Parenting Perspective: The Gift of Parenting from Afar

The question posed to us is whether geographic distance affects our experience as parents of Deerfield students. Why us? We are about to begin the fourth year of our fourth child–all, while living in Phoenix, Arizona. Jules (’05), Clifton (’07), Jacqueline (’10), and Sidney (’14) add up to a dozen consecutive years at the school and far too many Parents Weekends to count.

So does the experience of the far-away parent differ, and if so, what are the challenges and the benefits? Surprisingly, at least for us, the answer is not so much, but if it does differ, it is all for the better.

All boarding school parents either know or learn very quickly about the doctrine of in loco parentis. After all, we are willing to drop our children off in an impossibly green valley in Western Massachusetts because we know that other exceptional and loving adults will stand in our shoes. Besides the draw of an excellent education, we do this because we believe the system fosters independence and the ability to adapt to a new social system

Living away from home during adolescence establishes structure and discipline, we are told, but it also means that our kids will learn many life lessons from dorm parents and teachers–not to mention an entirely new peer group. In particular, we all worry about the myriad of subjective forces ushering our children through adolescence. All the while we are reassured that we will remain involved in our children’s education even as the support network expands exponentially.

Nothing different so far between the parents located along the East Coast and the ones in the Desert Southwest. We all buy into the same system. One that says your child doesn’t always win everything, whether at sports, academics or social life. And we are supposed to let the system work, supposedly without our presence.

So here is our thesis: Perhaps it is a bit easier to let the system work when you are a couple of flights and a day of travel away from your child. Put in a different, more positive light: Perhaps far-away parents are the greater beneficiaries of the boarding school system.

That’s not to say that there are not some challenges associated with our separation. Impromptu overnight stays by 14-year-olds stranded in distant hub airports was a new and frightening experience. An emergency appendectomy in the middle of the night at the Greenfield Hospital was nothing like the quaint story of Madeline. We were left feeling utterly powerless but grateful to Mr. Pond who held a bedside vigil in our stead. Blessed more with performers than athletes, we did not often feel the tug of the big game but learned that it is easier to make opening night than it is to cheer an entire soccer season. Far away parents can miss out on getting to know their kids’ friends, so I encourage you to invite your child’s friends out for a meal when you are on campus so that you can get to know them. Seeing them all in action together is a great thing and goes a long way when you are back home and friends come up in conversation. If you happen to be there when it is not Parents Weekend, you will discover how much you can learn at the dinner table when you have company.

Overall, the separation brings some subtle benefits for both parents and students. The long distance between home and school means a very clear break from Deerfield when the kids are home. This is especially true during vacation breaks when our kids work hard to rekindle ties with pre-high school friends who will often treat them as visiting dignitaries. That goes for us parents, too. And just in our duration at the school, limited landlines have given way to once-banned mobile phones making it possible to chat, text, and Skype in ways we never imagined when we first landed in the Pocumtuck Valley.

Probably the most obvious benefit we have experienced with our Deerfield students is directly related to the great expanse separating home and school. We send our kids to Deerfield in large part because we want to broaden their horizons, to give them real world experience in a very different part of the country. Most people in our own valley, the Valley of the Sun as we call it, will probably not experience the history and natural beauty of Deerfield, let alone the autumnal grandeur of New England. In our way of thinking, our kids get the best of both worlds. It would hardly be appropriate, therefore, to complain about a mere 2,500 miles separating these two places.

We seem to miss them more than they miss us–a common lament for boarding school parents. If we are preparing them for an independent college experience, they are surely doing the same for us. As we get ready for our fourth (but perhaps not last, as we still have a sixth grader keeping us company) transition from boarding school to college life, we thank Deerfield for preparing our child in so many ways for the adventures to come. We also know as boarding school parents that we have been trained to let them go, in a thousand little ways, throughout our time at Deerfield. The boarding school model, as enshrined in the doctrine of in loco parentis, probably works whether you believe in it or not, but for those of us who are far-away parents, we have to believe because we have no other choice.

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