Sunday, April 5, 2015

Skiing, parenting, and letting go

Wildcat and Attitash, New Hampshire
Winter, 2015
I’m a parent. So I work to instill what I think are good values in my kids. I encourage them to dream and take chances and engage with the world. I try to inspire. I also worry: I worry that the world will inflict hurt they don’t deserve, or that I will mess them up. I worry about fears both real and imagined. I also try to relate to each as unique individuals, and to tailor my parenting to them. Then I try to model as best I can and given them experiences to reinforce everything.
For all my pondering, agonizing, modeling, and persevering, along with plenty of laughs, it was one of the better moments as a father to fall into the experiences we recently shared.
Skiing is the easiest outdoor activity aside of the beach to excite the girls. Unlike the beach, it involves risk taking, building skills and confidence, and very real successes or failures. The girls have now skied for five seasons, and have progressively improved. Sure, they’ve got their idiosyncrasies, such as one daughter stopping by extending her arms, as if an eagle coming in for a landing. But they have nervously yet successfully skied their first few black diamond trails. They’ve also enjoyed mild glades, darting in between trees and following my rule that you have to have a sound (“yip!”, “wee!”, or “ho!”) as you pop over the little jumps created in the woods. The girls entered the season having skied regularly, but only at two different mid-level mountains. But they are better than they realize, and their lack of confidence is as big of a barrier as is any gap in skiing technique.
Waiting for the rest of the group at a headwall at Attitash, NH
This season brought the first opportunity for them to ski with other kids. It appeared that peers can be more motivational than any of my allegedly inspirational speeches. Partnering these pre-teen girls with extended family including a slightly older boy and a girl in high school, and then choosing more challenging trails at a bigger mountain than they’ve historically skied, led them to seemingly feel obligated to keep up; they found out their skiing was perfectly fine. Also, when some peeled off to work on technique, they joined in. When one run split into two groups, they helped turn it into a “girls vs. boys” event. Importantly, they also had times on and off the slopes when they partnered up with the other kids and didn’t need adults present, relishing the attention and partnerships with older kids.
Bonding at Wildcat's lodge 
Conversely, we spent half of another ski vacation with another family that had two girls who were younger but more skilled. Skiing challenging trails at bigger mountains with this family, including many black diamond trails, seemed to motivate my kids to keep up with their younger counterparts. Given that both of those parents are also excellent skiers, it also led to looking at options that might not normally have been considered, such as skiing rougher stuff under the lift lines. Again, there was more independence and self-reliance showing up in various ways, such as when one of the younger girls insisted that one of my daughters ride the chairlift with her, which means my family wasn’t a constant foursome, having a single chairlift to ourselves. My kids had a hard time saying no to a young girl pleading for their company, and that reinforced their ability to handle a mountain without needing me to take care of things.

Group discussion of trail options (we chose the "most fun" one)
Later in that vacation, we skied some of the same trails by ourselves that they’d acknowledged were intimidating on a mountain they’d rated as lower on their list of favorites. Only, now some of those trails seemed easier, and the mountain now ranked #1 for one child and #2 for another. After a snowstorm dropped a foot of fresh powder, they also let go of their fear of falling. In fact, tackling black diamond trails with new snow pushed into near-moguls left grown-ups falling; instead of being intimidated by witnessing that, the girls came to see it as reassurance that it’s okay to try and fail.
Family time, in the late-afternoon shadow of Mount Washington,
after enjoying a foot of fresh pow and plenty of black diamond trails!
Dad, remember when hard trails scared us?
Their season concluded by skiing a mid-level mountain near home that we’ve skied many times before. After choosing the most difficult route to the bottom, the kids finished it confident, almost bored, and surprised that there was nothing harder left to tackle. In that moment, it became clear that they’ve outgrown that mountain. It also became clear to them that they’ve become good little skiers, and when I put myself and them through a lesson next winter to give us better technique for the harder and more fun trails we’ll continue seeking out, it will be hard for them to continue debating the value of that time investment.
It’s now exciting to more than just me to know that there are other big mountains in our future to go explore: chatter with the same extended family has already started around next winter’s “family reunion ski vacation” and discussing what big mountain we might next try, and the different amenities that may be offered by various major ski resorts (the girls can tolerate the four-hour drive to Jay Peak, Vermont, if they get to play in the amazing indoor water park). And the social aspect of such ski trips fosters further independence and memories. That autonomy and belief in themselves, which should translate to other aspects of their lives, is a huge underlying point of these sorts of efforts.
Sorry to see our best ski season ever draw to a close!
When I look back at the ski season, it was filled with great times together and with friends and family. It bred moments of laughter, exhilaration, adventure, personal challenge, and reward.  Some moments unfolded on the ski slopes, others in an outdoor hot tub, others in the ski lodge, and some great times took place just hanging out in a condo wearing PJ’s. I realized the girls share my feelings when they recounted some of these experiences with their friends and via Instagram pictures, and still regularly and proudly use their souvenir gear.
I hate to see the best collective ski season draw to an end, as the record-setting New England snow finally is melting away.  As my kids move further into pre-teen and teen years, my role becomes diminished, and I hope my philosophies, morals, and priorities are appropriately instilled while letting them be the individuals they are. Their reactions this year as I stepped back and a bigger group came into the picture left me feeling proud of my parenting, and prouder of what I’m seeing emerge in my increasingly independent daughters.

See you on the trails,
Jay Bell, AKA RockHopper