How Boarding Schools Affect Children and Parents (and Living Models)
The number of children living without their parents continues to grow each year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2005), the number of parent absent children increased by 329% since 1970. This data is directly correlated to the rising popularity of residential education. Because it is becoming more common for youth to attend these institutions due to at risk behavior, it is important to understand whether at risk youth benefit from the experience. First, we must understand the parent child relationship and whether at risk youth could be negatively affected by this separation.
Communication is an accurate indicator for determining the closeness of a parent child relationship. In the United States, 69% of children over eighteen talk to their mothers once a week, 20% of which speak to them daily (Lawton, Silverstein and Bengtson 1994; Lye 1996). “Likewise the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) shows that close to 40% of adult children have face to face contact with their parents once a week or more” (Lye 1996). Former students of residential education are hypothesized to communicate with their parents less than the average adult child due to their separation during adolescence. The relationship between an adult child and parent is highly influenced by the relationship that they had while the child was an adolescent (Lye 1996). This paper attempts to understand the correlation between a former student’s reasons for attending residential education and how their relationship with their parents changed.
At risk youth generally benefit from having a solid family structure (Gerard and Buehler 1999). If an at risk youth attends an institution that requires them to live without their family and in a dorm like setting, they may feel isolated, weakening their school bond (Sprott, Jenkins, and Doob 2005). To assure that a prospective student will adjust to their new environment, the living situation of the institution should be closely examined to prevent instable placement (Rubin et. al. 2007). At risk students of residential education have a smoother adjustment period if they are required to live in family like setting (Hagaman et. al. 2009), but the closeness of the child’s relationship to their parents can affect the outcome also.
By studying the former students’ descriptions of the residential education experience, we are able to see how different institutions can help to strengthen the parent child relationship:
There is no single, widely accepted measure of the quality of adult child parent relationships. Researchers have examined a wide variety of variables intended to assess the quality of relationships between adult children and their parents, including a single variable assessment of relationship quality scale measures of relationship quality, feelings of attachment and closeness, the exchange of emotional support and advice, intimacy, strain and parental dissatisfaction with adult children, and disagreement. Despite the lack of consensus about how to measure adult child–parent relationship quality, there is broad agreement among researchers concerning the general disposition of adult child–parent relationships as well as the sources of variation in adult child–parent relationship quality. (Lye 1996: 84)
Closeness of the parent child relationship can change if a child lives away from home, especially during their formative years, when subjects they would have discussed with their parents, were instead discussed with teachers, counselors or peers. To fully understand the effects of parent child separation due to residential education on adolescents, we must research the many types of residential education available in the U.S.
I conducted a study with anonymous participants. Over 100 survey-takers participated in an online survey to share their experiences about residential education. The surveyors were allowed to choose their own pseudonyms, which are the names I use below.
Results: Changes in the Parent-Child Relationship
Through careful analysis of the surveys and interviews, the effects of residential education on the parent child relationship have been uncovered. Surprisingly, the findings are subjective to groups of individuals based on their reasons for attending residential education and their age of enrollment. While some respondents had particularly negative statements about the relationship with their parents after attending an institution, others had vey positive things to say about their experience. Some even showed a desire to attend residential education, but felt that living away from their parents was difficult and emotionally challenging.
The respondents that were sent to these institutions due to at risk behavior were not as likely to have a positive relationship with their parents (insert Figure 6 here). One subject, Georgina, was involuntarily placed into a brat camp when she was thirteen because of behavioral issues. She describes her relationship with her parents and how it changed: “straight after i came back it was hard i felt very disconnected and distanced from them, probably because i didn't understand why they would do that to me. i would definitely say we weren't close and lost that very significant parental connection.” Her relationship with her parents weakened as a result of this experience. Her response was similar to many others in this study (see Figure 6).
Lilly is another respondent that felt like her experience changed her relationship:
My relationship with my parents improved significantly after I "left the nest" and went to boarding school, college, and beyond. It is very difficult to visit them, however, since we are not used to cohabitating. Things get tense even after 24 hours of visiting and we tend to have a better, smoother relationship when we are separated but in communication (out of eachothers hair but still trivially involved in eachothers lives).
She states that visiting with her parents is difficult because they are not used to living together. This is a common effect on many of the subjects. They feel like they are able to communicate better and maintain a positive relationship with their parents while they are separate. When they are together, however, they may be uncomfortable and may have conflicts caused by this separation.
