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Slopes for Beginners: How to Raise Little Shredders — and Stay Sane in the Process

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Jess Wisloski snowboards with her daughter at Middlebury Snow Bowl - COURTESY OF JESS WISLOSKI
  • Courtesy of Jess Wisloski
  • Jess Wisloski snowboards with her daughter at Middlebury Snow Bowl

The picture of toddlers in giant helmets, carefully pizza-pie-ing their skis down a blanket of snow as downy flakes alight on their small shoulders, is a vision of Vermont life to which many of us have subscribed. Yet the fantasy of being able to enjoy downhill skiing or snowboarding with offspring in tow can quickly thaw when confronted with what it really entails: money, meltdowns, and lots of motivation.

It wasn't until I began talking to other parents, after a particularly troublesome day with my 3-year-old one winter, that I learned the truth: Every family who is out there on the slopes? They've all been there.

There is no effortless transition from child-who-can-barely-walk-without-injury to slick little shredder. That point, at which parents weigh whether the lessons, the gear, the driving and the cost are all worth it can be a challenging crossroads — especially for parents who didn't grow up skiing or snowboarding.

In the interest of those of you hunting for a winter activity to help your household survive what often feels like six months of winter, here's some intel — gleaned from my own experiences and a few experts — on introducing your kids to downhill sports.

1. Start Small

Snow is free. And it's everywhere. The biggest commitment to starting a downhill sport is getting gear, but most ski shops offer affordable kids' rental packages that last the whole season for about $100. Once you're suited up, think small. Really small. Before my daughter's first snowboarding lesson, she got used to the board in our backyard and at a local sledding hill. On her first day on skis, and her first few snowboarding outings, a kid-sized terrain park was perfect for her. Furthermore, "pretend" skiing and riding in the living room or backyard, or toys like balance boards and trampolines, will help kids associate skiing and riding with fun, according to Smugglers' Notch public relations director Michael Chait. "If they do that, getting up to the hill, where you're dealing with wind, snow and more, you've got a leg up because they're stoked to be there."

2. Set Realistic Expectations

Several mountains offer mom-and-me or dad-and-me packages: lessons that allow parents with intermediate skills to work with their little ones on starter skills. Because kids ages 5 and under often ski free, lessons may be your one big expense when kids are learning. Keep expectations low and don't force it, says Harley Johnson, director of Snow Sport University at Smugglers' Notch and a mother of three. "Make small introductions to the sport that are fun."

3. Offer Treats — or Not

In her early days of skiing, my child collapsed at my feet and a fellow mom told me she always had cookies on hand. I soon found that if I filled my pockets with Skittles, my kid would try anything on her board, then beg for the treat. What can I say, I'm a fan of bribery. Johnson, however, is against this tactic. "Forcing them or even bribing them can make them resent the sport and not want to do it," she says. "Letting them get excited to go skiing or riding and building off of their enthusiasm is best."

4. Let Someone Else Take Charge

I was trained as a snowboard instructor, but I still put my kiddo in lessons rather than deal with the tirades and tears. At her first private lesson, I waved, then disappeared to go ride. She was buoyant afterwards, and proud to show her skills (and the society of mini-snowmen her group had built). My own relationship with skiing may have been doomed when, at age 6, my eyeball slid right into my mom's ski pole tip. Thankfully, I was able to take part in an after-school ski program in fourth grade, just like children all over Vermont still do. In these school- or recreation department-sponsored programs, lessons are often included and transportation is provided.

5. Remember Why You're There

Most people looking at season passes and lessons are in it for one thing: family time. Essex Junction mom Sarah Rogers Spaulding said that, for her, the motivation for finding a winter activity was being able to spend time outside with her whole family. Last year, a friend told me that her most cherished time with her 9-year-old was when they drove up to the mountain together and could just talk uninterrupted. Adds Johnson: "Making memories is what it's all about."

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