of-the-box SureStop-like system is dual control brake levers. When engaged, these activate both the front and rear brakes at the same time with only one hand, just like built-in single-brake models. Then, once your kids show they're ready for the next step, just take it off, return the brakes to the original settings, and let them have at it.
Brake modification – Visual aids
Sometimes all it takes is a little visual aid. WOOM offers a color-coded braking system for some of its smaller models. The green right-hand brake corresponds to the green rear-wheel brake pad. No WOOM? No problem! Just be resourceful—colored tape, rubber bands, or some other clever little device on the right side accomplishes the same thing.
Coaster plus hand hybrid brakes
Several bike brands are producing kids' bikes that have both hand brakes and coaster brakes. This can smooth the transition if your child keeps defaulting to back-pedaling at the stop sign. In fact, until bikes reach a large enough size, the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires that they come with foot brakes. Since this only applies to manufacturers when they build them, some brands have started to ship freewheel conversion kits that let you remove the coasters when the timing's right. Nice way to get a little more mileage out of the machine before it's time to kick it to the curb.
We hope this list helps you teach your kid to use their hand brakes safely. It shouldn't take long to find the right bike or best style to use when it comes your kids. Remember, even though braking is only one step in learning how to ride a bike, it's arguably the most important. So, take your time, tell them to take theirs, and enjoy watching them get a handle on braking!