The Parent Trap


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Last winter an article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. It was about a Connecticut family that was being used as a living marketing study by Intrawest Corporation, which operates about a dozen ski resorts in North America. The company was following them around, tracking their every move on weekends to see how to better serve the typical skiing family. If that company had been tracking our small family, they would have seen a whole lot of running around-and very little actual skiing.

Ours was a pathetic routine of shift taking. One parent sprinted to rack up as many runs as possible into a two-hour time slot, while the other entertained our toddler in the day lodge, plying him into tranquility with french fries when not in hot pursuit of him in the maze of picnic tables. There was nothing relaxing about it. On the few days that we actually did manage to secure child care, it was raining or minus 30 and blowing. It got to the point where I really didn’t want to make the effort to ski at all. That, I realized, is how people drift away from the sport-and precisely why this Connecticut family was of such interest to Intrawest.

Our problem was not just a matter of being able to afford and reserve child care, though those are no small feats. It was more a problem of the all-encompassing guilt that plagues every parent. With child care comes the guilt of stuffing your child away with complete strangers and every virus within a weekend drive of the ski area. If instead you opt for shifts, when you’re the skiing parent you have the guilt of knowing that your spouse is on duty while you’re off doing something-God forbid-entirely for yourself. Meanwhile, the non-skiing parent who tries to at least get some exercise hiking around with the kid in a backpack has the guilt that the child is freezing to death or bored to death. Basically, there’s no getting out of guilt’s way.

It’s not that I need a whole lot of skiing. I’ve skied enough in this lifetime that I don’t have to fill a yearly quota of days or a daily quota of runs. I can even live an entire year without powder and not complain…much.

During my first two seasons of parenthood, I discovered that what I really miss is just being out there. I miss seeing friends, meeting people on the hill, riding the chair, breathing in the mountain air, smelling the trees and just feeling snow roll under my skis. Those things-and not the occasional epic day-are what have sustained my interest for so long. This frenzied relay approach to skiing just wasn’t cutting it.

During a tag-team outing this spring, we ran into a friend, Steve Lathrop, eating lunch with his family. They had just returned from a family ski vacation in Switzerland where everyone-including his sub-2-year-old-had skied together. In the process of raising four kids, Lathrop has customized a system for getting kids on skis early. His full spectrum of gadgets includes a tow bar that acts as a portable poma lift, a tip attachment to keep the tips together but not crossed, a soft bar to push the ankles into a snow plow, a harness to haul the kid onto the chair and a leash to keep him under control.

In print it sounds pretty elaborate. That’s exactly why, despite having heard about his system, I hadn’t investigated it. I am especially sensitive to forcing any sport on a kid, and especially this sport on our kid. From birth, friends asked when my husband and I were going to get our son on skis, assuming that we would put him on the fastest track possible to the 2022 Winter Olympics. But we are wary of being overzealous, precisely because of our ski-racing backgrounds.

First of all, I’ve witnessed too many psycho pushy parents, proudly reciting what slopes their kids mastered at what age, while the kid seemed more enthralled with the video games in the base lodge than with skiing. In my head I can still see my friend’s mother chasing her down the race course barking directives, and another friend being yelled at by her angry father after a bad race. Those memories, along with regular reports of bossy tennis dads, homicidal Texas cheerleader moms and all manner of offensive performance-obsessed parents, are examples we don’t care to replicate.

Secondly, we don’t want to take the risk that our enthusiasm for skiing would make our child turn against it, ending our recreational lives for the next 15 years. I’ve read all the marketing studies about how mothers are the decision-makers in family spending, but that’s a marketing myth. It’s unquestionably the kids who rule the roost. Why else would anyone have instant oatmeal spiked with gummy bears in her cupboards? Better to wait than risk it, we thought. At the very least, he wouldn’t start before we had-at age 2.

But when Steve suggested I let our son try on his daughter’s gear and give skiing a spin, I relented. These contraptions, I realized, were not the evil work of an obsessed parent, but of a guy who just wanted to find a way to ski with his family. He is not much different than my parents, who are anything but pushy, yet had all of us on snow as early as they could manage it. The inventions weren’t made in the spirit of competition, but in the name of family unity and parental sanity.

Nonetheless, it was with trepidation that I first slipped boots on my 22-month-old’s feet, hoping he wouldn’t scream and validate all my protective fears. He did cry the first time, but not until I was taking his boots off. “Skiing!” he kept begging that afternoon, articulating it better than any other word in his needs- and wants-based vocabulary. Shamelessly, I went out the very next day and got all the gear, rationalizing it as follows: The cost was a wash when compared to three days of child care; we were not pushing him, but merely providing the opportunity; and finally, whatever lasting issues he might have from starting too early could not compare with the physical strain and psychological scars of learning the sport once long-term memory kicks in.

By the end of the season he had skied five resorts and, on the last outing, had to be bribed with pizza to stop skiing. Clearly, he was not suffering in the least, and my anticipated guilt quickly gave way to jealousy. I am quite sure that without all the gizmos to keep us upright, we suffered much more as 2-year-old skiers. If there is something to feel guilty about, it is that our unassisted parents endured the backbreaking work of picking us up on every turn. But having followed them around for quite a few years, I know they managed to make it fun every weekend, so I don’t feel too badly.

Parents whose kids are ready to hit the trails can check out all the gear at www.kid-ski.com.

Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in Hanover, N.H., and can be reached at ethys@aol.com. Check out her previous Racer eX columns in the archives section at the top right.