Deciding to go to boarding school risks the weakening of parental bonds. Or does it? There are definite benefits to adolescents being out of the nest, but in a safe, controlled 24/7 environment, as they experience the second major neural development.
When my son was two and experiencing the first ‘rewiring’ of childhood, sleep appeared to embed developmental changes that help us capture more value from the miracle of being alive. It made the tantrums worthwhile. But what is the positive outcome of the second major rewiring that requires teenagers to sleep-in all morning and spend too many afternoons in a sulk? Is a young adult more ingenious and observant than an eleven year old as a result? Adolescent rewiring is left to dodgy electricians: blown fuses create inactivity; electric shocks trigger unexpected negative behaviour; and faulty switches choose if they can be bothered to work. Nevertheless, the rewiring has a vital function to play.
A friend, who had himself been displaced – from China in 1948, aged sixteen – once let a rather forlorn pigeon nest on his balcony in Victoria. All apart from one of her chicks grew and flew the nest. The remaining teenage pigeon just would not move, despite daily flying demonstrations by both anxious parents. Food, space, fitness and hygiene reached crisis point. Then, with August, the Great Light Stealer, upon us, a truly extraordinary visit happened. The sibling pigeons reappeared with other youths from the flock, in a maelstrom of noise and showing off, but conscious of an urgent job to be done. The stay-at-home-live-off-the-Bank-of-Mum-and-Dad pigeon, coaxed by these hovering relations, finally launched off the balcony. Off he flew with a peer group to join the fun. The parents left soon afterwards, presumably for a cruise or to improve their Bridge.
Families often fail to resolve on their own how and when offspring should fly the nest. The disruptive characteristics of adolescence motivate children and parents to leave the secure balcony of late childhood. Unfortunately, many teenagers still leave home to join gangs that hunt collaboratively, to secure territory and partners – through resilience and force of personality. Public schools regulated ball games into field sports such as rugby and football as a way of controlling these urges. Good A Levels scores are a very recent component of teenage success; contemporaries in the Thatcherite 1980s headed straight to the late adolescent battlefields of City dealing rooms, or to Sandhurst then real theatres of war.
And even when offspring have secured their independence, with adolescence inducing hormones in retreat, they may trust advice from family friends more than their own parents (and their respect for a former school housemaster is lifelong). Perhaps this distrust of parental advice is designed to avoid a sort of cognitive inbreeding from copying their mistakes? Maybe that young pigeon thought his parents were not good enough at flying to copy their technique? And how this must have vexed them…
While boarding schools are not right for every child – there are different times for children to become independent – paradoxically, they bring families closer together. My generation of parents did not ask the specifics of how intolerable we were to housemasters, who endure the bulk of adolescent recalcitrance with long experience and recourse to controlled remedies, namely sports and routine. They delegated adolescence to play itself out at school, by proxy; a strategy that still creates Nobel levels of accord between teenagers and parents during the school holidays. All the country dwelling children I knew boarded by eleven. All except for three brothers. And they were the only teenagers to throw a house-trashing party when their parents left them for a few nights, under light supervision.
So, given the choice between Trafalgar Square College or a failed form of homeschooling, I expect the parents of that under confident pigeon would have chosen the former.