Think twice before farming out parental duties to boarding schools

Kelly Yang says parents should know that sending very young children to boarding schools is, in most cases, not in the child's best interests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 10:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 10:45am

The idea of a four-year-old getting shipped off to boarding school is not progressive, it's tragic. For the increasing number of Chinese parents sending their toddlers off to Western boarding schools, in the hope that they can be magically whipped into Ivy League material, I have news for you: boarding school is not for everyone and it most certainly is not for toddlers.

Young children need love. They need a mother's kiss and a daddy's hug. Teachers, even the best teachers, are no substitute for this love. And even if teachers could provide it, they still can't replicate parental values.

Passing on your values to your children is not something you can table for later, either, when they become adults. Recent studies show that the first years of life are critical to the child's development. They shape the child's future health, happiness and growth.

"Yeah, but I don't have time for my kids," is a complaint I often hear parents say. It's true that in work-crazed Hong Kong, too many of us are working long hours and don't get home until after our kids are in bed. At weekends, our red, sleep-deprived eyes are often glued to our Blackberries. But that's a reason to change our lifestyle, not farm out our kids!

This is not to say that boarding school is never appropriate. It's recommended, in fact, when the child really wants to go. I had a student who has a real gift for writing. She told me she felt that her school in Hong Kong did not challenge her enough. I encouraged her to apply to boarding schools in the US. She wrote her essays in no time and got in. She is thriving at the school.

Yet, this kind of self-motivation to go is increasingly rare. Instead, what I see a lot are misguided strategic reasons. I see parents talking a mile a minute about how they heard from Auntie So-and-so that A-levels are easier than the Diploma of Secondary School syllabus, or that going to the Phillips Academy in Andover increases the child's chances of getting into Harvard (it doesn't, by the way). Next to them, their children wriggle uncomfortably in their seats, their eyes downcast.

Here's what Auntie So-and-so is not telling you. An Australian boarding school was recently found to have covered up 33 years of sexual assault. In the United States, prestigious boarding schools such as Groton and St Paul's have all been hit with sexual abuse allegations.

Then there's the drinking culture and drug culture. A teacher at Moorland Boarding School in the UK recently admitted that she had allowed underage pupils to get drunk during a supervised trip. The punchline is that she is now pursuing legal action against the school for unfair dismissal because she doesn't think she did anything wrong.

While it's easy to be impressed by professionals with fancy titles and schools with hundreds of years of history, at the end of the day, that's all they are: titles and history. When it comes to your child, the person who knows them best is still you.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.