This article is not (repeat—not) a manifesto on the validity and value of boarding schools, though I’ll affirm that blanket statements are a disservice to the discussion. I’ve seen students thrive, their ties to their parents deepened through the boarding experience. I’ve also seen students wither away and grow bitter as they’ve endured life in a residential school. There are no clear-cut answers…and they’re not the topic of this post.
This lengthy (and probably incomplete) article is written for families who have chosen boarding school. Its intent is to help them to process the choice, the preparation, the leave-taking and the long-distance relating involved in the boarding experience. My encouragement is six-fold:
- Don’t assume anything
- Prepare thoroughly
- Be there in person
- Say goodbye well
- Communicate faithfully
- Visit often & regularly reassess
One of the principles I witnessed during my twenty years working at Black Forest Academy, a boarding school in Germany, is that students who were at BFA because they wanted to be there fared far better than those who felt they had to be here.
When my brother first heard about BFA through the MK grapevine, he immediately knew this was his “dream school.” He pled with my parents to let him apply and finally started in 10th grade. Though there were obvious adjustments he had to make, he absolutely loved dorm life and all the extra-curricular activities the school provided. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to go to BFA. The thought of leaving my comfort zone, a Bible school community just north of Paris, caused deep anxiety and depression in the months preceding and following my move to Germany.
It is important to note that my parents never knew how strongly I felt. They had presented convincing arguments and, out of a desire to please them and obey them, I had consented to attending Black Forest Academy despite the cold fear that overwhelmed me every time I thought of leaving home. I’ve often asked unhappy students why they chose boarding school, and their answers ran along similar lines: they didn’t want to hurt their parents’ feelings, they didn’t think they had a right to say no, or they didn’t want to appear too dependent. None of the students who came against their wishes thrived at BFA, at least not during the first couple of years of their experience.
My first suggestion to you is that you ascertain your child’s true feelings about attending boarding school before you explain your reasoning for wanting them to apply. A child should never be forced into boarding school—ideally, they should express a desire to attend first.
Under some circumstances, parents might conclude that boarding is the best solution for the social, spiritual and educational challenges of their children. In such cases, I recommend lengthy, honest communication, preferably including a trusted third-party. (Trusted by all involved.) I urge parents to be attentive and inquisitive in listening to their child’s feedback and to make boarding school just one option, not a mandate.
In rare cases when it really is the only way forward, parents might do well to take the child for a visit to the boarding school well in advance of the new school year and to attach a time-frame to the initial experience. “Let’s try it for six months, then reevaluate.” Just one term (like from opening day until Christmas) may not be long enough, as it’s relatively easy to live in suspension for those few weeks and not really connect with the school or the other students. Just one or two weeks at the beginning of the year is even more ineffective, as the young person might just choose to wait it out.
Regardless of the time given to the trial run, if that’s what your family chooses, make communication a crucial element of the evaluation period. Stay engaged. Pursue honest communication. See more on this under “Communicate Faithfully.”
A word of caution: rare are the instances when a family that was already wounded was strengthened by separation. I strongly encourage you to find healing within your family, with all the focus and effort that implies, before enrolling your child in a boarding school. The window of opportunity for reconciliation might close once you no longer live full-time under the same roof.
Once your family has made the decision to send a child to a boarding school, it is important that you all enter the preparation process. Again, one of the first steps you might consider taking is acquainting yourself personally with the school and its environs. If your child can visit the school, sit in on classes, have a meal in a dorm and converse with future classmates before he or she becomes a student, the mental, emotional, and practical preparation will be much easier. Plan a trip to the school months before your child is to begin. A visit is an effective way of dispelling the mystery and decreasing some of the anxiety often associated with leaving home for the first time.
When your child has applied to boarding school and been accepted, you’ll receive a packet from the school that may include something like a Student Handbook. This can be a useful tool for discussions regarding the community life your child will be entering. You might want to read the handbook as a family and react to it together, making the list of rules and regulations less intimidating by lightening the reading. Put some thought into your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and use the handbook to facilitate discussions about the challenges you foresee.
Living in a dorm isn’t always easy, particularly for a child who hasn’t ever shared a room or had to blend personal life habits with the habits of others. Talk about caring for possessions (laundry, loaning clothes), keeping a room clean, doing chores, respecting guidelines and accepting restrictions. Many students don’t understand why curfews, chores, and meals are requirements. Take advance measures to minimize the adjustment life in community will necessitate.
On a practical level, as the beginning of the school approaches, help your child with the packing process. Make sure special items like favorite pictures and posters make the trip to boarding school. Those “security blankets” will be a source of comfort during the weeks of adaptation. While your child is still at home, encourage time with friends and visits to cherished places. At the same time, to facilitate the transition from one world to the next, try to connect your child with other young people who have attended or plan to attend the same school in the future.
