Vishika Singh (name changed on request), a Mumbai-based parent of two children sent her elder daughter to a boarding school in June with great reluctance. Singh and her husband had their attention divided between their younger daughter, long working and commuting hours, and just didn’t have the time to devote to a teenager’s increasing tantrums.
“She was always in front of the TV, her grades were dropping, we were fighting a lot and our communication had come to a standstill. It ended up creating fights between me and my husband as well,” says Singh. She struggled with the decision for about a year and then decided it was the best thing for her child. “More than preparing her, it was preparing me to let go that took the time,” says Singh, who confesses she still struggles with the idea that “someone else can look after my child when I can’t”.
Children practice for a play after classes in the Main Building of the Doon School .
Singh feared she would not be around to control the company her not-very-discerning child would keep, or help her concentrate on her studies. Add to that a middle-class society and family system which imagines that sending a child away is a punishment or admission of failure as a parent, and the separation pangs are that much harder for any parent to cope with.
How and when does one make the decision to send a child away from home to study? It is boarding school admission season and online parenting boards, forums and groups are full of queries regarding next year’s terms: “Please tell me if I should send my child to boarding school.” “Please tell me if the fees are worth it.” “Please tell me if this school is safe for my child.” appear on sites such as www.indiaparenting.com, www.mustformums.com and www.parentree.in. No one seems to have convincing answers.
On the one hand is the actual selection of the right boarding school itself, for which there are plenty of studies, rankings and parent feedback available online. Decisions are typically made based on what a parent is looking for: academic performance, extra-curricular activities, even status. But the unasked question at the back of every parent’s mind is: How do you know if your child is ready for boarding school? An oft-cited response is: “Children don’t know what is good for them. Parents have to decide.”
The Singhs’ daughter didn’t want to go to boarding school, but now that she is there in class VIII, she doesn’t want to come back. Is that proof enough of this theory? Her mother says: “She has learnt a few lessons of her own too; she has learnt the value of money. She also writes me letters about how my ‘boring pravachans’ have helped her. We communicate now more than we did in person,” Singh says. “But I want her back in day school in Mumbai when she goes into class IX so I can help her study. I still don’t know if it was the right decision.”
Two children running past the Central Dining Hall of the Doon School .
The unwillingness of a child to go away, or the reluctance/guilt of a parent are seen as part of the deal. “We cried tonnes,” says Ravi Deshpande, the film-maker father of Aum, who joined the J Krishnamurti Foundation’s Sahyadri School near Pune in class V this year. Deshpande’s father was an ardent follower of philosopher J. Krishnamurti and had translated his books into Marathi and Deshpande is himself a follower. “Our decision is based more on the need for a certain quality of alternative education, rather than whether it was boarding or not boarding,” Deshpande says. There was no question of preparing Aum. “He saw the place and fell in love with it,” his father says. For Aum, the transition from Annie Besant Montessori school in Mumbai, which follows the same system of teaching that J Krishnamurthi Foundation schools adopt, to the boarding school in Pune was seamless.
A lack of schools with sufficient co-curricular activities is an overriding factor in parents’ decisions. “Their days are better occupied than in front of the TV or with a PlayStation, or with maids,” says Archana Sadanand, who runs her own public relations (PR) firm in Mumbai. Commuting time between multiple extra-curricular classes is also key. “Mumbai is not a city you want your kids to grow up in,” she says. For the affluent, the fear of their child being kidnapped is also very real.
Sadanand’s two children, 7 and 4, are looking forward to joining boarding school like their cousins soon. The preparation process for Sadanand began when her children were 3, she says. “My husband was at a boarding school and he seems to have loved it. So I get them excited about a great place where you can stay with all your friends, play with them, have sleepovers. You can make it a very exciting process for them too.”
Kids in the Scindia School Lab.
Jalpa Bhuta, consultant, woman and child psychiatry, at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital and Medical Research Institute in Mumbai, often deals with children who have been sent to boarding schools and return, unable to adjust. “Over 70% of parents who send their children to boarding schools, in my experience, do so for the wrong reasons,” she states. Of course, there are children who settle in happily too. What makes the difference between those who do adjust and those who don’t? “Most parents who send their kids work long hours and are concerned about both, their children’s quality of education and quality of play. But the wrong reasons include parents who send kids away to keep them from bad company, mobile/Internet/television addictions, who receive behavioural complaints from schools and have had other disciplinary issues with their children.” When being sent away comes after admonishment, it is an implied rejection, and affects a child negatively. “A child begins to believe they are not worth parental love and have feelings of abandonment. This leads to a number of issues later in life.”
How then do you know if your child is ready to leave home? “A child should have the maturity to see why and how it benefits him. Typically, such maturity comes after the age of 14. If a child has bonded closely with his parents up to the age of 7 or 9, that sets the ground. A secure child who sees he is following a family tradition, or sees the benefit of an alternative education, is likely to be well adjusted,” Dr Bhuta explains.
It is important that a child who does not want to go to a boarding school is heard out, Dr Bhuta adds. “Some children act out if forcefully sent away, and not only do disciplinary issues get worse, a child who has to leave the school returns with resentment towards his parents. A child who adjusts can have issues of abandonment later in life.” So, before you go online and ask strangers for advice on a boarding school, ask your child. He may have an opinion.
**The child’s name has been withheld at the parents’ request.