As a general rule, if you buy youth skates from a big-name manufacturer, you're going to get small skates that perform much like adult skates, but if you shop generic department store brands, you run the risk of getting something that performs more like a toy.
The most common complaints about "toy" youth skates are plastic wheels that won't stand up to use beyond the walls of a skating rink, boot closures that won't stay closed, low-quality bearings that keep the wheels from turning freely and, in one notable instance, a problem with the screws that hold the wheels on.
Most of those "generic" youth skates cost between $30 and $40 dollars per pair -- and while many parents say they feel they're a good value for the money, especially if kids are just trying out the sport for the first time, quite a few reviewers say they wish they had sprung for the better performance and durability of a big-name brand. The "I wish I'd bought ..." brand mentioned more than all the others is K2, and although they offer several youth skates, the Marlee/Raider pairing (Est. $60) -- Marlee for girls, Raider for boys -- stands out as one of the best.
In marked contrast to the trouble spots for "toy" skates, the K2 Marlee and Raider do almost everything right. They're sturdy enough to survive years of being handed down from one child to the next, and their real, 70 mm/80a wheels can handle rough outdoor conditions.
ABEC 3 bearings keep your kids rolling smoothly but aren't so fast that the skates will automatically dart out of control; and the three closures -- conventional laces, a ratchet ankle cuff and a hook-and-loop instep strap -- are easy enough that, with a bit of practice, many children as young as 6 can put the skates on and take them off themselves. If your kids struggle with tying the laces, both skates come in a Pro version (Est. $80) that has quick-laces instead of regular laces.
The K2 Marlee and Raider skates are adjustable, with mixed reviews about whether they fit true to size or run a little small. The "small" fits sizes 11J to 2, the "medium" fits sizes 1 to 5, and the "large" covers sizes 4 to 8. Their appearance -- very much like a real "grown-up" skate -- is another high point for some children.
If your kids aren't quite ready for full-on skates, you might prefer the Chicago Skates 2 in 1 Inline Training Combo Set (Est. $40). These skates convert from a "training wheel" configuration (one wheel in front, dual wheels in back) to a true three-wheeled inline skate, and they're push-button adjustable between sizes 10J to 13J (small) or 1 to 4 (medium).
The build quality on the Chicago Skates isn't quite as high as the K2 skates -- parents say the wheels don't roll as smoothly and the closures are sometimes a little loose. The wheels also wear very quickly when exposed to outdoor pavement. But when it comes to doing their job -- helping children transition to inline skating from quad skates or no skating experience at all -- parents say they're a great value.
That value is made even better by the included protective gear -- knee pads, wrist/hand pads and helmet -- although many parents opt to put their children in regular bike helmets instead.