We see them lurking in the trees of every ski resort; parents covertly observing their bundled-up offspring slide onto the magic carpet for the first time, flooded with the same feelings as they march away into kindergarten classrooms and college dorms. But as fellow families and experienced instructors will tell you, these parents' next steps should be to smile and pivot to the lift for a few hours of unencumbered skiing on The Greatest Snow on EarthⓇ.
Skiing is a fun, family activity that can be enjoyed at any age. Grandparents can shred with toddlers, parents and teens can bond over haut moguls and hot chocolates. However, tykes seldom come out of the womb with the skills necessary to "pizza," causing powder-mad parents to shell out for ski school as soon as possible.
There is no minimum (or maximum) age to learn to ski. It is common to see children under two years old on the slopes in Utah. Admittedly, most of them live here with parents who hit the bunny hill at Alta as others use the slide at their neighborhood park. Similarly, most resorts have age-appropriate lessons (combining a graduated balance of on and off-mountain instruction and activity) for 3, 4 years old and up. Looking at ski lessons as you would other kid-centric activities helps parents understand the process and, more importantly, helps their children develop a life-long progression with and passion for the sport.
Ski instruction for children, especially younger ones, is "centered on play," said Michelle White, a ski instructor at Deer Valley Resort with over 25 years of experience teaching folks of all ages and abilities at resorts in Utah and her home state Michigan. "Play is a big focus. They need to have fun, or they won't learn." So, instructors use "fantasy play, pretend worlds, whatever they're into – race cars, ponies, the latest movies, like 'Frozen'" to engage with the kids and explain ski concepts.
The concepts that a kid can internalize and execute, not surprisingly, will depend on the child. White explained that, like adult learners, the child's willingness, focus and athletic ability often affect progression. You can't force a four-year-old any more than a 40-year-old to do something he doesn't want to do. Similarly, White observed that kids who already play a sport, such as ice hockey, skating or even soccer, tend to pick up skiing more quickly, in part, because they are "body aware." They are also used to coaching.
There's no need to register your 5-year-old for an elite traveling soccer team just to get ready for spring break skiing at Deer Valley. When preparing children for their first lesson, White chuckled and suggested the best thing parents could do is simply tell their kids, "Have fun and listen to your instructor." Don't provide them with information overload in the locker room. Let professional instructors do what they love. Instead, she recommended parents focus on making sure their kids are dressed in warm clothing, especially, long ski socks. Crew socks notoriously slip into the boots as soon as they lock into bindings, and doubling up (wearing two regular kids' socks over each other) just balls into an uncomfortable mess. More on dressing your kids for the slopes here.
From here, the kids are ready to wave goodbye to mom and dad and hit the mountain. Occasionally, mom and dad aren't quite there yet. (Just wait until they leave for college!) So, before explaining why tears, covert actions and helicopter (ski) parents are bad things, here are six wonderful things parents can do while the darlings are undoubtedly enjoying themselves with their instructors:
Take their own ski lesson
Have a ski date with their spouse
Go back to sleep
Ski with another child
Ditch everyone for a powder day
Just linger on those for a moment…
Parents who are still gnawing their fingers about "abandoning their child to a stranger on the mountain" should stop and follow the same steps they – and those kids – are taught when they get stuck on that very mountain and other places in life, generally.
When asked, "Who cries the most during ski lessons?" White immediately replied, "Adults!" They worry: about themselves, others, everything and anything. Kids? Not so much. However, she explained that when kids (or adults) do have a mountainside meltdown, instructors, first, make them feel safe, find out what they're scared of or anxious about and, then, "take baby steps" through that completely understandable emotional minefield.
For some, letting go of your child at ski school is as big a step as tipping those skis over the edge of a steep run. It's a process that gets easier each time and, as a parent or a student, don't be afraid to let the instructor know your concerns. Just remember, the lesson only lasts a few hours; the munchkins will return soon. Don't dawdle!
How long should a parent stay when dropping off their kid for the first lesson?
(A) As long as possible
(B) Until their child seems comfortable
(C) Long enough to hug and say good-bye
(D) Long enough to slow down the car, unlock the door and nudge them out.
Any parent who has dropped off their child at daycare, preschool, or an SAT testing site at 7am on a Saturday knows the answer is, generally, C. "Make it quick and painless," quips White. If the parent appears calm, happy and confident, the child is more likely to mirror that.
At Deer Valley, for group lessons, parents walk younger children under six into the Ski School, where they will be assigned a cubby and introduced to their instructor. Older kids or those taking private lessons meet in assigned areas outside on the base. Instructors will outline the day (or half-day) lesson, tell them where they will stop for hot chocolate or lunch breaks and answer any questions. Remember that the instructors are trying to get the lesson started as soon as possible. So, keep questions to a minimum.
From there, ski lessons are considered a "Parent-Free Zone." No helicopter (ski) parenting! Although they are often welcome to meet up for lunch or hot chocolate breaks, parents may not attend their kids' lessons. It distracts their children, other children in the group and, frankly, the instructors. White acknowledged that most parents know to stay away, but occasionally, one will "ski along" or pop out from trees to "just check on" or take a picture of the little one. She advises parents, "Hide well because as soon as your child sees you, her attention is divided," the lesson slows down and, in some cases, is effectively done.
Fears and expectations sometimes linger in the new ski parents' subconscious. Although skiing is less risky than most sports (running is the worst, according to one report), parents understand that nothing is free from risk. They manage risk by, among other things, having kids wear helmets and signing their kids up for taking lessons to learn proper skills.
Another terrific reason for enrolling kids in lessons is to create lifelong skiers. White eloquently explained, "Parents want their kids to enjoy skiing, especially if they ski." However, their desires can interfere with their expectations. In their excitement and anticipation (and, to be fair, the cost of lessons), parents can forget how long it took to get their skis parallel or tackle their first black diamond run or wonder why their very athletic child is still on the magic carpet after lunch. Resort lessons are designed to create enthusiasts, not Olympians (although many present, past and future Olympians train in Utah or call it home). Like other Utah ski resorts, Deer Valley has an award-winning Gold Level of Instruction that teaches students at their level to get them to the next level commensurate with their abilities. This individualized, progressive approach creates competent, confident and lifelong skiers.
After ski lessons are over, instructors will summarize for each parent the skills their child has learned and what they need to work on next. They'll also encourage kids to take their parents out and show them what they've accomplished before hitting the hot tub. Parents should take this opportunity to let their children shine, especially on slopes or areas they've become familiar with during their lessons.
Go where they know! White cautioned parents against pushing to "over-terrain" their kids by having them ski runs above their ability. "They shouldn't expect kids to ski blue runs if they're in a wedge," she explained, "Then, they're just surviving, not thriving." In fact, doing so actually hinders progress, because they don't have the skills to ski such runs well. This risks injuring the child, forming bad habits and getting an unsolicited earful because they hate it so much. Just like their parents, as they're learning, foster confidence as well as competence, and they'll want to do it again and again, inching more and more toward more challenging terrain. Be patient. Parents want to enjoy skiing with their kids for 50 years, not just five days.
Ski lessons provide children with confidence and competence on the mountain. They also provide them the opportunity to problem-solve, progress and conquer. Utah ski resorts are home to some of the best ski schools globally and their instructors are prepared and ready to show students how to learn and love this sport. After one lesson or many, parents will enjoy their kids regaling stories about what they learned and where they went. They'll watch them move from pizza to parallel to powder faster than they could ever imagine. As legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller said, "Exactly one day in your life, your kid will ski as good as you do. The next day, he'll ski better than you."
And like the first day you dropped her off at ski school, again, you'll smile.