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Slide Rules

Tips for teaching kids to ski


Published December 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

Last we checked, none of Vermont's hospitals — from Northwestern to Brattleboro Memorial —was giving out tiny pairs of skis to newborn babies along with those pink-and-blue swaddling blankets.

But they might as well be. Many Vermonters aim to get their children skiing as soon as biologically possible. However, most ski schools don't accept kids in diapers. It can be a long, expensive, backbreaking trip to the ski resort. And some parents are reluctant to leave very young children alone on the slopes — even with a pro. "I felt that my daughter would have been really scared, at age 3, to ski with someone she didn't know," says Koran Cousino of Starksboro.

Employing Yankee frugality and determination, however, plenty of Green Mountain parents are teaching their children how to ski — maybe not before they walk, but at 2, 3 or 4. Here are some of the lessons they were willing to pass along.

Pick the right ski area.

Yeah, obviously. But even the fanciest ski resort — with Elmo himself operating the heated carpet conveyor — is going to look like the DMZ when you have to schlep yourself, your gear, your child and your child's gear across three parking lots, up four flights of stairs and over two football fields of snow before the skiing can begin.

So whether it's your backyard, your driveway, a sledding hill or a ski resort, make sure there's a short distance between the skiing area and shelter.

Cochran's Ski Area in Richmond fits the bill. Michael Wood-Lewis taught his 4-year-old to ski there last winter. "We didn't need much," he says. "It was a great environment, on a great scale: affordable and informal."

Pack heat.

As in, hot chocolate. Leslie Dunn of Jericho kept a thermos of it nearby when she was teaching her kids to ski. A near-to-hand mug of Swiss Miss can save not only money, but also time: fewer trips inside to warm up. Many a ski instructor also swears by stuffing pockets with marshmallows — not for the cocoa, but as an incentive to keep kids skiing. It can also be gummy bears or stickers — just something that won't melt when you're sweating like a fry cook in July, even though it's January and 10 below. Which brings us to...

Dress in layers.

"It sounds so stupid, but everybody has to be physically comfortable," says Dunn. For the kids, that means extra long undershirts that will stay tucked in and prevent pants from filling up with snow. For the parents, it means you should probably wear a T-shirt under all that. When Olympic gold medalist Barbara Ann Cochran teaches parents how to teach their kids to ski, she warns them: "You're going to get a good workout. Don't worry about the gym." She's right. You'll be bending, lifting, squatting and, yes, sweating.

Slow them down.

Bending over your child while he snowplows down the mountain is backbreaking. But watching him go downhill fast — toward the lift line — can be bone breaking. While leashes and harnesses may be a no-no in other realms, they're OK on the hill. Dunn saved money by using a simple rope as a harness. "I would pretend that they were the powerboat and I was the water-skier," she says. "So I never had to stop them."

You can apply the same advice to yourself. "I wanted my daughter to be brave and get everything immediately," says Cousino. "Sometimes I had to step back and just let her figure things out for herself, with no instruction." Cousino urges other parents to take frequent breaks, too. "It's a lot of work to undress and dress again, but I got more out of my daughter when we went inside and had a little snack. It became a little routine for us, and she loved it."

Get a wedgie.

Eric Morris of Shelburne taught other people's kids to ski at Beaver Creek, Colorado, for six years before going to work on his own. Alexandra and Jacob each hit the slopes at 3.

"One of the best ways to get your kids moving is to ski backward holding onto their tips," he says. "Not good on the back."

He recommends a $10 device to avoid a lot of pain — for you and your child — by keeping the tips of your child's skis together. Known as an edgie wedgie, or easy wedge, it's a short bungee cord with a tiny clamp on either end.

Play games.

Set up an obstacle course of cones to teach turns; or scatter rubber ducks on the snow and suggest your child pick them up. You have to develop stopping skills to pull it off. The more fun and lighthearted, the better, according to Shelburne's Rick Gibbs, who taught his 3-year-old Talia to ski two years ago at Stowe.

Barbara Ann Cochran agrees. "If you enjoy your children, you'll enjoy teaching them how to ski," she says. "Maybe not 100 percent of the time; it's not easy, but it's bonding."

Show, don't tell.

Let's say your child has learned the basics. He can stop, turn, get back up when he falls and ride a lift. Now what? "You can talk to a 6-year-old about turns, wedges, French fries, etc., until you're blue in the face," says Morris. "Or you can show them."

The trick here is to secretly recruit other kids to do the teaching. "Kids really learn faster and better from other kids than adults; we're just too tall and big," explains Morris. "The best way to teach a kid to ski is to put them behind another kid slightly better than them for a few runs. Now that Alexandra can rip, I just have Jake follow her."

Take the long view.

Williston's Heidi and Steve Willoughby are hardly ski fanatics. Though they grew up skiing, Heidi stopped when she was in fourth grade and her family moved to Florida. Steve gave it up when he moved to Minneapolis. But when the couple moved to Vermont, they got their kids to Cochran's when they were 4 and 3. "Once the kids learned to ski, it was important to keep going," they write in an email. "But we kept it short at first. Just a few hours with a nice break in the middle. We just get out and enjoy skiing regularly as a family ... it's an easier process if you start when your children are young."

Likewise, Wood-Lewis is determined to have his whole family on snow not because one of them might be the next Ted Ligety or Lindsey Vonn, but because it provides active fun during Vermont's long winters. "We want our kids to be culturally literate here in Vermont," he says.

Get professional help.

When all else fails? Enroll the kids in a traditional ski school. "Trying to teach Matthew to ski was a colossal failure," says Catherine Collette of Shelburne, relaying stories of then-3-year-old Matthew falling off a carpet conveyor, and her husband, Andy, falling on Matthew as they tried to get off the chairlift.

She's now signed up her son for lessons at Smugglers' Notch. "This year, I'm letting a stranger do the dirty work."

Sarah Tuff lives in Shelburne with her husband and their two children, ages 2 and 4.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.