If you are considering exploring the landscape of boarding school options, you are on the precipice of an insightful journey with your child. After eight years of interviewing, reading applications, connecting with prospective families at admissions events, running a dorm, coaching teams, and advising individual kids, I realized one of my favorite aspects about the job was observing the various ways in which parents and kids interacted throughout the application process and once enrolled. Regularly being part of these exchanges often evoked a retrieval of memories from my own boarding school experience, specifically related to my parents and how our relationship reached newer, meaningful levels during those years.
In an attempt to contextualize what this relational evolution feels like prior to doing it yourself, some anecdotes from my time as a boarding school student and professional are below. Consider this a resource, a guideline, or a mini-memoir to reference as you explore new educational territories with your child.
1. Let Your Child Lead.
While my parents were literally driving the car, I was driving the process. They functioned more as supporting sounding boards and did not pretend to “know best” which helped me quickly gain a sense of agency in my decision-making. They asked rather than told and made me feel as though my opinions and feelings mattered. So once I chose to apply and eventually enroll, I was free to own that sense of self-efficacy and pride, knowing that the opportunity was one I sought after myself, not curated for me.
2. Encourage Introspection.
There is nothing more rewarding for a parent than engaging your child in a way that elicits authentic responses. I felt heard as a child when this happened, and I felt successful as a mentor when a genuine connection resulted out of actively listening. Engaging your child with questions related to their goals, needs, hopes, feelings, and preferences are tremendously beneficial both for the relationship to one another and to the process of finding a new school together. Modeling what it means to be introspective often results in your child developing good habits of self-awareness and reflectiveness - critical in both finding a best fit school and thriving once enrolled.
3. Lower the Stakes.
Far too often as an admission counselor, I would find myself sitting across the room from a petrified child, unable to articulate a response to an interview question or lacking conversational agility. When fear of failing motivates behavior, the long-term consequence is often toxic. My parents approached this process as exploratory and without specific expectations - they assured me that the possibility of being rejected from a school was a) not attached to my value as a person or b) a definition of failure. They were proud of me for choosing to try and stretch beyond my comfort zone in the process of doing so and did not put any sort of pressure on me to achieve a specific outcome.
4. Embrace Discomfort.
I remember calling home (on my dorm landline!) in my first semester at boarding school and complaining about my advisor; at a later date sharing how I felt the hockey coach wasn’t being fair; and another time being frustrated with my grades. You will also get these calls, but your call to action will be in the form of listening, not fixing. Only much later, in my many years as a dorm head, I discovered a correlation between parents who let their kids struggle and child adaptability. By relinquishing a well-intentioned desire to control or restore comfort, my parents gave me permission to sit in my adversity - it made me feel as though they believed in my ability to problem solve, but also reminded me they were there to offer support. They made me feel independent, but not alone.
5. Grow Together.
I had never missed my parents before I went to boarding school. They would make weekly day trips down (three and a half hours each way) to watch my athletic games. I remember looking forward to showing them a new room arrangement in the dorm, sharing my mom’s brownies with my team, talking about my classes, teaching them about the school traditions and inviting them into my life in a way that felt very different than when I was home, seeing them regularly. I loved that they were interested in my friends, my classes, my mentors and who I was becoming. My appreciation for their ability to “show up” for me but not interfere would make me choose the path I did over and over again.
Boarding school is not for every child nor does it fit every family circumstance. For those who are curious, however, it is certainly worth exploring - should you want to continue the conversation with someone who has lived it, worked in it and is now viewing it through the lens of an educational consultant, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me at email@example.com .
This blog post was originally written for The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) for publication on their "Ready for More?" website. Check it out here!
Head Educational Consultant
& Relational Development Specialist