By Jen Cort, LCSW-C, Founder Jen Cort Educational Consulting
Dear prospective boarding school parent,
This is the letter I wish I had received five years ago when my child began considering boarding school. Yes, it started as a typical teenage joke. “Well, maybe I will go to boarding school,” and now it’s a real thing. You are going on tours and interviews, and you are terrified it will happen, your child will leave home at the age of 14 and go to a boarding school. You will resist the decision and even do the ‘ugly cry.’ I know you think you will not be able to parent your child, to know his friends, and to connect with other parents at school. You may believe only the very wealthy have children in a boarding school, that kids are ‘sent’ because of issues at home, or that kids who are away at school dramatically act out when the adults aren’t looking. I know these are your thoughts because they were mine too.
The truth is, when your child goes to boarding school you don’t take a step back in parenting, you take a step to the side, creating space for the adults at the school to teach your child to study, to keep his room clean, and to navigate sharing small living spaces with someone else. There will be some stumbles, and you will be able to reach out for help to one of the many adults who care for your son, and if you don’t call them, they will call you. You will attend activities, travel to sporting events, and invite kids home for breaks. Being involved means, you will meet his friends and for you to make friends with other parents and demonstrated at graduation when your extended family would remark on how connected you are to the other parents, teachers, and coaches, noting they weren’t as connected to their children’s local school.
The truth about boarding school is that some families are very wealthy, and even though this is not true for your family, you fit in because the environment doesn’t support valuing others based on financial income, which also makes it possible for students of limited financial means to feel welcome. You may worry he won’t know how to study and will flounder, but they will require all students to be in study hall until it isn’t needed and you will receive written reports from each teacher about how your child is presenting in class to catch challenges before they become too big.
You may worry about his moral and value development, so please pick schools with a similar view on the world and ask meaningful questions about how they keep those values present in the student’s lives. And you will celebrate when they send a newsletter saying they understand that excellent classwork includes taking time out to focus on having meaningful conversations about challenging topics.
You won’t have to lay awake at night waiting for him to come home because he will be in his dorm room, confirmed by dorm parents. You won’t have to grit your teeth giving him car keys because he can’t have a car at school, and won’t be able to get his license right away because he won’t get all of the driving hours in with you. You also won’t have to worry about things like prom because he will go to the dance on campus and then go to an after-hours event with all of the other students, and plenty of teachers on school buses. Given your work with social justice, you will revel in him attending a school with over 40 countries and 38 states represented. He will have added experiences such as talking about manners at his family group dinner table and learn to dress appropriately for different events.
On a practical note, don’t send him to school with the large-sized shampoo, conditioner, etc. they are too hard to carry to the bathroom each day. Purchase a right mattress pad to soften the plastic-covered mattresses. When you are thinking of him, let him know. Don’t expect him to call every day, students are busy from early morning until later in the evening, but do ask that he text regularly and talk by phone every few days. Take advantage of the opportunities to connect with teachers, advisors, and coaches.
Seeing what it did for your son, you will allow your daughter to apply to boarding school too, and you will be sad she isn’t home, nervous about being an empty nester four years before you planned, but you won’t worry about the same things. It will be like when your kids were little and grew a bit at a time, and you didn’t notice until they outgrew clothes, but others would see them and immediately comment on their growth? It’s going to feel the same, but this time you are the one seeing the growth in chunks, and it will take your breath away. I know you don’t believe it, but you are going to look at your son’s decision to go to boarding school with gratitude, and in fact, you will volunteer for the school’s admissions events telling prospective parents, ‘I never imagined we would be here but he did, and he was right.’
Jen, while it’s important to remember that your experiences are not necessarily valid for all families with children at a boarding school; it’s also essential that you recognize they can be right for your family, so go ahead, get in the car, go on the tours and apply.