Hooked for Life

Ski family 1002 Pic A

The first weekend of skiing I ever missed was Feb. 10-11, 1978. I was 17, and I recall it well because of how annoyed I was. Never mind that the Blizzard of '78 had just washed away my family's Massachusetts home (skis and all) and that most roads were closed; the snow would be great at our weekend place in Jackson, N.H. But my father had other priorities. The insurance agents might not like having to hunt us down on the slopes, he reasoned. We stayed close to home-a loss that still stings.

So imagine my surprise last winter when my teenage daughter whined, "Another ski weekend? But there's a school dance!" Blasphemy, I thought. The child I'd borne, nurtured and educated about my religion (skiing) had something more important to do?

I felt I'd failed. But in fact, I was facing the same challenge many ski parents face. Keeping children in love with skiing means allowing them the space to love it their way. Parents who have dealt with burnout in their children agree: It takes compromise, cooperation and sometimes just plain giving in to keep skiing fun for kids.

Take the Johnson family, longtime Killington, Vt., regulars from Danbury, Conn. When the kids were young, they schlepped along joyfully, loving their ski school buddies and those late-afternoon runs with mom and dad. But now there are weeks when it's all Nancy Johnson can do to convince them she's not an abusive mother for forcing them to ski.

"Things got in the way: soccer, parties, projects, dances," she says. "At first I took a stern line and said no to everything. We sacrificed a lot to have them be skiers, and I didn't want it to end." Then she tried compromising. "Now, we're not against heading north after a school dance or a game ends," she says. "I find the kids appreciate that and really do want to get up there."

Along with compromise must come flexibility. Rick Bisson and his four children are pass holders at Sugarloaf, Maine. Bisson, a devoted skier, had a vision of his kids skiing with him, sharing his passion. That was not, in some ways, to be. He now is a proud father to one alpine racer, one snowboarder and two freestylers. It wasn't easy, he says, letting go of his own vision of skiing, but in the end, it was right. "The snowboarder was the toughest to accept," he says. "I didn't understand it at first, so I was setting all these rules: no tattoos, no grungy clothes. Of course, now I see snowboarding isn't about that."

He also sees all of his children out loving the same trails and lifestyle he does, even if they're not doing it the same way. New York City psychologist Laurie Gimball says Bisson's feelings are normal. "You want your children to share your loves, but it's important not to step over a line to where you're forcing them or living your life through them. I think a lot of burnout in sports comes because it was never entirely the child's choice. We take them when they're 3, put them on skis and tell them, 'You'll love it!' We cheer when they make it down the hill and take a thousand photos. It can become, right then, a matter of pleasing the parents, not pleasing the child."

So what's a parent to do? Gimball suggests being sure, from the start, to consider your child's point of view. "If they are tired, make sure they can rest; if they need a day off, let them have one. And make the traditions ones they help create, not just ones you pass along."

One component is finding a ski school that keeps all this in mind. Sue Baca, director of the Beaver Creek, Colo., Children's Ski School, says each age group has its needs. "Preschoolers are the most challenging," she says. "Parents often have this expectation that their child will automatically love skiing. They often don't know what we know: That children this age need downtime, too." She suggests a program that combines slope time with play time. For grade-schoolers, it's about variety, she says. Look for a program that has theme days, races and other special events to supplement lesson time. She also suggests making sure the ski school is helping build relationships among the kids. "Developing friendships, even over a short vacation, helps a lot."

Once they're out of ski school and with you on the hill, Gimball says, it's time to take what they like into account and blend it with your traditions. "Make it their sport that you share," she says. Bisson agrees. "Wealways made skiing a game, and a game that they could help make the rules for," he says. "We had contests: How many runs could you make in a day? How many runs could you make when it's really cold? And every day we'd race to catch the last chair or Chair No. 1. These became traditions. It was one big deal to ride Chair 1."

And even though his kids used different gear and techniques in those games, it became about being together again. That taught him a lesson. "Skiing with kids brings out the kid in you. I feel like I got back a joy in skiing I never even knew had slipped. So in a way, the kids showed me how not to burn out. Go figure."

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Second Wind

These four programs will rev up any burned out skier.

Team Extreme, Jackson Hole, Wyo.: This program for advanced teenage skiers and riders emphasizes the wild, big-mountain environment. Teenagers learn how to safely enjoy off-piste terrain. Info: 800-450-0477 or email kidsranch@jacksonhole.com.

Billy Kidd Performance Center, Steamboat, Colo.: Some of the best coaches in the country work closely with intermediate or advanced children to help them become great skiers. Personalized coaching makes kids feel like they're part of the U.S. Team. Info: 800-299-5017 or www.steamboat.com.

U.S. Open Snowboard Championships, Stratton, Vt.: Burton's U.S. Open has always eschewed politics and gone with a completely open qualifying process. Unknown riders can show up, compete with the greatest in the sport and win a place on the podium. Could your teen make it? Info: 800-881-3138 or www.usopen-snowboarding.com.Ski Family: Slope GamesSpecial activities keep kids happy and on board. Try these, or think up your own.

Treasure hunt: Hide treats or money on the hill, and give them clues to find it.

Trail-map bingo: Have them mark every trail they've skied until they've done them all.

Build a kicker: Air time is a prime motivator, especially on a clandestine jump Dad built.

Terrain-park showdown: See who's got the best slopestyle moves.

Run gates: NASTAR handicapping is perfect for a family challenge; or bring a stopwatch and use "gates" (twigs, cones) you set yourself.

Ski the trees: Search the sides of trails for easy tree shots, then let them lead. They'll love the adventure.

Race your chair: Note the number on the chair you ride up in, and see if you can beat it to the bottom.

Photo-shoot: Kids love seeing themselves on film; tell them you want to record how good they're getting.

Best-wipeout award: They're inevitable, and winning something takes the sting out of the hardest falls.