Like most inventions, this one, too, was born of necessity. After a ski career that included racing on the U.S. Ski Team, running ski camps and directing marketing for Stratton Mountain, Vt., Steve Lathrop suddenly found himself unemployed in September 1994. His wife, Rhonda, was pulling down a good paycheck, so there were no money worries, but with 1-year-old son Hunter rambling around their South Londonderry, Vt., home, Lathrop was thrust into the role of Mr. Mom. A skier since age 4, he wasn't about to abandon a lifetime on snow and spend his days cooped up. Hunter, he decided, would have to learn to ski.
Most people don't believe kids can successfully start skiing until about 3, and even at that age many ski schools are reluctant to take them on. Conventional wisdom suggests that kids be able to climb stairs with one step per rise before they start skiing. Hunter was still months away from mastering that feat.
Energetic and outdoorsy, Lathrop gamely set to building Hunter's sliding skills. He started his son out the way he had learned-tucked between dad's knees. The result: a sore back-and a slow realization that Hunter was neither having fun nor getting better. "His feet just flopped behind him and he never got the feel for what the skis were doing."
Existing teaching devices such as leashes would be useless until Hunter developed the muscle strength to keep his skis in a wedge. What Lathrop needed was a device that could support Hunter's body weight yet allow his skis to remain on the snow. So he went to work, and during the summer of 1995 invented the Kiddie Ski Bar. Essentially a 5-foot-long wooden clothing rod, the Kiddie Bar has two foot-long dowels driven through it a foot apart at the botttom. The lower dowl supports the child's rear-end, while the upper serves as handlebars. Two stubby dowels at the top provide the parent with two-handed control. The device provided Hunter with excellent stability on snow and Lathrop with the ability to steer his son's skis from an upright position off to the side. By the next winter, at 28 months, Hunter had learned to ski and been weaned off the Kiddie Bar-again, of necessity: His 10-month-old sister Brit was ready to take up skiing. By the following winter, Brit, too, had become an independent skier before her third birthday, and 13-month-old Lara had taken over the Kiddie Bar.
Lathrop admits that pushing the envelope isn't right for every child. But he believes that any strong-intermediate parent can teach any willing 2-year-old to ski. The Kiddie Bar, designed for 1- to 5-year-olds, can be controlled by any advanced intermediate skier who can lift 75 percent of the child's body weight.
Peter Ingolvstad, director of snowsport learning at Smugglers' Notch, Vt., says the resort has successfully used the Kiddie Bar to teach kids under 3, particularly in its "Mom, Dad and Me" parent/child instructional course. "At age 2, kids have an attention span of about 3 to 4 minutes," says Ingolvstad. "The Kiddie Bar gives the parent great control over what the child is doing, so when they lose ambition every few minutes, the parent can take over for them and carry more of their weight."
Lathrop has packaged the Kiddie Bar for sale as part of his Kid-Ski brand collection of teaching aids, a program that he calls the "fastest shortcut" to teaching kids how to ski at a young age. He boasts that his learning tools and teaching theories can get kids sliding "a month after walking and well before they're talking."
Lathrop's other Kid-Ski products are improved versions of existing products-a tip-tie, a wedge-lock, a ski leash-but the Kiddie Bar seems to be the key to early learning. Even away from the hill, parents can use it to provide children with a fun and productive sliding experience. "You can slide them around on as little as 1/2-inch of snow or even grass with a little frost on it. It all helps."
Is it comfortable? On the day I watched Lathrop's demonstration at Stratton,, I looked down and saw Lara, slumped over her hand rail, snoozing. In fact, she had been asleep during most of the previous run. Not unusual, Lathrop says.
Before you set about turning your 18-month-old daughter into a mini Kristina Koznick, Lathrop cautions that you have to be committed. It requires significant time on the bunny slope, and success doesn't come overnight.
Most kids will probably start later than his did, but Lathrop says an average 3-year-old can be weaned from the Kiddie Bar in as little as five consecutive days on snow, with 3 to 4 hours each day. That learning curve doubles in length if spread out over the season. Once they're standing on their own, tots can progress to more conventional aids: tip-tie, ski leash, etc.
Lathrop admits he was in a unique position to teach his children quickly, and suggests that other skiing parents devote a year to the project. It's a small price to pay, he says. "I've got friends in the ski industry who gave up skiing while they raised their toddlers. There's no reason to do that."