My little girl M is going away. No she is not 16 and moving to college. Neither is she 26 and getting married. She is not taking off on a holiday or a camp! My little girl is 9 and come April 1st. she is heading to a boarding school.
Boarding school, where gaggles of girls sleep in long bunk bedded dormitories and have gaggles of fun (my daughter’s viewpoint)! Boarding schools where busy parents who can not or do not wish to spend time on their children send them away (The critical view point), (remember taare zameen par!) Boarding school where children learn to be independent and self driven (viewpoint of hopeful parents like me).
The truth as in most cases lies somewhere in between. Having lived in a boarding myself (Fifteen years no less!!) I always thought when the time to send my own children to a boarding school would arrive, I would be able to do so easily. Instead, I discovered that fifteen years of experience in some of the best boarding schools of India (At least they used to be) made the decision even more difficult for me to take. I had too much information (aka experience). Not all of it good from my own time at the hostel.
Here are the main dilemmas that began gnawing on me since the day my (then) 7 year old daughter determinedly declared “Mom I want to go to a boarding school too.” I did not at that time realize the enormity of the moment back then. If I had, maybe I would have trashed the “Malory towers” she had been reading in the stinkiest dustbin never to be seen on our book shelves again. As events unrolled though, the stack of Malory Towers by her bedside grew and so did my dilemmas…
Dilemma no. 1:
In today’s times, children are loaned to us. They live approximately 18 years with us and then leave the family cocoon for further studies, careers, marriages… to return only as guests on week long and if you are very lucky maybe a month long holiday… Why then would one be willing to cut this short time even shorter?
Dilemma no. 2:
Dilemma no. 3:
Generation Gap – that dirty word, which is every involved parent’s nightmare, creates enough distance between our children and us. Do we really want to add physical distance to that?
Most of all I realized that though I did know a lot about being a ‘Boarding school student’. I did not know enough about being a ‘Boarding school parent’ . This is when I started to talk. I am fortunate because I live in a city that is home to one of India’s premier boarding schools. I spoke for two years to almost every parent I could – Mothers with careers, mothers who were home makers, Parents who lived in small cities even villages and those who lived in large urban cities and even metropolitans. Single parents and Parents who like myself have had boarding school experiences themselves as children.
I found that though a few parents send their children to boarding schools because they have no choice. Either because there are no proper schools available where they live or because they have transferable jobs that require constant moving. Boarding schools may also be the only choice in families that have faced some kind of disruption – like loss of a parent. But most parents who choose to send their children to boarding schools do so because they firmly believe it is good for their child’s development. The following are the main reasons cited by parents, I spoke to for choosing boarding schools (In no particular order).
Reason no. 1
Though it is true that in today’s day and time of international schools and good quality day schools with superb sports facilities, boarding schools have lost some of their relevance especially in big cities. Some large city parents still prefer boarding schools because of their culture of simple and disciplined living. No matter how rich or affluent one’s family background is, in a boarding school a child is forced to live the ‘standard’ life. Wear the same ‘uniform’, eat the same food. With extrinsic factors being the same, a child is forced to pay attention to the intrinsic factors that make him/ her ‘special’. This is an important lesson. One that conscientious parents sending their children to ‘big brand’ day schools are trying hard to teach but not always managing. In words of a young mother I spoke to “My son is just in class 2 but he talks about the brand of car his friends arrive to school in. What brand sports shoes they wear and where they went to eat the previous night has become lunch break conversation!”
Reason no. 2
The other important lesson that a good boarding school teaches is simple living. Traditionally too, the Indians have believed in the ‘gurukul’. Crown princes were sent to gurukuls, I imagine not only for education but also to help them learn to live away from the luxuries of the palaces and survive with bare necessities. One could argue that it is possible to teach children to do the same at home too and I agree it is. But honestly how many of us give up the lure of sleeping in an air conditioned room or using an attached bathroom in order to teach our children to be able to live without them? Very few!
Reason no. 3
Another gain that many parents mentioned to me from a good boarding school is that children learn to adjust to others. It is not easy to live under the same roof with 50 other children of similar age and different personalities. All the benefits that come off having a sibling at home get multiplied fifty times over in a hostel. “When my younger son was born, I noticed a remarkable change in my three year old daughter. She began to understand that the world does not revolve around her. She realized that she can not always ‘take’ but has to learn to ‘give’ too.”In a hostel when the children are thrown in with others from completely different backgrounds and thus with very diverse ways of thinking and patterns of behaving than their own they too learn a lot. A new child in the hostel gets exposed to a whole new array of personality traits, thoughts and behaviors. At the onset this may be a bit overwhelming but over time the child learns to accept these differences, even adapt to them and learns how to deal with them. The mental and emotional maturity this brings is a big advantage of a boarding school experience.” – A boarding school parent.
Of course the gain that most parents across the board mentioned was the gain in child’s self confidence. Knowing that there is no mummy or papa to sort out that tiff with one’s best friend, no maid to fold the uniform, no one to keep back the home work note books in the bag and no one to make one’s hair, forces children to depend on themselves. This aspect of hostel life is the most dreaded and the most respected at the same time. At the beginning, most mothers reported being very worried about how their child will manage his/ her own daily chores independently. But like this mother said “When my daughter came back home after her first term, she was so self reliant! She could fold her own clothes, took responsibility for her own waking up routine. And she looked happy about it.”
The Final word
Like everything else in life, hostel life is not all rosy. There is the distinct possibility that your child stops sharing about his/ her life with you. But I have seen that happen with children living within the family too. The key to not letting that happen is to make the extra effort to connect. To reach out, write detailed descriptive letters, spend quality time with them during the holidays and visit as often as one can. The principal of a boarding school says “It is unfortunate when parents stop being interested in their own child’s lives. Children sense these things fast. I have seen parents whose bonds with their children have become even stronger and deeper after they have joined the boarding. On the other hand there are those children whose parents think it is just enough to send them to the boarding and then forget about them till the next vacation.”
Another friend, a parent who chose to send only one of her children to the boarding made another very valid point. She said that the decision to send your child to boarding should not be based on tag values, or what ‘others’ are doing. But on a deep understanding and knowledge of your child, his/her own desires and your ambitions for him/ her. There is no right or wrong choice. It is on the parent to decide whether hostel life is the right or wrong choice for their particular child.
I found this wise advice. I have been watching M, my daughter closely. In the last year I have realized that she is self driven. She likes to work independently and does not appreciate being ‘told’ what to do. She is mature beyond her years and sensitive and very smart. She makes choices logically and has strong moral values. Most of all, I have realized that she is dying to go! She is craving to be in the company of girls her age, have friends to chatter with deep into the nights and grow her own wings! And I have decided to let her go.
Its the most difficult decision I have made as a parent and there is a risk it will not work out like M and I hope. But I will do it anyway. Because I want her to know that her desires matter to me and that I trust her. Trust her to grow her own wings, trust her to fly far from home. And I trust myself. Trust myself that I will never let the physical distance between us get in the way of our relationship and that no matter where she is, I will be her ‘Go To’ person. The person she can come to anytime, anywhere, anyhow…