When our oldest son was six, I lost him on a ski run. He skied into the trees. But he didn’t come out. Because I was the only adult skiing with two young children, ducking into the woods to find him was not an option.

With my heart in my throat, my younger son and I skied to the bottom and found Mr. Big Stuff, happily smiling and proclaiming, “I skied the trees!”

Flight Plans for Freedom

Looking back, this experience was a timely wake-up call.

On the next chairlift ride, we set some rules. We agreed that our six-year old could have some skiing freedom. But every time he wanted to ski without me, he needed to tell me where he was going and where we would meet. We agreed to wait at trail intersections for each other and we agreed that he wouldn’t go into the trees alone.

While these rules were created for a six-year-old, they became increasingly relevant and important as our sons grew from children to teens and moved from skiing independently to mountain biking, hiking, driving and more without us.

Create Family Guidelines

These are the general criteria we used when granting additional freedom and responsibility on the mountain.

Skills and Knowledge > Age

How much experience does your child have skiing or snowboarding and riding chairlifts?

A six-year-old with several years of skiing under his boards may be a better candidate for limited freedom than a newly minted 11-year-old skier. Does your child know the Skier/Snowboarder Safety Code? Does your child know how to get up after a fall and get her skis back on? Can she read a trail map? Can his siblings or friends do these same things and do they understand skiing safety rules?

As you grant your child new freedoms, control the risk by making sure she has all the experience she needs before turning her loose.

Small Steps to Freedom

When our sons were big enough to get on and off a chairlift and ride safely, we let them ride alone in front of us and we watched them with eagle-eyes. The next step was letting them ski a run together, meeting them at an intersection or at the bottom of the lift. As they proved themselves capable of sticking together and watching out for one another, we granted them more freedom.

By the time our oldest was 10, they were taking runs without us and skiing independently for an hour or two. Had they not proved trustworthy, they would have been older before they got these freedoms.3

Choose Your Spot

When it’s time to turn your kids loose, choose a familiar ski area. I prefer small resorts with one base area, because it lessens the odds of a child returning to the “wrong” base (and getting lost) by mistake. But if your child has grown up skiing at a big resort, and knows the terrain, just be sure to confirm where you’re meeting.C

Additionally, if you can, grant this early independence at a ski area where people know your children. Extra eyes never hurt.

Common Sense

Together, set specific expectations, boundaries and rules whenever kids are going on an independent adventure. Talk through the “flight plan” and any additional expectations you may have for them. Still, all the rules in the world don’t matter if a child doesn’t use good sense.

Try not to give children more freedom than they can handle. If you’re not comfortable with the plan or situation, just say no, or work together on an acceptable alternative.

Phone It In

Use cell phones to stay in contact. For our sons’ first forays skiing without us, they had to check in every hour. As they became more comfortable (and we got tired of answering the phone), they let us know if their plans changed or if they needed anything. Location sharing apps like Find Friends and Glympse can also be helpful.

Good Habits Start Now

We let our kids ski independently when it was right for us and right for them, not necessarily when it was right for their friends or for other families.

By limiting some skiing experiences and structuring others for success, we think they learned that they can do almost anything – if they’re prepared and have the proper skills.

While this may sound quite distant when you’re in the trenches skiing with toddlers and young children, the time will come before you know it.

Reinforcing safe behavior, good decision making and skiing courtesy pays off big time. This is especially true as your kids get older and their decisions about things like respecting terrain closures or skiing in the trees alone, can have bigger impacts.

Good luck and enjoy!

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