[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Parental Supervision Required

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Sat Sep 17 01:42:18 UTC 2005

Parental Supervision Required
New York Times Op-Ed, 5.9.7


    IN 1989, when I was 13 and living in Cincinnati, I waged a one-girl
    campaign to persuade my mother and father to let me attend Groton
    School in Massachusetts. Despite my parents' ambivalence about
    boarding school, they ultimately acquiesced, I went, and I received a
    very good education - not all of it academic. More than a decade
    later, I couldn't resist setting my first novel at a boarding school.
    Now at readings, I'm asked if I'd send my own child away to school,
    and I say no.

    My naked hypocrisy isn't the only reason I feel apologetic in these
    moments. It's also because the person who asks the question usually is
    middle-aged and gives off a certain preppy whiff - perhaps he's
    wearing seersucker pants, or maybe her voice has that assured, WASP-y
    thickness - and it seems highly likely that my questioner already is
    or soon will be a boarding-school parent.

    But it turns out I'm not alone: an increasing number of parents are
    deciding against boarding school. Enrollment at private day schools
    has grown 15 percent in the past decade, while enrollment at boarding
    schools has grown only 2.7 percent. Overall boarding school enrollment
    dropped from about 42,000 in the late 1960's to 39,000 in the last
    school year - even though, according to the Census Bureau, the
    population of 14- to 17-year-olds was more than 1.5 million higher in
    2004 than in 1968.

    Reporting on this, The Wall Street Journal attributed the shift away
    from boarding school to a trend of greater parental involvement, which
    translates into parents reluctant to be apart from their children.
    This is, evidently, the same reason some parents are now accompanying
    their teenagers to boarding school; these mothers and fathers
    literally move, sometimes cross-country, to be close to the campuses
    of the boarding schools their children attend.

    While the new breed of super-involved parent strikes me as slightly
    creepy (having worked as a private-school teacher, I've also seen
    parents whose idea of "involvement" is doing their children's homework
    for them), I don't think the conclusion they've come to is the wrong
    one. Among the reasons I wouldn't send my own child to boarding school
    is that being around one's adolescent peers 24 hours a day doesn't
    seem particularly healthy. It makes the things that already loom large
    in high school - grades, clothes, sports, heartache, acne - loom even

    Going home at night provides physical distance from the relentlessness
    of all teenagers, all the time, and, ideally, parents provide
    perspective. Although they might be dorky, parents know an important
    lesson about everything from serious hazing to the embarrassment of
    dropping a lunch tray in a crowded cafeteria: This, too, shall pass.

    Certainly teachers provide an adult perspective at boarding schools,
    but it's a very unusual teacher who influences an adolescent as much
    as the average parent does. Furthermore, while many boarding school
    teachers knock themselves out on students' behalf not just by teaching
    but also by coaching and running dorms, they're undermined by lesser
    teachers who, rather than guiding students out of teenage pettiness,
    seem themselves to get sucked down into it. There is on every boarding
    school campus some variation on the doofus teacher who, if he's not
    actually buying beer to ingratiate himself with the popular senior
    guys, sure seems to wish he could.

    The self-containment of boarding schools can create terrariums of
    privilege in which students develop a skewed sense of money and have a
    hard time remembering that, in fact, it is not normal to go skiing in
    Switzerland just because it's March, or to receive an S.U.V. in
    celebration of one's 16th birthday. At, for example, Choate Rosemary
    Hall - one of many boarding schools starting classes this or next week
    - room, board and tuition for 2005-2006 is $35,360. If, as Choate's
    Web site explains, 27 percent of students receive financial aid, that
    means the other 73 percent come from families that are, by just about
    any standards except perhaps their own, very rich. Even when these
    schools hold chapel services espousing humility and service to others,
    it's the campus facilities - the gleaming multimillion-dollar
    gymnasium, say - that can send a louder message.

    It's hard not to wonder: in a world of horrifying inequities, at what
    point do these lavishly maintained campuses go from enriching and
    bucolic to just obscene? Can a student living on such a campus be
    blamed if, logically working backward, she starts to think her access
    to such bounty must exist because she deserves it? It is this line of
    thought, I suspect, that gives rise to the noxious attitude of
    entitlement and snobbishness that is simultaneously less common than
    pop-culture depictions of boarding school would have you believe and
    also not that hard to find.

    FOR me, the question isn't why parents wouldn't send a child to
    boarding school as much as why they would. Unless there are either
    severe problems at home or flat-out terrible local schools, I don't
    see the point. Even in the case of terrible schools, I'm not convinced
    that parents can't significantly augment their children's education.
    Among the advantages of boarding school are opportunities for
    independence, academic stimulation, small classes, peer companionship
    and the aforementioned campus beauty - but every single one of these
    opportunities is available at dozens of liberal arts colleges, so why
    not just wait a few years until the student will better appreciate
    such gifts and save $140,000? Besides, then there's no risk of college
    feeling anticlimactic, as it can for boarding school graduates.

    Of course, none of this is what I thought when I was 13. I thought
    then, and I still think, that boarding school seemed interesting. It's
    a place where bright, talented adolescents rub up against each other
    figuratively and literally. Our culture is fascinated by the rich and
    the young, and elite boarding schools are a place where the two
    intersect. That doesn't mean you'll automatically be better off if you
    attend one, but it does make it unsurprising that they've retained a
    hold in the popular imagination.

    It's not that I see boarding schools as evil. I just don't see them as
    necessary, and despite their often self-congratulatory rhetoric, I
    don't see them as noble - certainly no more so than public schools. At
    the same time, I recognize the hubris in declaring how I'll raise my
    as-yet-nonexistent children, and probably nothing makes it likelier
    that I will send them to boarding school than publicly vowing I won't.
    I'm not planning on it, but life is hard to predict and perhaps at a
    parents' weekend 20 years from now, standing on the sidelines of a
    verdant lacrosse field, I'll be the one wearing seersucker.

    Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novel "Prep."

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