“I like your outfit – where is it from?”  The girl is looking me up and down, accessing the outfit I’m wearing.  “Shanton” I say, giving the name of a knock-off cheap brand of clothes.  She sniffs and walks away.  I’ve been at boarding school less than 10 minutes and I’ve already made a faux pas.


In that culture – rural New Zealand, late 1980’s – it was really common to send kids away to boarding school.   We had inherited this culture from England, along with rugby, cricket, beer and pale skin that burned in the sun.     We had inherited it unquestioningly, each generation sending their kids away at a young age just as they had been sent away at a young age.  Some of the kids in my school were third generation boarders.  They treated each other more as family than their real family, down to familial nicknames and closeness.  They talked about how their parents were still close with their old roommates from boarding school.  They thought it was normal.


I understood none of this.  In my family, I was the first, and it was all new to me.  What I didn’t know then but know now is that being institutionalized this way was not new for my ancestors, just at the other end of the scale.    In a 1870’s census,  my great-great grandmother is described as an ‘inmate’ of a workhouse in Bedfordshire.    She is 8 years old, around the age a lot of children were and are sent to boarding school.   Like the teens I was meeting, she was institutionalized.


This kind of  institutional estrangement between parents and children is an important cultural value for us..  We think it gives children a leg-up in some way.  But why?  Why is it considered normal, even positive, to send your children away? Boarding Concern was set up several years ago to push back against boarding schools, especially for really young children.    They believe the psychological and emotional toll of boarding school on children is huge and largely ignored.  It seems to be the same in NZ, Canada and Australia, and the east-coast of the US as well.  Prominent academics in Canada have written books about the importance of the parent-child bond to a child’s development and of ‘holding on’ to your kids as long as you can:   read this, and this.


We inflicted this value on the people we conquered, imagining we were doing them a favour by inculculating their children with our values, and forcing them into residential schools.  Read this. Maybe our lack of empathy for these indigenous children and their parents came from our  own in-bred intergenerational lack of empathy.    We didn’t know any better, we were already broken, callous, half-developed.   Damaged by the boarding school at one end, by the workhouse or orphanage at the other.


One of the things I will never forget about my boarding school is the bullying that went on there.  There was one girl who took out her warped anger on anyone she perceived as weaker.  I have to wonder at an institution that throws children together in such an unsafe away, 24 hours a day, with adult figures who try but ultimately don’t love them, and with other children who are disturbed.


Boarding school, maybe it’s time we let you go.