One subject, Thea, who attended multiple institutions and now lives with her parents, says that her relationship was very negative, but as time passes she and her parents are finding a way to cohabitate:
We had a really messed up enmeshed relationship before where we hated each other but loved each other, and couldn't speak one word to each other without yelling. Now we are really close, but that didn't happen until I got out of my programs I think. I left the transitional program at 18 and didn't go back to their house because they didn't support my decision to leave. I returned to most of my previous behaviors but eventually figured things out for myself. I left treatment in October of 2007 and I honestly feel like I've grown more since I've been out than I did while in.
Learn More About Residential Education
- The Benefits and Disadvantages of Residential Education: Boarding Schools, Wilderness Programs, and
This hub describes the benefits and disadvantages of residential education, which includes boarding schools, military academies, wilderness programs and brat camps.
- Residential Education and its Effect on At-Risk Youth: Boarding Schools, Wilderness Programs...
This hub explores the history of residential education (boarding schools, military academies, and wilderness programs) and how youth react to being placed in this environment.
Like Thea, many of the subjects described that once they left the program or institution and some time passed, their relationship with their parents improved. Ramon had a different experience: “It is very common at these boarding schools to see close knit families travel far to see their kids play games. My mom would go 1 hour to see me, and 3 hours to see my brother play sports. She didn’t have to, but our family is close.” The effort that Ramon’s parents put into visiting and engaging in his school activities helped him to succeed in school and maintain a positive relationship with them. “Family involvement during out of home stays has consistently been found to promote positive outcomes for youth” (Lee and Barth 2009: 156). Students who did not have a lot of parental involvement or communication during their time away were less likely to share these feelings (insert Figure 8 here). One subject states, “You can not get the developmental years of your chil[d]hood back,” as an answer to the question, did you find your experience in residential education to be beneficial? His reaction was not very different from others that were involuntarily placed in residential education.
Although some say that their relationship with their parents weakened as a result of their experience, some former students described that the time spent away from each other helped to strengthen their relationship. One subject explains: “My relationship with them became much stronger. Not having them around made me realize how important they were to me.” This subject’s response was similar to others that attended due to family tradition and education. Generally, these students were able to maintain a healthy relationship with their parents while gaining independence from living on their own. As Rebecca explains, “I became more independent in all aspects. I learned to balance a checkbook at age 14 and buy my own toiletries and clothing. Financially, I believe I am more mature than my peers who lived at home. Now, we communicate less.” She was able to gain independence as a result of her education, yet, the amount of communication she engages in with her parents has decreased as a result of distance.
23.07% of the surveyed students talk to their parents less than once a week over the phone; the same number of students admit they only speak to them once a week. As Newton, Litrownik, and Landsverk (1994) state in their essay, 69% of children communicate with their mothers once a week. 20% of these people talk to them once per day. The former students talk to their parents less than other adult children in the U.S. The difference in levels of communication shows a distance between former students and their parents.
Ramon describes the relationship between his former classmates and their parents:
I have witnessed my closest friends both destroy and embrace their relationship with their parents, and I strongly believe that it stems from their financial upbringing and ideals instilled in them before even going to boarding school. You can ask anyone about their experience and it tends to be one way or the other… it’s either “it was awesome, time of my life, really loved it”… or “it was hell”. I’m sure that’s a common response among people from high school in general, but to be in a hell and living on your own in the middle of nowhere probably impacts it more and you end up blaming the parents (who are to blame not for sending their kid to boarding school, but for being a shitty parent before).
Personally, I loved it… and I will never ever send my kids to it. Even though he enjoyed his experience, he was able to see that some children do not adjust well to the boarding school environment.
He would not enroll his children in residential education even though his experience was beneficial and relationship with his parents is positive. Through his eyes, residential education is only beneficial to a specific type of adolescent.
Did you live with your parents during adolescence?
Gerard, Jean M. and Cheryl Buehler. 1999. “Multiple Risk Factors in the Family Environment and Youth Problem Behaviors.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61:343 361.
Hagaman, Jessica L., Alexandra L. Trout, M. Beth Chmelka, Ronald W. Thompson, and Robert Reid. 2009. “Risk Profiles of Children Entering Residential Care: A Cluster Analysis.” Journal of Child and Family Studies 19:525 535.
Lawton, Leora, Merril Silverstein, and Vern Bengtson. 1994. Solidarity Between Generations in Families. Intergenerational Linkages: Hidden Connections in American Society 56:19–42.
Lye, Diane N. 1996. Adult ChildParent Relationships. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Rubin, David M., Amanda O'Reilly, Xianqun Luan, and Russell Localio. 2007. The Impact of Placement Stability on Behavioral Well Being for Children in Foster Care. Pediatrics 119:336 344.