Insider Tips for Parents.
For parents who ski, it can be one of the most challenging aspects of a winter retreat. You've invested some serious coin in a weekend getaway, ponying up for a condo, lift tickets, rentals, etc. You even signed the kids up for ski school, knowing that a few lessons will not only help them get ahead of the sport's learning curve, but will also allow you and your significant other some quality one-on-one time on the hill.
And then it all goes sideways when your little darlings announce they don't want to go to ski school. No amount of sweet talk, cajoling, and flat-out bribery is working. They're not budging. Of course, you can impose martial law and force them, but then you run the risk of ruining any hopes of an enjoyable family weekend. After all, a bad ski school experience has the potential to spill into your après ski evening.
So what are you're options? We chatted up a few industry experts to get their advice. Dan Bergeron is the Snow Sports School operations manager at Killington Resort in Vermont. He's also the proud parent of two beautiful teenage girls, so he's been around the block on the ski school dilemma. He understands the challenges, especially with very young beginners.
"For the little ones, ages 4 to 6 can be the separation from parents and the fear of the unknown," said Bergeron, now a youthful 55. "It's a big step for them heading into a totally new and unfamiliar environment."
Teenagers, meanwhile, present an entirely different set of hurdles.
"For the older kids, ages 10 to 17, they don't want to be in 'school.' They want less structure and certainly don't want to ski 'in a line,' like the little kids do," said Bergeron. "They often feel that they can navigate the mountain just fine on their own without the guidance of an instructor."
According to Lauri McAleer, who has been a ski instructor for 25 years (primarily at Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire), ski school represents a change in a youngster's routine, and that alone can be unnerving.
"The child is leaving familiar and comfortable environments, such as parents and friends, and not knowing what to expect," she said. "Children love habit."
So, for starters, McAleer suggests that parents take the initiative to ask questions of the ski school personnel in advance, so they can explain to their children what the experience will entail.
"As a teacher and parent, I feel that it is very, very important that the child be prepared ahead of time. Watching a class in progress beforehand helps," she said. "Ask questions, things like when they come inside? What snacks? Do they get toilet breaks? What terrain they will be on? How many instructors per group, so each child is getting proper contact? How many students per class and ages? These points affect any age group."
McAleer also encourages parents to meet the instructors, and answer any questions the may have about your child. Then, when you're satisfied that the school is a good fit, appeal to your child's natural sense of exploration.
"The best approach, once you've signed them up, is to give them an option to just try it and see how they feel," said McAleer. "Letting them have a bit of control of their own destiny seems to be fun. Have them make choices for what they wear or eat.
"My best advice for parents is do not transfer your fears onto them," she said. "Make it sound like it's a big adventure, and watch from a distance."
Likewise, Bergeron said parents can be pro-active by "selling" the program.
"Get the kids comfortable by showing them pictures on the resort's web site, and telling the child about the program structure and how much fun it will be," he said. "Trying to take away some of the unknowns and the fears prior to drop-off at ski school are key."
Resorts are making that drop-off easier all the time by continuously tweaking their ski school offerings, adding a number of innovative features. Harley Johnson is the director of the Snow Sport University at Smuggler's Notch in Vermont, a resort that has collected numerous accolades for its family friendly programs.
"Standing on the side of the trail getting instruction isn't as frequent as it used to be," said Johnson. "There are times that it's necessary, but instructors recognize that the attention span of children is much less than it used to be, so they have to keep things flowing. Our instructors offer instruction when appropriate and keep the kids moving. They have the kids ski in a line only when appropriate to keep them moving together. Otherwise, when the children are able, they have more of a directed free ski."
Teenagers, meanwhile, are given more ownership of their lessons at Smuggler's Notch, which leads to a better buy-in.
"We ask them what they want," said Johnson. "What are they looking for in the lesson, and what terrain do they want to ski? It is also important to give them appropriate and positive feedback individually."
Bergeron said good ski schools can tailor their lesson plans to their students, which makes taking lessons more appealing.
"With the 4- to 6-year-old group, it's making sure that the atmosphere from inside the building to the slopes is friendly, inviting and engaging, keeping the kids moving and motivated from the time they arrive until the time they come off the slopes," said Bergeron. "It has to be the type of experience that kids just can't wait to return to.
"For the older kids, it's about small groups with similar ages and interests," he said. "The programs should be focused on lots of skiing or riding time, with more of guide experience than a teacher experience."
Ideally, ski school not only produces better skiers, but also can sew the seeds for a life-long love affair with the sport. McAleer's daughter Jessie is proof.
Now 45, Jessie McAleer grew up racing with the Wildcat Mountain Ski Club and the Mount Washington Valley ski team, and then raced for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats for four years. After graduation, she continued to complete on the World Pro Ski Tour, and then raced New England and US Masters for several years.
"Having a Mom who taught skiing, and a Dad who loved it as well, made it a family affair," said Jessie. "Going up every weekend to go skiing was just what we did. The fact that my Mom taught and had to be at the mountain Saturday morning with skis and boots on by 8 a.m. helped the whole family get their acts together and out the door. We didn't have a choice and it just became our regular routine.
"Personally I loved it," she said. "I didn't always love missing Saturday cartoons or, as I got older, friends' birthday parties and celebrations back home in Massachusetts. But I grew up a whole other group of friends at Wildcat, and I looked forward to being able to see them and play on our playground, the mountain."
For Jessie McAleer, the key to a first-rate experience was the consistency of attending ski school on a regular basis.
"Being part of a weekend program in ski school is great," said Jessie. "You look forward to seeing your instructor and your same group of ski friends. You get better and better and they take you all over the mountain. As long as the parents are committed too. Driving up north every weekend is a commitment in itself, so the parents who actually take part in skiing make it all work better."
However, Jessie McAleer also cautioned against becoming a slave to the ski school schedule.
"If kids want to just ski with a friend or with their parents for a day here or there, do it," she said. "Skiing is about fun and freedom and being able to make your own decisions as much as learning to be better."
Finally, parents can help ensure a positive outing by making sure their children are prepared for the elements when they arrive for their lesson. While this may seem obvious for younger skiers and riders, teenagers are notorious for taking shortcuts when it comes to foul-weather gear.
"Make sure that the kids come to ski school with proper clothing on," he said. "Too many times kids come under dressed and without goggles. The right clothing, warm and weatherproof, will make a world of difference in your child's overall experience."
Which, in turn, will make a world of difference in the family's overall ski experience, Mom and Dad included. And yes, Kulkea's Speed Star is the ultimate kid's ski boot bag comfort-designed for the little ones to pack, carry and access their gear with ease.
10 Tips for Skiing with Children.
The Right Stuff for Family Skiing.
Teaching Kids to Ski.
Family Ski Gear Checklist (Printable!)