“Relating from a Distance: A Handbook by George School Parents for George School Parents” was originally written in 1999 by Sally Brett, published by George School in 1999, and updated in 2010 by Andrea Lehman. All rights reserved. Please quote freely but always with appropriate acknowledgment.
Here’s the story: Your child is going off to school, but not to college. You, as a parent, are about to discover that there are some aspects of being a long-distance parent that you might not have anticipated. But when you turn to handbooks for parents of college students for advice, you find those words of wisdom sometimes apply and sometimes don’t seem at all apt. After all, college students are viewed as adults, more or less, and the impetus toward autonomy that so rightly informs those college guides is not quite appropriate for your fifteen-year-old.
Moreover, your friends whose adolescent children are still at home can’t see much difference between their experiences and your own (the only difference is distance, they reason), while those friends whose adolescent children are in college think you may be overly concerned. But you can sense that you and your child are having experiences and feelings that are not completely like stay-at-home or college student families; boarding school families are not even similar in many ways to the day student families at the same school.
It’s true that your child is stepping into a world that is like that of a college freshman: He or she faces issues of time management, from preparing for exams and papers to doing the laundry; issues of relationships, from accommodating a roommate with different tastes in music and sleep habits to learning to speak for herself with advisors and instructors; and issues of personal development from coping with homesickness to frustration over weekend curfews that are perhaps much earlier than at home. For your child’s friends, these are situations of the future. But for your child these are now, and they still face the usual tasks of secondary school students: Do well in tests and classes, perform on the stage or playing field, and serve the community.
Sounds almost overwhelming, doesn’t it? At times, it is. But your child can do this all . . . and more. Every George School boarder who walks down the path at graduation has succeeded in learning to accomplish the many daily tasks of academic and personal life. And they have emerged as perhaps a bit more mature, independent, and prepared for life after high school than many of their non-boarding peers. That’s the reward for the adjustment to boarding school life.
You are an integral part of that process, and you’ve made a momentous first step toward that accomplishment by deciding that your child might go to school away from home. That is a vote of confidence in the child and the school and in yourself.
No manual can prepare you for the experiences ahead, but the advice and observations of other parents who have been in your shoes can sometimes be helpful—or maybe just comforting.
So, as a supplement to other George School handbooks, we offer this collaboration of experiences and advice both as counsel and as invitation: Please add your own, so that others may benefit from you and your child’s successes (and mistakes!). Or just keep this booklet close at hand . . . And, please, know that you (and your child) are, although distant, are always among friends.
—Sally Brett, parent ’00
Note: To add your thoughts or tips, contact Odie LeFever.
The late-night phone call (and it is almost always late at night) is such a common phenomenon that it is mentioned in almost every guide we’ve consulted and it is certainly a topic of conversation among boarding parents universally. By way of evidence, we excerpt below a passage from a guide for parents of freshmen written by the deans of a mid-size southeastern research university:
How can I help my anxious son if he calls on the night before a major exam?
This is not an uncommon scenario, especially during the first semester, and it can be hard for you to maintain your composure and to say something helpful. Please remember that your son is probably overly anxious and will likely do better than he fears. In fact it’s not uncommon for parents to lose sleep after such a phone call, only to discover the next day that their son did fine and scarcely remembers having been anxious at all.
And this, from a small midwestern college’s book of advice for freshman parents:
Don’t worry (too much) about depressive phone calls . . . .Often when troubles become too much for a new student to handle (a failed test, an ended relationship, and a shrunken t-shirt all in one day), the only place to turn… is home. Regrettably, new students are more likely to call about desperate circumstances, so you may never hear about your daughter’s “A” paper, the great campus activity, or your son’s little-known domestic triumph. In times of crisis, your student can unload troubles or tears and, after the catharsis, return to a routine, relieved and lightened, while you inherit the burden or worry. Be patient with those ‘nothing is going right, I hate this place’ phone calls . . . .Students can be resourceful in solving problems.
We will add only a few words to this excellent advice. They are: Be a listener when these calls come. Be sympathetic, but more importantly, support your child by expressing confidence in his or her ability to solve the problem. Remember that advice often sounds to adolescents like criticism, so instead of suggesting ways to handle the problem at that moment, just listen for the tone of voice that indicates your child is ready to have you ask, “What do you think you can do at this point?” Note, please, that you are not coming up with the solution.
But most importantly, read the advice above again. The point of the call, understand, is to hand the worry over to someone else, to have an audience for the woes—NOT to get a solution. So, hang up and go back to sleep.
Some of us have children who were born talking and haven’t stopped since, some of us have children who are laconic but communicative, and some of us have children who at the onset of puberty began to express themselves in the monosyllables of their toddlerhood. So how do we get some conversation going here?
We all know from our social training that one asks questions designed to elicit information in order to initiate conversation. But with teenagers that often comes across as an inquisition; their private lives are newly shaped (in process, really) and your questions seem intrusive rather than interested.
However, teenagers in boarding school want to know that they can be secure in your continuing concern and interest. So, no matter what means you use to communicate with your student, try these approaches:
Ask specific questions based on information you have already gleaned from the student newspaper (The Curious George); the George School website (georgeschool.org); the community directory, which you will receive in October; or previous conversations.
Once you have a copy of the new Community Directory in hand, which has photos of all the students, faculty, and staff, you can connect names and faces. That will help you to feel you “know” many of the people now in your child’s daily life, and it may help you to remember names she mentions.
