Dutch kids have a different relationship to the bicycle

dutch toddler bicycling
CC BY-SA 3.0 Zachary Shahan

Writing about Groningen (twice) has been fun, and reminiscing has brought up a couple of other article ideas. Lloyd and Mike enthusiastically encouraged me to go further down this route, so here's a piece on my observations regarding the quite different relationship Dutch kids have to bicycling (compared implicitly to American kids since I'm American).

Walking through the socialization process, let's start with babyhood. As I noted in my first Groningen post, you see a lot of babies on bikes in the Netherlands. Before their memories will even kick in, they are on bikes. Some of their first memories must be from the handlebars or backseats of bicycles. They also grow up seeing bikes and bicyclists everywhere. Many of their memories, no matter what those memories are about, must be filled with bikes.

Furthermore, biking is not something you stop doing in the winter, it's not something you drop when it's raining, and it's not something that comes and goes in your life like it often does in the life of an American child.

The result must be that bikes are simply one of those parts of life that are so ubiquitous they are not seen as anything "special." Like clothes, sidewalks, running water, they are a fundamental thread in the fabric of life, probably even something the Dutch take for granted.

Indeed, when you talk to Dutch adults about bicycling, they often think it's funny how North American bicyclists dress, the helmets we wear, and the fact that we have (and need) bicycling subcultures. Bicycling subcultures must be hard to understand when bicycling (for transportation) is a part of the country's dominant culture. Even the mail delivery people deliver your mail on bike in the Netherlands.

Getting back to the kids, I also happened to notice one day, as I was walking past a school in the middle of Delft, that all the kids were going through some sort of bicycle traffic lesson. Well, at the time, I thought they were playing a game, but I later found out what it actually was from talking to some Dutch people about it. It turns out this is a standard practice in elementary schools – kids have courses where they learn to bike following the nation's traffic laws and simply learn how to bike more safely in general. Here are two pics from the lesson I witnessed:

I'm sure the exhilaration of one's first successful bike ride is still an exciting experience and memory. I'm sure the freedom bikes give to young children – allowing them to explore farther and faster on their own – is still important to them. But in many ways, bicycling is simply part of society's normal transportation system, and becoming a bicycling member of society is just another step in the maturation process. Bicycling is not a side activity or primarily a recreational activity – it is a fundamental part of life.

However, because kids are able to take that step into the grownup transportation system so early on, I'd contend that this also provides them with a higher level of respect and dignity at a young age. They garner attention and respect not only from their families and teachers but also out in broader society. Their intricate relationship with the bicycle leads to a different relationship with society as a whole.

bike girl statue© Ladd Schiess

Also recommended:

Dutch kids have a different relationship to the bicycle
Dutch kids are socialized to bicycling in a very different way than North American kids. Here are a few interesting things I noticed while living in the Netherlands

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