DON’T SNOWPLOW THE SLOPES OF LIFE:Memoirs of a Five-Year Old in Ski School
It was the first day of ski school and I watched from a distance as my 5-year old daughter, Maggie, lined up with the other girls and boys her age, wearing skis (some for the first time). From my bird’s-eye view on a sunny balcony, the training hill appeared as an island of manmade snow surrounded by green grass. Marooned adults and children stood tightly packed for their first day of lessons.
There was a good deal of confusion, kids crying, adults looking anxious and awkward. It didn’t seem like Maggie was learning much of anything. I wondered if I should have paid the extra money and hired a private teacher?
I waited, watching the herd of children sidestep their way to a rubber mat leading to the towrope. They looked like newly born calves on still wobbly knees. It was a slow procession. One step forward and whoosh a long slide back.
Maggie lifted her skis, left then right, making little progress when whoosh she too slid backwards, only she continued down the hill, landing in shallow gully, feet and arms flaying overhead. She remained like a pill bug turned upside down, no way of getting upright, until several minutes later when the instructor rescued her. This time he carried her straight to the towrope (no more sidestepping) and showed her how to grab hold. She whizzed up the hill, miraculously staying on her feet. What was she going to do when she got to the top?
There was another instructor waiting who plucked her off the line. She positioned Maggie facing downhill—a good start. Her legs were straight and wide, her arms out like airplane wings. She began her descent, picking up speed and was soon careening into a large group of skiers who luckily saw her coming and parted like the Red Sea. She passed unscathed then seconds later landed in a spectacular crash. I wanted to rush down, be a ‘Snowplow’ parent that smooths the way, pick her up, give her a hug, brush off the snow and cheer, “Good try,” but I didn’t. I knew I’d send the wrong message.
I didn’t want her to think she always needs me or that she couldn’t fall and get up on her own. This was a chance to learn independence.
While I’d imagined a kinder, gentler approach to skiing, this “tough love” approach to ski school did have it’s merits. A few more crashes like those and I assumed Maggie would find a way to stay upright. At least she wasn’t crying. Plenty of other kids were and by now the instructors had the gigantic vinyl “ice cream bench” sitting on the ice, a cone shaped foam chair for kids. I wondered if Maggie might take a seat following her crash landing, but she didn’t. She got back up and sidestepped it to towrope. I even saw a smile.
After five hours on the slopes, the fun was long gone. When I picked her up from class Maggie clung to me like a bear cub to its mother, saying, “I don’t want to go back there tomorrow.” She was exhausted from the physical exertion at the higher altitude. I couldn’t blame her. I knew how she felt. Hadn’t there been things in my life I never wanted to do again? Should I make her continue?
The problem was, I knew ONE day of ski school wasn’t enough. All she’d learned was that ski boots are uncomfortable and it’s miserable being out in the cold for five hours. She had to go back. She had to figure out this was going to be okay.
The next morning we went to breakfast sans ski gear. I figured it was better to wait until she had something to eat before announcing where she was going. On the plus side, she’d met a couple of girls her age in class and really liked them. (They weren’t whiners or criers.) When I mentioned after breakfast how nice it would be to see them again, she immediately picked up on the clues. “I don’t want to see them again,” she countered. It wasn’t personal. Seeing them again, meant she was going back to class.
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t push. Rather I distracted her with other things (any things) as we strode to the car and headed to the lodge. It wasn’t far and we didn’t talk about skiing along the way. When we arrived, however, she demanded answers. “Are you taking me to ski class?”
“Let’s just go inside and check and make sure they’re still having class,” I said, leading her from the car to the lodge without too much protest. Once past the front desk and up the stairs I said, “Yep, everyone’s here, looks like they’re still having class.” She frowned and glared at me, her legs going stiff so it was slow going that last 5 yards to the locker room. By now other ski schoolers were gathering and I used that to my advantage. “Oh look, there’s Olivia. Don’t you love her pink scarf?” I could see Maggie trying to keep a good face in front of her peers.
I helped her on with her gear: boots, gloves, helmet, and bib number and we funneled into a room filled with other anxious kids and parents, waiting for class. A movie was playing and Maggie stared at the screen. A few minutes later, it was time to leave and she turned to me with a look of panic. Just then the instructor announced, “We’ll be riding the cable car up to the big mountain. We won’t be eating at the lodge so everyone will need to bring their own lunch money.” I tucked a 10 Euro bill into Maggie’s front pocket. She beamed. The prospect of having her own REAL money, as it turned out, was more important than being scared.
She kissed me goodbye and with a prayer in my heart I waved her off. I spent the next several hours trying not to think of my baby falling down the slopes. I tried to relax and ended up in the gym working out then sitting in the hot tub. I didn’t want to hover, but it was hard. I especially didn’t want to show up prematurely and have her see me and ask to go home. A little before the 2:00 pick-up, I rode the cable car up the mountain and hiked to where I knew they were skiing. I tucked myself behind a massive pine and spied on her as she rode the seated towrope up the 50-meter slope. It was surreal. Not only did she make it all the way up, but as she skied down, her legs were in a more natural position, and her arms by her side (no longer wings). Her face was red with exhaustion, but she looked confident. She was doing it! She was actually skiing.
For the rest of the week things only got better. By day three she was taking the chair lift and running the Blue Courses. In less than a week Maggie had become a better skier than me (okay, maybe that’s not saying much, but still). She earned her medal and took first place (along with everyone else) as the fastest skier.
What I learned is that it’s hard stepping back and watching your kids fall (or fail) but it builds confidence. In my eighteen plus years of parenting, I’ve adopted what psychologists in Europe call, “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee” philosophy. The basic idea is we should let our kids take risks when they’re young so they learn how to handle both physical and emotional risks when they’re older. According to Dr. Tim Elmore, we can hinder our children’s leadership abilities if we “rescue too quickly” or “rave too easily.”
Learning to ski or learning to overcome adversity, it’s pretty much the same in my opinion. If you can get up from a fall, brush yourself off and keep making your way up the mountain then you’ve got a formula for success not only on the slopes, but in life too. Perseverance is a skill you learn by failing. Once you have that lesson down, it’s a whole lot easier to keep getting up.
Click here to see video from ski school