One of the key factors that determine whether a student will be content or unhappy while away at school is communication with the family. This should be a healthy, well-established dynamic far in advance of the beginning of the school year. Anything you can do to strengthen your family’s bonds and communication skills will be a precious asset to your child when your family is apart. Knowing that one’s parents are loving and supportive, always eager to listen and counsel, and constantly available will make the difference between a child who suffers alone, in silence, and a child who expresses his feelings, receives feedback from those he loves most, and is able to move forward.
During the months of preparation for your child’s departure for boarding school, take every opportunity to talk about your child’s current and future life. Keep abreast of his/her emotions regarding leaving home. The more you can do to promote safe and honest communication before your child departs for school, the greater the chances of seeing your child thrive. Students who arrive as victims, because their parents don’t have time for them or because caring for them impeded ministry, are the ones who struggle the most academically, socially, and spiritually in boarding school. Those who come with the certainty that nothing is more important to their parents than their happiness and well-being are the ones who do well both in the dorm and at school.
When the time comes for your child’s first day at boarding school, the best thing you can do is be there. No matter how loudly or forcefully a student declares not to need parents, there are very few who don’t look secretly comforted to have them there on opening day! Accompanying your child to school (even if it’s just one of the parents) will allow you, again, to minimize the trauma of the experience. There will be list upon list of items to buy, places to go, rules, guidelines, restrictions, and expectations. It can all feel overwhelming to young people who haven’t yet experienced the positive sides of life in that community—like school spirit, class activities, dorm bonding, sports, arts, etc. If you’re there, you’ll be able to explain what’s confusing and to de-dramatize what feels upsetting.
Make sure you make the time to help your child get installed. Unpacking and setting up the dorm room can be a therapeutic activity for the more fearful students. Take a walk into town and explore a little. Ask the questions your child might not feel bold enough to ask. Familiarize yourself with the way the dorm functions and meet the young people who will be your child’s friends for the year or years they spend at the school. This will also allow you to ask more pertinent questions when you communicate with your child after you leave to go home.
One of the most important things you can do at the beginning of the school year is meet in person with the dorm parents in whose care you’ll be leaving your child. With so many new students arriving every year, these people who will live alongside him/her will rely greatly on any information you can provide about your child. Take the time to speak with them in private during your stay. Let them know about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Inform them of the challenges you foresee. Tell them about relevant past experiences and about any fears or concerns you or your child might have. Establish the type of communication with the dorm staff that will allow you to email, Skype and call without qualms once you’ve returned home.
The transition period is different for each student. Whatever the rate of their adaptation, the hardest time is often the days preceding the start of classes. If you can be there to lend your calm and courage, you’ll be a tremendous source of comfort for your child.
There is no such thing as painless goodbyes. Missionaries, of all people, know that! And saying goodbye to one’s child is probably the worst of them. When my parents left BFA after dropping my brother and me off for the fall term, they drove only far enough to pull off the road, then sat in the car until their weeping had subsided. Every year I taught at BFA, I watched other parents trying to control their emotions and mask their anxiety as they said final words to their son or embraced their daughter one last time before getting into their car and driving away.
As painful as it is, the act of saying goodbye is a necessary and healthy way to close one stage of life and begin another. As such, it is critical that it be said correctly. It’s imperative that you begin saying your goodbyes well in advance of the “official” allotted time.
I encourage you to start the parting process in the weeks preceding your child’s first day of school. In the days before the beginning of classes, find the right time to reiterate your love and devotion to your child in words he or she will carry into the somewhat challenging days ahead. Make sure your child knows that your family is the most important part of your life. You might also want to take a family vacation on the way to school.
One of the worst memories of my time at BFA was when a shy young lady, tears streaming down her face after her parents’ departure, whispered, “Well, at least they can get back to their work now.” She had deduced from her parents’ behavior that the trip to boarding to drop her off had been an ordeal that had taken them away from something more important than family.
Don’t hesitate to show your emotions as you say goodbye. Your child will model his or her behavior after yours, and the last thing you want to be is a lesson in denial. It’s important that your emotions, whatever they are, be appropriate and sincere. It is the only way of making a goodbye constructive.
Remember the young lady whose parents had inadvertently communicated with her that their work was more important than their children? Not surprisingly, this young lady’s time at boarding was punctuated with crisis upon crisis. With little communication coming from her parents, she eventually developed peer relationships that compensated for the loss and finally reached the point where she asked her parents not to write or visit her anymore. She had built a new life for herself in which her parents had no role. Sending her to boarding school might have simplified their ministry, but it had destroyed their family. I occasionally saw their daughter happy, but I never saw her joyful.
This young lady was thankfully the exception during my twenty years teaching in a boarding school. For each sad experience, there are dozens of good ones in which family ties were actually strengthened and deepened because of the skills developed to compensate for distance. Technology (Facetime, Skype, email, cheap phone rates, etc.) has made it so easy to keep in touch. It has also made lack of communication all the more deplorable. In a world where connection is so easy and so cheap, parents who don’t communicate and stay engaged have no excuses.
