Going Downhill Fast

Introducing Children to Alpine Skiing
  |  Gorp.com

The rat pack of four-foot-tall skiers paused briefly at the top of the Spruce Peak chairlift at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont. It was a fleeting courtesy that they paid to their parents, who were trying to keep them within sight. The kids, my six-year-old daughter Ariel among them, were really more interested in losing us than joining us. They were reveling in their newfound ability to negotiate the ski hill under their own steam, free of the burden of overbearing adults shouting incomprehensible instructions at them.

Moments later, we three dads and a mom rounded a bend to see our progeny dropping out of sight as the trail steepened. Paternal instinct urged me forward and I suddenly glimpsed Ariel headed straight down the mountain at warp speed. Her trusty snowplow was locked in position, fluttering uselessly over the death cookies.

"Turn! Slow down!" I yelped. It was too late— she had already broken the sound barrier. She hit a pile of heavy snow and launched. She detonated in a heap, her face plastered in snow and blubbering soulfully for her mom.

Teaching a kid to alpine ski is one of those great life metaphors. Is your child ready to take flight on her own? Or is she equipped with just enough skills to get herself in deep trouble? Ah, the joys of parenting on the sharp edge.

Ariel started downhill skiing when she was two. Sort of. The early outings were really just playing in the snow with skis on her feet. Sometimes "skiing" has been the excuse to have hot chocolate with her friends in the base lodge and oh, by the way, even ski one run. We've tried to keep the focus on having fun in the snow; the skiing is incidental.

Vermont mom Sharon Sisler offered this advice to me early on: "Ski only as long as it's fun for the kids," she said, after returning from skiing at Sugarbush with her twosome. "The moment they say they're cold, tired, or hungry, it's time to go." Her point was that young kids enjoy skiing (or anything) only as long as it's fun; getting in "just one more run" when your kid is worn out is a formula for a slopeside family meltdown.

As I've skied with Ariel and her friends, I've marveled at their ability to figure out how to ski in their own natural way. Shouting instructions is usually utterly counterproductive. The "follow me" approach works surprisingly well, especially if there is another kid along to add a little peer pressure. I've concluded that the best ski instruction I can offer is usually to say as little as possible and just show her what I enjoy doing.

Is there a role for ski school? Yes—in moderation. Tiania Adams of Stowe, Vermont, mom of Colby, 8, and Duncan, 5, is a racing coach with the Mt. Mansfield Ski Academy and a former US Ski Team member. "I tried and tried, but Colby wouldn't listen to me," she says of her early attempts to pass on her wisdom to her daughter. The solution: Tiania handed Colby to a ski instructor, and the tot promptly began skiing down the hill on her own.

Tiania concludes, "Use the ski school to get them to the point where they can ski by themselves. When they can do that, they're really fun to ski with and then they can just learn by watching you." (If you are a non-skiing parent, there is obviously a bigger role for ski school.)

A few parent-tested tips when skiing with kids:

  • Make the mountain a playground. Adventuring—through the trees, into the powder, playing with natural terrain features—adds to the fun.
  • Don't go skiing when it's bitterly cold. If kids are cold, they can't enjoy themselves.
  • Light powder is fun to ski. Heavy powder can be nearly impossible for little ones to negotiate.
  • Don't push racing. If you're child is interested, let him or her propose it so it's their thing. It's a big commitment for everyone involved.

Kids can start skiing at two or and three years old (I've even heard of a few one-year-olds out there). The key is to reinforce success, rather than focus on what your child does wrong. And one of the most important parts of skiing with very young ones is knowing when to quit.

Article and photograph copyright © by David Goodman

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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