Sue Gibbings


"It’s good for them."

"It teaches them to be independent."

"They’ll learn discipline."

"It makes then tough."

How many of us have not heard such remarks proffered as the reasons for parents choosing to send their children to boarding school? Of course for those parents denied a choice, such statements are needful reassurance. But I have yet to hear any negative reasons voiced. Does that imply that no disadvantages exist? Why are misgivings not verbalised?

I believe it’s because the disadvantages of boarding school are not obvious. Certainly they are not immediately discernible. It is only when the children reach adulthood that the hidden price tag becomes apparent. I strongly believe that a boarding school environment, especially for children in their primary school years, contributes to relational dysfunction in adulthood because many very important emotional and psychological needs are not met. It is from such a background that the adult emerges with his God-given, built-in "love tank" nearly empty because of inadequate nurturing. In God’s design parents are to meet their children’s primal need for love in all its outworkings. When this does not happen, children grow up into codependent adults who struggle unceasingly to fill the great emotional vacuum within themselves. They do so by controlling and by becoming addicted to people, behaviour or things. Codependents practise self-defeating, learned behaviour in which the underlying motive is to have their OWN needs met, and which seriously hinders their capacity to function healthily in loving relationships. The tragedy is, this cycle is multi-generational unless there is intervention and emotional healing.

So how then does a boarding school environment contribute to relational dysfunction? What important needs are not successfully met, if at all?

Firstly, children need ACCEPTANCE

They need to be accepted for who they are, irrespective of what they do or don’t do. This is a primary need. Yet at boarding school children invariably encounter performance based acceptance on a daily basis and self-esteem becomes contingent on doing rather than being. This is damaging to both the weak and the good student. For the former, acceptance has a precarious base and for the latter it is never truly experienced. A child may experience acceptance in his family, but to encounter it only for 12 weeks holiday time annually is hopelessly inadequate. He needs daily reinforcement. Every child needs to know that they are loved for who they are - blue eyes, freckles and curly hair. The high school pupil soon begins to notice that certain looks are prerequisite for recognition and acceptance amongst peers. No one tells him a different message from that transmitted remorselessly by the media, and his daily experience of acceptance or rejection by his peers fuels such misbelief. Acceptance of the uniqueness of a child is not common practice in the classroom or in the boarding environment. Acceptance on the basis of looks or performance is a common root of codependency. Children grow up loving, caring and giving in order to win the acceptance they never experienced and enter into relationships for the wrong reasons. Performance based acceptance also often engenders workaholism where the adult only feels good when working hard and "bad" when appearing to be lazy and is comfortable only so long as he is doing and producing, and rarely stops to celebrate life.

Secondly, children need healthy role models of both sexes.

One reason they need role models is to learn how to handle conflict. How else do they learn? From their peers they’re learning the same deficient ways that continue to reinforce their own inadequate responses and set them in concrete. It is not uncommon to encounter adults who don’t know how to creatively manage conflict. Many are surprised to discover that conflict is natural, neutral and normal.

Children also need to see love modeled by their parents. Children’s greatest security lies in knowing that Mum and Dad love each other. If they see and hear love demonstrated in numerous ways in the home, they will need little explanation of the character of God’s love. If the greatest thing that parents can do for their children is to love each other, then children need to ho experiencing the outworking of that love. Example is a powerful learning tool and this is denied to those who live away from their families.

Children also need to see a relationship with God modeled for them and God has ordained that the primary responsibility rests on the parents (Deut.6:6-8, Ps.78:I-8), and not the school. Children at boarding school usually do get to Sunday school but are denied the family experience of going to church. Moreover, learning about God should be a daily experience. When a young man expressed his preference for a particular Bible version, a friend replied: "I prefer my mother’s translation. She has translated the bible into the language of everyday life. My mother’s is the clearest translation."

The importance of modeling cannot be overemphasized. What we are often speaks louder than what we say. The impact that teachers can make by example is profound and therefore awesome in its responsibility. The education system that prevails in this country places a heavy emphasis on "doing" rather than "being", reflecting our increasingly technocratic society. The teachers who live in the boarding establishment have scant time to attend to their own everyday needs after a full school day, let alone be able to meet some the needs of the many children in their care. Thankfully, in the classroom there are some teachers who model what it means to love God and embrace life, but the constrictions of large syllabi and crowded classrooms work against that in ways which cannot be underestimated.

Living as we do, in a society that is increasingly stratified, the opportunity for children to be exposed to healthy role models is being steadily eroded. The boarding school environment is an example of a stratified society. There, children are deprived of the rich mix of relationships they would otherwise experience in the extended family. We need only to look at the effects of the artificial separations we have imposed on society. We have Old Age homes, single sex schools and day care, We have groups for divorcees, groups for singles and groups for single parents. Family integration is being steadily replaced by social compartmentalization. There is a vital need for participation in social contexts that encourage a rich tapestry of integrated relationships. If one were to stop and ask any adult what good times they recall from childhood, they would invariably respond by describing the family times - the occasions when something was done together as a family. There is a place for stratified groups, but let us not allow convenience and expediency to overrule the less obvious importance of eclectic groups. In some instances the church, too, needs to examine its structures. Children need the FAMILY.

