Is your child too young to be sent to boarding school?
I was invited recently by a school to help its teachers develop a remedial instruction programme for students with learning difficulties. In the interactive session that followed, a teacher opened up about her son who had always struggled with academics. To help him, she enrolled him in a boarding school but in vain because not only did he continue to grapple with the problems he had before, they had also now increased manifold and were aggravated by behavioural issues he didn’t have earlier. “I sent him off when he was just six, hoping we would be able to fix things right at the start. Did I send him off too early,” she asked.
I’d like to use her story to make parents think about the question. The commonly-cited reasons for putting children in boarding schools are quality education, better exposure, a solution to parents’ busy lifestyles, a way of protecting children from marital and familial discord, ensuring company especially for the single child, and discipline. However, I steer clear of debating the pros and cons of sending children away to be schooled. This piece is about trying to understand: how young is too young for you to avoid doing more harm than good? To help answer this question, I spoke to colleagues and professionals in the field of mental health and here’s what they had to say.
Robbed of childhood
Dr. Krishna, a rehabilitation psychologist at NIMH, feels children below age eight or nine should not be removed from their home environment as this is the ideal period for parents to instil values in them. When children are sent away at a young age, their coping mechanisms can lead to their developing a sense of detachment which could damage future relationships. It’s not about their developing a lack of empathy but having to look out for themselves at such a tender age which robs them of their childhood. It’s when they have a childlike view that they learn to love and experience the world without worrying about the practicalities and cynicism, which they are protected from by their parents.
Zenobia Rustamfram, a counsellor from TISS, Mumbai, agrees that the period between 9 and 14 years is crucial for a child, as that’s when he starts looking for a ‘tribe’ to belong to. Throughout middle and late childhood, peers and reference groups begin to play a dominant role, gradually displacing parental influence. The child increasingly begins to identify with others of his own age and is likely to want to behave like his peer group in order to fit in. Since children in boarding school live with their classmates 24x7, without enough checks in place there is the danger that they could get away with things they would normally not be able to at home. Adult supervision at this stage is crucial to ensure that as children explore an exciting world, they don’t get carried away.
Psychologists also feel that a child needs two balanced, mature role models of either gender on whom to fashion his identity and healthy expectations of members of the opposite sex. If a child is sent away at a young age, parents lose control of who these people are and with this arises the danger that the sexual typing that takes place may lead to interpersonal difficulties later on.
There are parents who say that while age doesn’t matter, what matters is how you manage a situation. But Shaileja Rao, department head, special education, NIMH, has a different take. According to her, emotional security is a child’s basic need. Generally, a child experiences this when his parents and siblings gratify his needs and treat him like a desired family member. In spite of the best intentions, she finds that children who are sent away at a very early age often feel neglected, abandoned and rejected. This insecurity can be a breeding ground for resentment.
In my opinion, it is important to be clear about the reasons for sending your child away. If it is a behavioural issue, then child psychiatrist and former head of the Department of Psychiatry at Niloufer Hospital, Dr. Usha Naik feels that parents who believe children can be taught discipline by sending them to boarding schools are unrealistic. “Discipline can be taught anywhere. Indiscipline is the parents doing; why punish the child?” She feels that unless there is marital discord or a lot of stress in the family, a child should not be sent away before age 9.
Should your reasons have little do with the quality of education then it would seem that as professionals, we should urge you to look for alternatives to boarding school. Sending a vulnerable child away seems to diminish the control you as a parent can exercise to ensure the choices you are making for the child really work out the way they are meant to. Further, things are not really black and white and there will be a lot of decisions you will have to make on the spot. Delegating this responsibility to strangers, however competent, could be risky, especially because they are also in charge of other children who are yet to come into their own and figure out who they are.
As parents we all worry about failing. How can we be perfect parents when we are still trying to figure out our own life? The truth is there is no one way of parenting and there are no benchmarks. You have to become adept at transforming yourself into the parent your child needs at each stage. Just keep in mind that you don't have to be flawless to be a “perfect” parent. Don’t send your child away to make up for your inadequacies. Security and the ability to take for granted a degree of unconditional support is what a child at this stage needs. This is something nobody is going to want to do for them more than you.
The importance of a childhood spent in a secure home environment can be summed up in a simple sentence. In childhood, much depends on what happened in infancy. So too in adolescence and adulthood, much depends on the developments and adjustments in those childhood years.
The writer is a Remedial Educator