Once you’ve enrolled your child in boarding school, it falls on you to make it a beneficial or detrimental experience for the family. When I mentioned earlier that open and safe communication needs to be established in the months preceding separation, it’s because that’s the basis on which all future communication will be built. If you’ve invested time and energy in learning how to draw information and honest emotion from your child, if you’ve earned the trust and respect necessary for true expression, you’ll be able to naturally bridge the distance when your child is away from you.
In healthy families, the separation required by boarding school need not mark the end of family unity. It can actually create a greater desire to know each other and an opportunity to relate to each other intentionally, with all the tools at our disposal. Vacation times become intense days of sharing and cherishing. The family members become more expressive, more devoted, and more united. I’ve seen it happen. But it takes a concerted effort on all parts.
Once your goodbyes have been said, schedule your communication. Your child will be so busy with schoolwork, dorm activities, and everything else that fills a student’s days that he or she might not feel the need or find the time to call home or write an email. Even if your children appear to have no desire to initiate communication, it is critical that they still see you doing so. They must continue to feel connected to all members of the family—mother, father, and siblings. Some families have resorted to only one parent maintaining contact on a regular basis, and the relationship between the other parent and the child has suffered from it. Make the phone calls regular, whether or not exciting things are happening. If you can’t call or Skype, write emails frequently (multiple times per week) and encourage your children at home to do the same.
Most boarding schools or dorm parents send out regular communiqués at least weekly to keep parents informed of the activities happening on campus. You can use these, as well as what your child posts on sites like Facebook, as springboards for voice or email conversations. Ask them about the fall party. Who’s on the picture at the café with them? What has the dorm been up to for fun lately? What did they learn during spiritual emphasis week?
Whether you have a reason to suspect unhappiness or not, it’s never a bad idea to ask “real questions.” “Are you doing okay today? You don’t sound like yourself.” I’ve seen so many students withhold information from their parents because they were afraid of hurting them, worrying them, or appearing too dependent on them. If you allow this pattern to develop in the first weeks of the school year, it will become the norm. Ask your child about grades before the report cards come out. Show concern about the rooming situation—are you and your roommate getting along? Have you made new friends this week? What’s the hardest thing about the school so far? Are you finding time to have fun? Have you made the basketball team? Have you been spending time with God? Tell me about something you’ve learned this week…
Asking informed and personal questions will maintain and deepen connection. When times get harder, your children will know, from the questions you’ve asked in the past and the regularity of your contact, that you care. If they’ve gotten into the habit of telling you about their daily lives, they’ll be all the more likely to let you in on the struggles or challenges they’re facing.
One more thing: if there are adults involved personally in your children’s lives at boarding school, check in frequently with them too. I was one of those for many of my students at BFA, and I loved nothing more than to receive emails from the parents of students I mentored, asking me for my insights into how their son or daughter was doing.
Several years ago, an exceptional young man graduated from BFA. He had been named MVP in two different sports, had been a lead actor in the school play, performed complex rhythmic numbers in four large community events, and had excelled academically as well. During his four years at BFA, his parents had never attended one game, one performance, or one award ceremony—and they lived within a few hours’ drive of the school. As critical as phone and email communication is, there’s nothing like witnessing your child’s “big moments” in person. If it’s at all possible, I encourage you to make at least one trip per semester (more would be great!) in order to be there for a game, a ceremony, or a performance. Build the expenses into your support-raising if you must, but commit to be there for the big moments of your child’s life. You’ll be thankful you were.
Reassess as often as needed. The decision you made last summer might not still be the right one today. The daughter who wanted to go to boarding school last summer might dread going back in the fall. Ask questions. Offer options. Seek insight from those who know your children in their “other world.” People, circumstances and contexts change. Let your children know that it’s never too late to adjust.
No matter how wonderful the school is, no matter how happy your child will be there and no matter how much you’ve talked and prayed about it, the act of leaving a child in a boarding school will entail painful adjustments on both sides. Yet if you have the certainty that you prepared thoroughly and said goodbye well, the inevitable pangs of separation will not be compounded by the worry that you should have done things differently.
The controversy about sending children to boarding school will not soon be put to rest, but if this is the choice you’ve made for your family, I strongly encourage you to consider these suggestions from someone who has witnessed it firsthand for more than two decades:
- Don’t assume anything
- Prepare thoroughly
- Be there in person
- Say goodbye well
- Communicate faithfully
- Visit often
- Regularly reassess
A word about abuse in boarding schools:
Are you concerned about your child’s safety? Given some of the revelations that have come out in recent years regarding boarding school abuses, that’s a healthy instinct! Be thorough and relentless as you select the right institution for your family. Don’t just ask the right questions of the admissions officer you meet with. Consult with current and previous students. Communicate with others whose children have attended the school. Find out what the school’s policies are regarding the reporting and “prosecuting” of improper behavior. Look into its history for any signs of previous problems. There is no such thing as a risk-free decision (even driving to work or buying a chicken sandwich can be fatal choices), but doing one’s homework in advance of selecting a school for your children is absolutely essential.
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