“Boarding schools: Is it wise to send your young child away from home?” asks the Observer, as the Sunday version of the Guardian is still quaintly calling itself. The answer, it says, is no.
An astonishing number of British parents still send pre-teen children away to boarding school – about 4,000 of them are 10 years old or younger. Numbers have not declined in 15 years. Even if we do get the necessary safeguards of mandatory reporting and a new law on emotional abuse, parents should be questioning the need to risk their child’s happy development by sending them away. If they are unhappy, are you sure you would know? As a reader commented: “When you give your child to a stranger who does not love them, you take a gamble. If your child is miserable, then you are neglecting them. Can you live with that?”
No pressure or anything! Seriously, I have no personal experiences as either parent or child to recount and no general opinion on whether boarding schools are in general good or bad. I have known both those who hated and those who loved their time as boarders. The question that leapt to my mind on reading that paragraph was something a little different:
How come giving your ten year old child to “a stranger who does not love them” is to place their happiness and your very soul as a parent at hazard but giving your three month old child to a stranger who does not love them is practically obligatory on grounds of gender equity?
I have only slightly more of a personal stake in this one. I never went to any sort of nursery or playgroup as a child; my own children had paid pre-school childcare some of the time and have turned out no loopier than their parents. Once again, I have known others with both good and bad experiences. It is the discrepancy between the Guardian-reading classes’ opinions about subcontracting your childcare for a baby and for an older child that interests me. The usual feminist opinion is that anyone who makes the suggestion that mothers ought to so much as look back over their shoulders as they stride out from the nursery gate on their way to the 9am meeting can only be motivated by a desire to keep women chained to the sink. Taking an example at random, “At last, working mothers can ditch the guilt – their children do not suffer,” writes the regular columnist Polly Toynbee. Maybe she is right and they do not suffer. The playgroup leaders always said they stopped crying once I was out of sight. But is the parent’s confidence in that merciful amnesia for a baby or toddler dependent on adults for its survival hour by hour really so much more justified than it is for a child entering boarding school years later?
UPDATE: A very good point, made in the comments below and also in discussion over at Tim Worstall’s blog, is that boarding school is 24/7 whereas daycare is not. However I think that makes less difference than it seems at first sight, because for a child of 0 – 4 years to be in daycare long enough for the mother to do a full time job five days a week with, say, an hour’s commute from nursery to workplace, does in practice mean that for the child almost every waking hour from Monday to Friday will be spent in daycare simply because babies and toddlers need much more sleep than older children.