Children need to be touched.

Another primary need of children, especially younger children but by no means exclusively, is the need to be meaningfully TOUCHED. Sadly in our fallen, broken world this has become a "touchy" subject. But despite the horrifying realities of the physical abuse of children, every child needs to experience healthy, loving touch. Doctors and counselors are increasingly recognizing how necessary touch is for physical well being and that it is not an optional extra. The young children I teach at a girls’ school are spontaneous in their affection and quite uninhibited about giving me a hug. Interestingly, it is those who are emotionally neglected and those in the boarding school that ASK for hugs. When asked to write about their parents the children in my classes regularly include comments like the following:

I like it when you kiss and hug me.

I like it when you lie with me in bed.

I like it when you love me.

I like it when you read to me in bed because you make me feel so warm.

I like it when we go to movies and squash up together.

I like cuddles in the mornings.

Their expression of their enjoyment of loving touch is obvious. Children in boarding school are denied the chance of having this important need met and in later years their adult relationships become very impoverished in this area.

Boarding school also denies children the opportunity to get in touch with their feelings. Feelings are an integral part of the process of knowing. Little if any opportunity is given in the classroom to describe and explore feelings and there "isn’t time" after school back at the boarding school. So children seldom, if ever, get the chance to verbalize and acknowledge their feelings and then be able to accept and deal with them - and repression and denial become common coping mechanisms. It is natural for a young child to be sad when bidding his parents good-bye at the start of a new term, knowing that he won’t be seeing them for another 3 months. At the age of 8 a boarding school matron told me that if I cried again upon the leave-taking of my parents I wouldn’t be allowed home. My eight-year-old mind took her at her word and so repression and denial entered in until God healed that area in adulthood. The message I had received was, "Don’t feel" and together with the lack of opportunity to discuss issues, the felt realities were denied.

Children need opportunities to talk and interact meaningfully with their parents. Parents who make a habit of talking to their children when they’re young will not find it difficult to talk to them when they’re teenagers. The lines of communication will already have been established. How will children learn to discern what is good and what is bad in pop music and TV programmes unless parents take time to initiate discussion? Children also need to hear words of encouragement spoken regularly by their parents and also need to hear their parents tell them that they are loved. Children in boarding school are deprived in this respect.

I believe another important need for young children is to have stories read to them every night. Not only does the undivided attention of Mum and Dad and tactile comfort provide important nurturing, but in my teaching experience there is a high correlation between those children who are read to regularly and language development. Moreover, children with maximal exposure to books tend to be more creative and have a wider general knowledge. Reading a book together as a family facilitates greater involvement with what is being read as one "hears" the conversations in the books being spoken and as one shares emotions produced by the situations described. Edith Schaeffer says that it is because of this greater involvement that the clamor and noise of the present age are more thoroughly shut out. Here too, children in boarding school are deprived.

Allied to this, is the importance of fostering creativity in children and our traditional educational system seldom makes provision for the development thereof. The over-emphasis on syllabi and academic achievement stifles the creative and inherent curiosity of children. Parents who can choose to keep their children at home at least have a chance to redress the imbalance by providing the necessary environment to promote creativity. Sitting in front of the TV for hours every week will not foster creativity. Parents need to make time to initiate ideas that will give memories to their children, which are their own childhood and not just a "looking into the lives of others on the screen. In seeking to promote creative recreation parents have the opportunity to make the home more fun than the world out there and family life is immeasurably enriched. Children at boarding school are removed from the family context in which this can meaningfully occur.

A look at the statistics concerning the breakdown of the family and other relationships in society will quickly convince us that something is seriously wrong. Counselors and psychologists tell us that many of those they see are ill equipped for coping with life. Children are not receiving training in life skills at school. Someone succinctly summed it up by saying that his schooling had given him training in the three R’s – Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic but had failed to equip him in the fourth and most important R,

i.e. relationships. Children at boarding school are even more disadvantaged, especially the crucial area of relationships. Life is about relationship. God made us to be in deep, existential relationship with Himself and with one another.

To those of you who parents, there is no greater task and no greater challenge than to healthily invest your lives in the lives of your children. True, it will cost you everything, especially that which money cannot buy. But if that God-given responsibility is abnegated, the lives of children get sacrificed on the altar of self-interest. Are you willing to pay the price? Or will you allow your children to bear the cost into adulthood?


Drescher, John M. 1976: Seven Things Children Need. Herald Press, p.130

Schaeffer, Edith 1988: The Hidden Art of Homemaking. Tyndale House, p.160

M2M issue 2, 1992 p.9