By Nancy Hughes
When our son came to Craig and me last fall and explained that he wanted to come to Brewster Academy for his freshman year, I was initially hesitant. Surprising perhaps, but true, and here’s why: I am a life-long champion of the high school boarding experience, and I always imagined that our children would have such an experience, but given where we live in the middle of campus in Lord House, our son would be – and is now – a day student. (True confession: When our boys were toddlers, I used to dream about visiting them at boarding school.) So why do I value the boarding experience so deeply? Let me share with you my top two reasons.
First, we don’t have to get tangled up with Freud (and Sophocles) to understand why distance is healthy when it comes to parents and adolescents. During this stretch of time, kids need to stretch out a bit on their own. Doing so is developmentally appropriate and important. Adolescents need to start to rely more on themselves for minor (and increasingly major) decision making and assume greater responsibility for how they are able to move through each day. Setting their alarm clocks correctly, getting to breakfast on time, remembering to put their computer cords in their backpacks, organizing their laundry, etc. Now, surely, kids living at home can be responsible for all of the above, but so many of us – moms and dads—are apt to offer that quiet reminder (“Did you review your vocabulary?”), double check that Hannah or Rob is up and in the shower, hand them a raincoat before they leave for the day. Of course, it’s hard not to! We have been doing this sort of work since our kids were born. It’s what we do, and it’s unreasonable to imagine that we can stop on the first day of freshman year. The distance of boarding school enables parents to step back and kids to step forward.
As we all know, adolescence is also a time for testing boundaries, and one of the beautiful things for a parent about having a child board is that the daily micro-battles cease. As a parent, you have become a consultant of sorts, no longer the manager. It’s someone else’s responsibility to tell your child to pick up after himself or herself. Having out-sourced these exasperating exchanges, you are now able to focus on matters of greater substance, able to engage with a focus and freshness often difficult to conjure when adolescents and parent(s) are living continually under one roof.
The second reason why I am such a firm believer in the boarding experience is that I am convinced – and this is not a political statement – that it takes a village to raise good kids! Boarding schools offer the village structure that most of us do not have access to living in cities or suburbs. Adolescents need and want to be around adults who care about them (whether they are conscious of this desire or not). The boarding experience allows kids to connect outside of the academic building with adult mentors who offer kids the guidance and encouragement they need – from a voice that isn’t yours. The upshot is that they tend to listen more closely. My family and I have been lucky to live in a village-like setting each summer. As our kids have entered their adolescent years, I have been able to have conversations with my nieces and their friends – and be heard – in ways that my sister cannot. Similarly, my sister can capture my son’s attention because she is not me! And so it goes with boarding schools. We choose boarding school for our kids in large part to expose them to other caring and inspiring adults from whom our children can learn and grow. Of course, we always want our kids to listen to us, but it is also important for them to learn to listen to and trust other principled, wise adults. It is this combination of our efforts – parents and boarding school faculty – that produces the resilient, independent, responsible, and thoughtful young people we aim to usher into adulthood.
So there are my top two reasons why I think the boarding experience is so valuable. Perhaps in later blogs I can share further reasons with you all. For now, I just hope I have been able to offer some comfort to any parent out there who is wondering why he or she dropped his or her child off two weeks ago and drove away. You did the right thing. Hard for you, surely, no doubt a wee bit overwhelming for your child, but ultimately, the right thing. (I had worked at boarding schools for 10 years before I had my first child. I’m sure it isn’t this way for every teacher, but for me, it was not until I had my own child that I fully recognized the depth of your sacrifice.) Brewster Academy is grateful for the trust you have placed in us. We are grateful for your partnering with us during these precious years. And Craig and I are enormously grateful for the dedication and attention the Brewster dorm heads offer each and every one of their charges. The great work of this school could not happen without them.
And what about that day student we have at home? Well, I’m doing my best not to pick up after him, and I’m trying not to ask about his homework. Most importantly, I am urging him to spend as much time as possible in the dorm so that he can have as rich an experience as possible – being guided by peers and adults alike.