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I shouldn’t have sent my son to boarding school

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Charles Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, has published a memoir “Very Private School”. It delves into the trauma he experienced at boarding school. Conversely, 52-year-old mother-of-two Emilia, from north London, found that sending her son to boarding school in 2017 was a good experience for him – but that she found being the parent of a boarder to be a largely miserable experience.

My son went off to boarding school at 13, when he was in year nine. It was just over an hour’s drive away from home. He’d been at a private school nearby, and was happy there, but my husband is from a long line of boarding school children, and he strongly felt he wanted to give our son the option of having the same educational experience.

While the idea of boarding school is so alien to me (I went to a grammar school that was a short bus ride from my parents’ house), and I have read plenty about the harm boarding school can do to young children, my husband and brothers all insist they had a good time, and that the benefits outweighed the initial feelings of missing home.

He talks about his school days with a fondness that I certainly don’t feel for my own, and has been so positive about it, so I agreed that he could offer our son the option of being a weekly boarder [meaning they stay during weekdays but come home at the weekend] once he was 13 – but no sooner, and definitely not full-time. I wanted him home on weekends.

When people are telling you something will be great for your child, and you have no solid reason to fight back with, it can be hard. In the back of my mind, I actually didn’t think my son would go for it, that he wouldn’t want to change schools and be away from home, but to my surprise, he did. Looking back, I was naïve to think he’d have turned the opportunity down, because he’d grown up hearing great stories of his dad and uncle’s time as boarders, and so of course he’d think it’d be great fun.

When we visited the (£8,600-a-term) boarding school we agreed he could go to, it didn’t have the 50s feel I had feared. I could see this could be a lovely, exciting place to learn, and I knew it had a wonderful reputation – and surprisingly modern for a boarding school, too. I also told myself it was ok because we weren’t packing him off at the age of seven, which to me seemed like a horror story. I kept telling myself this was what our son wanted, and so I had to put him first. I told him if he ever changed his mind, we could sort it out and he could go to a school nearby. Nothing was set in stone.

I knew I’d find it tough. I had such a close relationship with my son, and I began to dread the approaching September start date. In the past he’d been away before for a week’s adventure holiday with school, or ski trips, but that last summer it felt like I had to make the most of every moment, like something was coming to an end. I started to really regret having agreed to this, but knew it was too late – he was enrolled, and he was excited. I tried to put on a brave face.

He ended up having a really good time, just as my husband said he would, and seemed genuinely happy. He rang me loads to tell me about what he’d been up to, and when he came home at weekends, he seemed to be thriving. That was so lovely to see, obviously, but I found it tough when some weekends he didn’t come home because there were sports fixtures, lots of extra curricular things, trips, and lots of his friends were full-time or flexible boarders meaning they all hung out together during free time at the weekends. I was both thrilled he had made enough friends to stop him missing us too much, but also I found that quite painful, when he didn’t immediately each week jump at the chance to come home for a couple of days.

I spent a long while looking at the dinner table chairs thinking how empty they seemed. That moment of him walking through the doors after school, or picking him up at the gates – I started to realise how much I’d taken our daily routines for granted. Every time I’d see something on his lying around the house I’d feel like I wanted to cry. I was so lucky I had a little one still at home to care for – my daughter was eight at the time – but the reality of my son’s absence really knocked me (and his little sister) for six.

I really struggled, and felt like a premature empty-nester, but then felt stupid and self indulgent about it, too, because my son was alive and well not so far away. My low moods created tension between my husband and I because I felt resentful that in his insistence he’d removed me from my child.

And then there was the fact that my son had also been really keen to go, which is probably partly why I felt so upset. As if he, at 13, had chosen to head off and live without me. I felt sick, and so empty for months on end. I started to feel jealous of friends whose kids were at home with them, and when they’d moan about their teen leaving mess around the house, I thought, “you don’t know how lucky you are.”

After the first year, though, I began to manage a little better, and learnt how to make the most of our weekends together, and make sure they were happy and fun. I tried as hard as I possibly could never to make my son feel guilty for going away, and I kept telling myself, as I looked round at my friends’ teenagers, that he’d be living most of his daily life away from me anyway, even if he were in the house. It’s a time of life when children begin to do their own thing and often become more interested in their friends than their parents or siblings.

While my husband wanted this, and my son did too, I do sometimes wish even now that he’s done with school and is happily at university, that I’d said no to boarding school. I went through that pregnancy, I brought him up, and then felt he was apart from me for the majority of his teenage life. I do wonder whether he might have been just as happy and confident at the school he was already at.

Still, I am grateful that we have a great, close relationship now, and he’s enjoying life and seems well-adjusted. So I try to put him first when I feel these pangs of regret. All the same, I’d say to any other parent that just because you might have the money to pay fees like that, it’s worth thinking twice about how empty it might leave you feeling as the parent. Sometimes I do wish I’d been stronger about it all. My daughter didn’t want to go to boarding school, and thank God, because I don’t know how I’d have handled that.



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