Being expat

Boarding schools…

I am always interested in learning about other cultures’ habits. I usually am quite understanding, but there some aspects I can understand on a rational level only, and have troubles accepting them on an emotional one. Especially when children and families are involved, I tend to have a hard time accepting some facets.

We are living in an international community with a great amount of parents from the UK, Australia and the US, and among our friends, the question whether to send a child to a boarding school or not comes up regularly.

I am the kind of mother that couldn’t imagine being separated from my children, not until they’re 18 or whenever they are ready to go. Yes, I’m a “mamma italiana” type of mother, or a “Glucke” how it’s called in German: I like having my children around me. I love being a mother and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to spend plenty of time with my children, I want them in my life and want to take part of their daily life.

This is why it was very difficult for me to accept and understand how a parent could send a child under 18 to a boarding school. Especially because it means, in our situation, to send him or her to a school that is in another country, hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of kilometers away.

Sending children to boarding schools is more common in some societies than in others and some of my British friends started talking about sending their children to boarding school when they were still quite young.

I couldn’t understand how a mother of a 5 year old could already make plans to send her son to a boarding school at age 8 or 10. They were making plans on trips they would “finally do” with their husbands/partners when their children would be “away”. It sounded like the children were a nuisance. It took me quite some time to understand their point of view, their world view and look at it all from another perspective. – I still struggle with this mentality, but I understand where it comes from.

The UK has a rich history of boarding schools which reflects in one of the most read books in the past years, Harry Potter. Children from around the world read about life in a surreal boarding school, far away from home, without parents being active part of their daily lives, and they accompany these fictive characters for several years through adventures, sad and happy moments. I read Hanni und Nanni (aka St. Clairs) by Enid Blyton, when I was 10 and wondered sometimes how it would be to grow up in a boarding school. It seemed like a very exotic way to live to me. – But reading books about the life of fictive characters in that situation and living it yourself are two very different animals…

Boarding schools in Britain started in medieval times “when boys were sent to be educated at a monastery or noble household, where a lone literate cleric could be found”, but the institution has adapted itself to changing social circumstances over 1000 years. During the colonial expansion of the British Empire, they became highly popular as they ensured education to children of British colonial administrators.

“in some societies children enter at an earlier age than in others. In some societies, a tradition has developed in which families send their children to the same boarding school for generations. One observation that appears to apply globally is that a significantly larger number of boys than girls attend boarding school and for a longer span of time. The practice of sending children, particularly boys, to other families or to schools so that they could learn together is of very long standing, recorded in classical literature and in UK records going back over 1,000 years. ” (more information here)

If for some local families, sending their children to a boarding school means to help them develop wider horizons than their family can provide, families who spend many years living abroad, boarding schools represent the often unique opportunity for their children to get in touch with their heritage culture, its values, customs and beliefs during their childhood years.

Knowing about the historical background of sending children to boarding schools helped me to be more understanding.

When I saw this video some time ago, I started questioning the reasons that brought the parents to send their children to a boarding school.

I understand that if a parent grew up like this and saw the benefits of it, he probably wants his children make the same experience. Many parents don’t question the way they were brought up and assume that what was good for them is automatically beneficial for their children too.

I personally wonder if this option is not a way to escape parenthood at an earlier stage, a kind of handing over a child to someone else – like it’s said in this video by one of the educators.

I have several friends who have sent their children to boarding schools and I see them suffer, I see them keeping up the “brave facade” that I see back in the video here above. They don’t meet with others when they are sad and lonely, and when they feel some tears coming up when among friends, they say they’re “being silly”.

Sometimes they share their grief, the grief of a premature empty nest, the grief of not seeing their children grow up, become teenagers and young adults, the grief of not really being part of their childrens’ life. They are the bereaved. And there is the fear that their children may not want to come back and visit in the future, that they will resent their decisions. They are lonely and abandoned.

I understand that for many internationals who move frequently, a boarding school gives some continuity their children usually miss, but I can’t but wonder: why would they choose a life far away from their children, a life that tears their family apart? Isn’t it one of the reasons we have children, to raise them ourselves, and not to let this part to someone else, some stranger?

I have seen children suffering because of frequent moves. I have seen these children being sent to boarding school because of their suffering. I honestly doubt that being separated from their parents, who usually are the pillar and only constance in their young life, is the best and healthiest solution.

I could go on and on writing about this topic but I leave it here, open… for everyone who reads this continue the discussion in the comments.

I surely am not here to judge.

Like one of the mothers says at the end of the video: I wonder what the long term effect is on children who are growing up like this. When children are separated from their parents it always has an effect on everyone involved, and there is not one right solution that fits all.

Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs there are, because it involves emotions, requires tough decisions, and leaves us with many doubts, uncertainties that affect us because they involve people we love.

Ruth van Reken wrote a very important book about her own experience at boarding schools. Letters never sent is a collection of letters she never sent to her mother, where she shares her thoughts, experiences, her sad moments, her worries.

I can also recommend Unrooted Childhoods,a collection of stories from adults who grew up abroad.

What is your opinion or experience with sending children to boarding school? Please share it in the comments here below.

1 reply »

  1. I think it all comes down to culture and right approach Ute. I, like you, couldn’t bear to send my children to boarding school though had we stayed in Bangladesh we would have had no choice for our daughter’s A levels. I too have met plenty who suffered from a boarding school education in the UK at least.

    But then, I’ve known plenty suffer from school education in general in exactly the same ways. And as a home schooler parent for two years I’ve seen the advantages of not sending your kids off even for day school! Indeed, many students I teach now privately are home schooled because of awful school experiences.

    But all these things can work too. Boarding, state schooling, home schooling. If it’s part of your culture and your family know how to make it work then it will work. I know just as many adults who loved their boarding school upbringing and wouldn’t have changed it for the world yet have a wonderful relationship with their parents. Horses for courses, as the English say…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *