Home-Schooled

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Perched at the edge of the beginner hill at Attitash Bear Peak, N.H., Jennifer Lane leaned over and looked her 4-year-old son Jason in the eye. "Now," she remembers saying with deep meaning, "I'm going to teach you everything I know about skiing. I'm going to give you my sport." She had every intention of showing the boy all the moves it takes to ski well.

Flash forward 15 minutes. Jason is on the ground, whining. He's cold. He's scared. He's tired. Lane is despondent. Is her son too young? Did she say something wrong? Does he not get it? Or, worst of all, is he just not a skier? That day, mother and child gave up. The next day, Jason was in ski school, happily tearing up the mountain in a sturdy power-wedge, laughing with new friends and gushing about his instructor.

Lane was left wondering: What went wrong? "I felt like, gosh, I taught about a million kids to ski when I was an instructor in college," she says. "Why couldn't I teach Jason? I felt kind of bad about it; then I realized he just needed a stranger to teach him. Period."

Whether to teach your own child is not a decision to take lightly. There is no right answer that applies to everyone. While some parents, like Lane, struggle, others instantly take to teaching their children. Because while we all like to think we know best how to handle our own, sometimes handing them over is the best choice.Barbara Ann Cochran, former Olympic skier and author of Skiing the Cochran Way, believes that any parent with the right background, tools and desire can teach his or her own kids. Parents need to assess their ability to teach, then go from there.

The first rule, she says, is simple: "It has to be fun for them. That is just so important; it's the first thing you need to look at." To have fun, the child must be interested in the sport and well dressed in warm and comfortable clothing (see "Tools Of The Trade," page 200), and listening to a person from whom they can take suggestions with ease.

Cochran taught her own children, Caitlin, 11, and Ryan, 9, without a problem on the slopes behind her parents' home in Richmond, Vt. But, she points out, she's a trained instructor. "Unless you have a really good background in skiing and know the steps to teaching skiing, you really need to let someone else do it."

Cochran advises that parents either have some training in instructing or take a class that specializes in how to teach children to ski. There, she says, parents could make sure they are following the proper steps in ski-skill advancement.

In some cases, even parents who know those steps decide otherwise. Take Kimberly Sims of Plymouth, Mass. Sims grew up on the slopes of McCauley Mountain Ski Center at Old Forge, N.Y.-breeding ground of many lifetime skiers and even a few Olympians. When each of her three children started skiing, she was more than willing to use a ski harness and help them get their legs. But when it came time to really teach, she passed them along to the ski school.

"It was really important to me, from the start, that skiing be all about fun with my children, and me," says Sims, an elementary-school teacher. "I didn't want to be the one lecturing them or for them to get frustrated with me." Sims sent all three of her children to ski school, where, along with other children their own age, they all became excellent skiers.

"The thing a child does not want to learn from a parent is the stem-christy stuff-the stuff that takes thinking and critiquing," she says. "I could see my kids getting frustrated with me. Mom can ski like that, so why can't I? At ski school, they were in a group with kids their own age and at their own level. There was no frustration, because everyone was working to learn the same things."

Cochran, also an elementary-school teacher, agrees that teaching a child to ski can be frustrating. That's why her special Ski Tots program teaches parents how to teach their children. The five-day program shows parents how to interact wh their children on the slopes, how to help them improve and, most importantly, how to read their moods.

"Our philosophy is praise, praise, praise," she says. "And listen to them. When they get cranky, you set the limits. You must be clear. Tell the child if he needs to cry he must go inside. And then you need to stick to that."

Barry London, a ski patroller at Sugarloaf/USA in Maine, sent his children to ski school for just that reason. He understood he'd have to set such rules, and he didn't want to be the heavy.

"I don't necessarily think it's a behavior thing," he says. "I think instructors can get away with being critical where parents can't. When it's their parents, children can see constructive suggestions as being critical of what they are doing."

He saw that happen first-hand last winter when his family visited friends at Winter Park, Colo. The friend, a ski instructor, was trying to teach his 7-year-old how to ski. "No way was she going to listen to her father," London says. "She was whining. So I went over, took her away and started teaching her. She was skiing within a day." And, more importantly, the girl was then reunited with her dad for some fun time.

This, says family counselor Adam Biggs of Philadelphia, might be just the right thing. "If skiing is going to be your family-fun sport, you want it to be just that: fun," he says. "If the child feels like the parent is the teacher, then every time you head out together, the child will be 'on test' or thinking you are critiquing him or her. You want your child to look forward to skiing with you, not worry about it."

