First-time Boarding Parents - How to cope

Being a parent is difficult enough and most of us struggle getting the basics right.  Making the decision for our children to board away from home is certainly taken for all the right reasons, but we can often feel at a complete loss when reality sets in and we leave them behind on day one.  So, we are now one week in to the new school year and, as Sam Price, Head of Benenden School, says, "the second week can be exhausting for new pupils.  The adrenaline of the first week has reduced and the real routine starts to settle".  She cautions parents not to be "overly anxious if your son/daughter is either very tired or emotional when you speak to them" and to "encourage them to talk to you about what they are enjoying".

Something to remember is that one of the main reasons for choosing a boarding school is to allow/encourage your child to be more independent.  Richard Backhouse, Headmaster of Monkton Combe comments that "as parents we have a strong protective instinct to step in and enable our children to go through childhood without struggle, but the struggle is the education sometimes."  A Hong Kong parent once said to him ''Don't apologise if things go wrong - my son will learn more when they go wrong. I am more interested in what goes wrong than what goes right." Unsurprisingly his son did extremely well!

There is no correct template for the frequency of contact.  Some children seem to need more, some far less.  The warning bells should ring if they are operating at either of the extremes.  As a parent I feel entitled to some contact, after all I'm paying the fees!  That contact will vary in type and frequency depending on the nature of the child and the nature of your relationship.  Don't forget they will only be able to call you on Skype or on the phone when there is a lull in proceedings at school and when they can find a private space for a chat.  This may well settle into a pattern but at the beginning calls may happen at rather odd times.  One Sixth form girl had to remember to call her dad before breakfast as by then he would have finished his work on Sakhalin Island and would have time to chat.  Headmaster of Wellesley House Prep, Simon O'Malley, stresses the need to stick to arrangements and make sure that you, as parent, will be available for that call when you say you will.

The perception is that boys will ring less often, for less time and have far less to say.  Everything will be "fine" and all questions will be answered with "yes", "OK", "no". Sometimes we feel like shaking some information out of them, and texting and emailing is just as bad.  There is no solution to this situation; just learn to gauge what lies behind the monosyllabic responses; check the school's interim reports for progress, ask the tutor or Housemaster for an update every now and again and don't feel embarrassed for doing so.  Remember, again you are the one who is paying those fees!  Having that information allows you to have a more informed conversation with your son and it may also allow you to concentrate on other important matters such as football, food and so on.

You may of course have a girl who gets to that point in the day when she needs to cuddle up with mum or dad and just sigh.  She will have no concept of the impact that the anxiously awaited phone call will have and may need to explain to you just how awful one of the other pupils has been and how unfair a particular teacher is.  She may be tired and just burst into tears.  I well remember checking back with the houseparents of my homesick daughter to be told that within seconds of having off-loaded to me she was bouncing around, laughing with her friends.  Bear in mind what your role in all this is.  You are to be the constant; someone who can listen and understand.  You are not needed to interfere and solve, just to listen.  If you are really worried check back with the housemistress.  A quick email can deliver many extra hours of sleep (for you I mean).

So what is the right pattern of contact?  It is impossible to answer that for you.  Just work out what you think is best, just as we do with most aspects of parenting.  Try not to be a "helicopter parent" or indeed a "tiger mum".  But likewise, don't give up on your responsibilities.  Just because you are on the other side of the world does not mean that you should not be involved.  Strike a balance and if you do have concerns get in touch sooner rather than later.  Housemasters, Housemistresses, Tutors and Matrons are all there to support your children.  They see them on a daily basis and will be able to deal with any concerns that you have, regardless of their seriousness or lack of.  

Richard Burnett, Housemaster of School House at Tonbridge School, says: "Trust the Housemaster and be ready to 'let go' at one level, whilst letting the housemaster know of any feedback you are getting from the child. Forget about academic things for at least the first term. The most important thing is for the child to be happy and settled so that they build strong pastoral foundations. All good work flows naturally from this."

Mark Lascelles, Head of Dauntsey's School, stresses the need for ongoing communication with the school.  Some parents, he suggests, feel they should not bother the school at all, but times have changed and this is now a triangular process involving school, pupil and parents.

The good news is that, despite never quite knowing what is best, we parents seem to muddle through and the children  thrive.

R I Reilly 
9 September 2014