You should also get a copy of your child’s class schedule, and look at the campus map at georgeschool.org to see where classes meet. George School classes do not meet every day. This may be an adjustment for your child, and you might ask her how that is, what she likes about that.
But do not ask specific questions. This is not a contradiction but a corollary to the above advice. When you say “Did you finish your English paper on time?” or “What grade did you get on your biology test?” your child does not hear a question. He hears first, “They don’t think I can do anything,” and second, “Grades are all that matter to them.” He hears nagging, second-guessing, etc., etc. Try to ask questions that evince your interest in the student as a person—in just the way you would any other adult you care about.
Actively listen. If you are not nagging, or asserting your right to know all, or firing off a list of concerns, but are instead responding to your child, you must have been really listening! A family counselor we know maintains that most parents talk too much. Sometimes it’s because we’re desperate for our child to say something. The best way to get your child to talk is to listen. But listen actively, responding to what is said by echoing (telling him what you heard) or by building on the topic he has introduced. And sometimes you just need to say, “I’m listening” and then do so. That means, be quiet.
Do not ask if he is homesick. The experience of going away to school has a certain rhythm: initial excitement or positive intensity, usually lasting the first two to four weeks, then a drop to what if we were not cool we would call homesickness. It is a natural phenomenon, it is inevitable, and it does not last. So don’t ask about it. Just know that if the communication turns a little sad or wistful in late September or mid-October, that’s probably the cause. It’s your turn to steer the conversation to positive topics. We are advised by recent graduates that you should never, never ask “Are you homesick?” because “if I wasn’t homesick, that question would make me be and if I were, it wouldn’t make me feel any better.”
Email. Let’s get one thing straight: This will not be a you-write, I-write even exchange of correspondence. But neither does this mean that you are expected to send long missives of counsel, as did Lord Chesterfield, or long missives of chatter. Just write. Email a link to something that your child would find funny or reminiscent of home. Try writing just a paragraph a day, reporting on family, on your day, on the family pets, on the garden, on the car—whatever. Sometimes it is a relief to students to know that they are not the focus of attention (read: inquisition) and that you are an interesting person, too. Send a funny greeting card.
And it’s okay to write, “I miss you.” But just once a term, please.
Arrange a phone time. Establish a set time for communicating by phone since George School students are very busy and can sometimes be difficult to contact. When they’re not available, you can always text.
Food, glorious food. Boarding students miss being able to raid a refrigerator, pop over to the nearest fast-food joint for favorite eats, bake, or microwave their preferred snack. Send your child’s favorite treats, and if these are a purchased variety, no matter: It’s food and it came from you. In fact, you don’t have to be in the kitchen at all to send welcomed goodies. Students don’t always have time to walk to Summit (the local shopping center, with a grocery store), so go for them. Send microwaveable popcorn packages, lunchbox-sized packages of dried fruit, cookies, crackers, pudding. Send protein bars (the ones hikers and campers use)—things that can be tucked into the backpack for a snack between classes that don’t have to be purchased or pursued up four flights of stairs to the dorm room (no time!).
Now and then put money on your child’s debit account. Students need cash for outings to Newtown or Summit or for whatever they want or think they need. They can also use spending money at Bettye’s Place, the George School snack bar, which is particularly popular after school and sells only the finest pizza, chicken fingers, curly fries, and smoothies.
Suggest that your child find out how to send out for pizza or Chinese food—preferably on the weekends—when boarders are most likely to miss the little joys of home, that is, unlimited access to food. Ordering out may seem an obvious suggestion, but oftentimes first-time boarders assume that something that can be done at home cannot be done from the dorm. Dorm prefects will know all the best take-out restaurants.
Visit, but not too often. Unexpected visits are not a good idea. The October parents weekend is the best time for your first visit after your child has begun school. Coming before then disrupts the adjustment curve (see “homesickness” above). After that, if it is possible, visit on the weekend, when shopping and eating out (hurrah!) are events that students greatly appreciate. Visits give your child a chance to introduce you to some of the newly important people in her life and that means making a bridge between what is now for them two very different worlds: Home and School.
Invite friends home for holidays. Get to know your child’s friends by inviting them to visit during vacations. Many George School students think nothing of traveling great distances to see new places and meet new faces.
Allow your child to solve problems. Allowing boarding students to solve many of their own problems helps them develop this very important life skill.
Expect changes. Be patient with yourself and your child. He/she is maturing and that is a process that involves changes and mistakes. To quote that college guide mentioned earlier: “Parents who perpetuate the myth that these are the best years of a student’s life are working against their child’s already challenging self-development. Meanwhile, those who accept and understand the highs and lows of their child’s reality are providing support and encouragement where it is needed most. The first year of (boarding school) can be full of indecision, insecurities, disappointments, and mistakes. They are also full of discovery, inspiration, good times, and memorable people.”
And don’t be hurt when your child begins to refer to George School as “home.” It’s a good sign. Really.
An Academic Guide for First-Year Parents, PreMajor Center, Duke University, Durham, NC.
Supplement for First-Year Parents, Handbook for Parents, Office of Alumni and Parent Relations, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH.
Brett, Sally, George School parent ’00, ’01 (author of original Handbook for Boarding Parents, fall 1999)
Eudy, Katie, George School parent ’00, ’01
Lehman, Andrea, George School parent ’08, ’11