Still, Cochran says parents with training and patience can do it. "I would say 95 percent of our program participants end up happy with teaching their own children," she says. "There are those kids who are just going to get more from an instructor, but you can teach your children, too."

Joe Elliott of Golden, Colo., found quite the opposite to be true with his son. "When Joey was ready to ski, no one but me was going to teach him," he says. "And I think Joey thought it was kind of cool. Dad knew it all, and he was learning it from dad. I was like a hero to him." Did it work? "Well," says the elder Elliott, "now Joey's getting ready to start teaching Joe III next season." Enough said.

Jim O'Donnell, a part-time ski instructor at Loon Mountain, N.H., weighs in for ski school. "With my own kids, I don't want to come off as the bad-ass," he says. "When they are 16 and 17, I want them to want to ski with me, not say, 'He's always critiquing me.'" Both of his children, Meaghan, 10, and Michael, 6, are in ski school. There, he says, his daughter found a hero other than dad, and that's a good thing.

"She ended up with this woman instructor who was a freestyle champion who can still rip," O'Donnell says. "That's a feeling and difference she is just not going to get from me. And I'm glad for it."As for me, there was never a doubt. I knew from Day 1 that I'd send my two girls to ski school, but I knew I'd teach them skiing, too. The instructors? Their job was to work on the turns, the edging and the pole-plants. But my job was just as important. Once ski school was over each day, I'd take the girls out for runs and show them what skiing is to me. We'd stop and enjoy views, learning about alpenglow and the horizon. We'd duck into the trees to see how quiet and insulated a run can feel. We'd tear down wide-open cruisers singing out loud to see what it feels like to fly. These are the lessons I've taught my girls, and I like to think they're just as important as proper edging. And when I see my daughters stop to take in an incredible vista, or rehash a wildly serene tree run après-ski, I know I've taught them well. Now that's sharing a sport. Even if I did leave the details to someone else.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

It takes more than a cute little pair of skis to get kids going on snow. Some important tools, from basic to beyond, include:

Proper Attire. "If you don't dress children correctly, I promise they will not learn," says author and instructor Barbara Ann Cochran. She stresses wearing real ski pants and a parka, a helmet and real ski mittens long enough to tuck up inside the sleeves of the coat, sealing the arms from any moisture or cold air. Do not, she says, buy cute little inexpensive mittens. You will regret it. For more suggestions and information on Cochran's kids program, go to www.cochranskiarea.com.

Comfortable, But Real, Ski Boots. While a child can start on just about any skis, do look for ski boots with good support and comfort. Children need to adapt to the feel of a real ski boot right from the start, so those miniature plastic skis that clip onto regular snow boots are a no-go. Rear-entry boots are more convenient for the parent and OK for baby's first boot, but front-entry boots (buckles across the front) are better. Good socks that don't bunch up are also important. And no cotton.

Harnesses And Other Tools. For a child under 3, a harness or other ski-aid is a good idea. The Ski Leash, for instance, attaches at a child's hips and extends back into the parent's two hands, allowing parents to turn the child's hips as the child skis. It comes with an instructional video. The Kiddie Ski Bar is a 4 1/2-foot pole resembling a mini T-bar with a second cross rung for the child to hold onto. Parents can take a child over easy groomed terrain with it, without hunching over to hold the child up. Both are available at www.kid-ski.com.nclude:

Proper Attire. "If you don't dress children correctly, I promise they will not learn," says author and instructor Barbara Ann Cochran. She stresses wearing real ski pants and a parka, a helmet and real ski mittens long enough to tuck up inside the sleeves of the coat, sealing the arms from any moisture or cold air. Do not, she says, buy cute little inexpensive mittens. You will regret it. For more suggestions and information on Cochran's kids program, go to www.cochranskiarea.com.

Comfortable, But Real, Ski Boots. While a child can start on just about any skis, do look for ski boots with good support and comfort. Children need to adapt to the feel of a real ski boot right from the start, so those miniature plastic skis that clip onto regular snow boots are a no-go. Rear-entry boots are more convenient for the parent and OK for baby's first boot, but front-entry boots (buckles across the front) are better. Good socks that don't bunch up are also important. And no cotton.

Harnesses And Other Tools. For a child under 3, a harness or other ski-aid is a good idea. The Ski Leash, for instance, attaches at a child's hips and extends back into the parent's two hands, allowing parents to turn the child's hips as the child skis. It comes with an instructional video. The Kiddie Ski Bar is a 4 1/2-foot pole resembling a mini T-bar with a second cross rung for the child to hold onto. Parents can take a child over easy groomed terrain with it, without hunching over to hold the child up. Both are available at www.kid-ski.com.