The 7-year-old was a talented skier, having a great time on the mountain with a ski school group her own age. But that wasn't enough for her parents. They insisted the ski school put her with older, faster children.
"We kept her where she was," recalled Nancy Westfeldt, a supervisor of the children's program at Snowmass Ski Area in Colorado. "She didn't have the strength or the social skills to keep up with the 12-year-olds. Besides, she was happy."
But later, Snowmass officials got a two-page letter of complaint from the family. "Parents should remember that skiing is supposed to be fun," says Ms. Westfeldt, a veteran children's ski instructor and herself the mother of 6-year-old triplets. "For a child to do well, they've got to be having fun, and they must feel safe and confident."
From Vermont to New Mexico to Colorado to Utah, ski areas are working harder than ever to design programs to teach children to ski. Instructors are specially trained to work with the small fry. Beaver Creek in Colorado, known for its children's programs, even has its own children's mountain, with a fort and storytellers who pop out of the woods. Tiehack/Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen is opening its own children's fort this season and is publishing a ++ coloring book devoted to ski safety. Smugglers' Notch in Vermont is inaugurating a program this year for parents who want to teach their children to ski.
Taking your children skiing is an investment in time and money: It typically will cost you $50 a day by the time you've outfitted your child with equipment, lessons and a lift ticket. (Make sure to ask about children-ski-free deals -- never available during holiday periods.)
Before you book, make sure you're picking a place that will cater to your family's skiing needs. Is day care available for the littlest ones? (Instructors typically don't recommend starting children on the slopes before they're 3.) Ask what kinds of ski school programs are available for children. Many ski areas, for example, use Skiwee, a child-centered teaching approach designed by Ski Magazine that emphasizes learning through games.
Look for a program where children will be divided by age as well as ability. In some families, you may want to separate siblings: In others, they may feel more comfortable staying together.
Remember, even the best ski instructors aren't going to turn your children into Olympic hopefuls in a few days. And the worst thing you can do is push children too hard. They may end up hating the sport. Just as bad, ski instructors say, they'll develop bad habits from skiing terrain that's too tough for them.
"We want the children to build self-confidence," explains John Alderson, who helped develop Beaver Creek's children's program and travels the country teaching ski instructors how to teach children. "Children don't need steep terrain to learn. They'll do more challenging turns on gentler slopes."
Don't force them to stay on the mountain too long. If they say they're tired, believe them. It's better to quit early, ski instructors say, than risk injury -- or a crabby child.
Make sure they're dressed properly, too -- from wool hat to waterproof mittens, insulated socks, warm jacket and waterproof bib overalls. Don't forget the goggles, either. Sure they cost more than sunglasses, but children need to protect their eyes as much as you do. Skip a scarf; it can get tangled. Opt instead for an inexpensive neck warmer. The only thing worse than a tired child is a cold, wet, tired child.
Check out the indoor activities, too. Remember, even the most die-hard skier may have an off day, and there's nothing worse than forcing a child to ski when he doesn't want to. I remember one ski holiday in Jackson Hole, Wyo., when it was too cold for the children to ski longer than a half-hour at a stretch: They alternated skiing with playing happily inside.
Smugglers' Notch, voted the No. 1 family ski resort in America by readers of Family Circle, even has a barnyard full of animals.
Smugglers' ski school director Peter Ingvoldstad said it took his own son a couple of seasons to warm up to the sport. Like ski instructors in the West, he uses lots of games to keep children in his ski school interested.
How about chasing a balloon tied to the instructor's leg? (Children learn to turn without realizing it.) Red Light, Green Light also is a good bet -- to teach children to stop. Follow the Leader will work, too -- anything to keep children involved and interested. Parents, too.
"Safety is first and fun is second," says Mr. Ingvoldstad. "The learning will happen if you make it fun."
(The New York-based family travel information agency, Travel With Your Children, currently is updating its annual information guide Skiing With Children. Meanwhile, parents can get information in the November issue of Family Travel Times, available for $10 from TWYCH, 80 Eighth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10011.)