The Sense and Sensibility of Boarding School

I’ve been reading a lot about adolescent development behavior recently and the more I read, the more I am coming around to the idea of boarding school for middle and high school students.

A lot of expat kids come home to Singapore for the holidays. And I’m not talking about college students – I’m talking about middle and high school students. In the US the idea of sending your child to private boarding school is generally unheard of outside of a small subset of families. However, in much of the rest of the world boarding schools are a far more common phenomenon. It’s been interesting to chat with some of my nephews’ friends who have been at boarding schools for a large portion of their middle and/or high school career, and even more interesting to hear the perspective of these kids’ parents.

From the perspective of adolescents, developmental psychology and biology tell us that this is a period of huge transitions and transformations. Many adults see it as adolescent angst: just when it seems kids ought to be growing up and becoming more responsible, they plunge into moodiness, secretive behaviors, disengagement from family and school, susceptibility to peer influences and bad judgment and risk-taking. Adolescents see it as annoying adult interference; all they want is to be left alone to have a social life and all of sudden the reigns of school, curfews, intrusive and sometimes micro-managing parental behaviors descend in full force.

Well, I hate to break it to all of us adults – but the teens probably have the right idea, at least when it comes to their developmental needs. Think about it in terms of the ancestral environment. Adolescence heralds the onset of puberty and the ability to procreate. From a biological perspective, this would be a really good time to leave family and immediate tribe behind because small gene pools are not a good thing. So adolescents are wired to want to break from family and other known authority figures. They are wired to be highly interested in potential reproductive partners and/or potential members of a new tribe or clan. They are wired to take risks, or at least to have a higher tolerance for risk, because leaving the known and heading into the unknown is inherently risky. They are wired to seek freedom and to take on adult responsibilities and roles. This is what adolescence heralded and required of our youth for millennia – and even until a few generations ago when adolescents took on the responsibilities of raising families, contributing to family incomes or livelihoods, going to war and leading communities.

In an era when America as a whole treats adolescents more like children than young adults it is not surprising that adolescents will seek and fight to preserve any sense of independence and freedom they can get. It is not surprising, given the lack of opportunities to take safe or productive risks that meet the mental and emotional needs that adolescents have, that adolescents turn instead to dangerous risky behaviors.

Enter boarding school. All of sudden adolescents are placed into a new environment far from family and friends. They live with and form strong peer communities. They are forced to take responsibility for themselves with no protection or assistance from the usual adult authority figures. It is new, exciting, a little scary, and demands a new set of skills and coping strategies. Yet, all of this is done within a structured environment where the rules serve a communal function that adolescents can recognize and respect. There are adults who keep track of them but are not prone to be overprotective or unnecessarily engaged because they are neutral and objective third parties who fill a different type of authority role than parents and traditional caregivers. They are more likely to allow students to take some risks; more likely to allow students to fail; more likely to allow students to figure it out for themselves.

From the perspective of an adolescent it makes sense. And that is what I heard over and over again as I spoke with my nephews’ friends. Was it always easy? No. Did they sometimes mess things up when put in charge of themselves? Yes. Was it always fun and easy to have to be with the same group of peers all the time? No. But did they enjoy it and feel like they were thriving – yes.

What I didn’t expect was the perspective of the parents. One father summed up a lot of the ideas succinctly. He said that while he missed his son when he was gone, it meant that when his son was home, they were able to truly enjoy the time they had together. The father said that he trusted the school to set appropriate boundaries and limits, and that he felt freed by not having to fight all the time about homework and curfews and outings with friends which is how he says he sees a lot of his friends engaging with their kids on a daily and weekly basis.

A lot of other parents I chatted with echoed this sentiment and also observed that they saw their kids mature during their time away. It got me thinking about my older son’s sleep away camp experience. The first summer he went for a mini-camp session of 4 nights. There were tears the night before as we packed. He was nervous and scared about being away from home and not being able to talk with us on the phone (one of the camp rules). So we sent him off with a packet of family pictures and a handwritten note for each day he was away that he could open and read.

When I went to pick him I got no hug or teary greeting. He was excited to show me around the camp, tell me all about the highlights and informed me that the next year he wanted to go for two weeks. What I came to notice over the next month or so was a sense of confidence about him. And why wouldn’t there be? He had been scared of something but had done it anyway. He had discovered he had the ability to be away from everything known and to find his way with the support of other people. He had discovered a sense of inner fortitude. And he had had a blast doing things that he told me I would never have let him do (which, it turns out, included not showering for a couple of days in a row). It turns out that what I didn’t know didn’t bother me.

He’s only eight. It does make me think about how I will need to think about respecting these same needs – magnified – in four to five years when adolescence hits. Boarding school, perhaps?

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