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Posted: Oct 27, 2010 13:23


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by Rosemary McKinnon

When parents come to interview at Montana Academy they often express their grief about having to send a beloved child far from home to grow up with strangers. Many parents express the hardest thing they've ever done is calling a transporter to remove their child from his/her bedroom at 3-4:00am to take them to a wilderness program. At the time of an enrollment on our campus students have generally had a beginning stab at reconciliation with their parents during their course of wilderness treatment and have more or less accepted the necessity of leaving home to finish their high school education. They generally say that they are nervous about entering a new school but they rarely shed tears. Parents almost invariably do.

The months, and even years, preceding an enrollment have often been an extraordinarily wretched time in their family life precipitating serious marital stress on top of the acute misery of watching a loved child endanger his future or sometimes her life. Yet many parents continue to experience intense loss for several months after enrollment. They are acutely aware of the empty bedroom and the hole in their hearts. One mother told me that she avoided going to the grocery store at times when she might run into someone that she knew and have to endure questions about her child that she could hardly bear to answer. This loss is mixed with the concomitant shame of feeling like a defective parent. Sadness over a child's premature departure from home is surely not hard for any of us to understand, and yet I come from a culture in which parents were made of sterner stuff.

The British public school has been around for several hundred years. Accounts of life at such schools were not pleasant. Students were routinely toughened up by regular floggings and cold showers. Masters were often cruel and "fagging"- a system of servitude by new boys as the vassals of older boys or prefects- was the norm. Sexual acting out was also routine, if not actively condoned. Britain's oldest public school, Rugby, was founded in 1567 and, with the publication of Tom Brown's School Days in 1857, became a model for a first rate Victorian education under its famous headmaster, Thomas Arnold. Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre ten years earlier in 1847 and gave an account of young Jane's excruciating experience of hunger, cold and punitive instruction at Lowood School. Yet British parents who could afford to do so sent their children away to boarding schools in the hope of instilling certain kinds of values and providing an education that was not available at home.

My parents were living in the Persian Gulf when my brother, Peter, turned 7 and I remember returning to England with my mother to accompany my little brother, who was still sucking his thumb and stroking his "blankie", to his enrollment at a prep school in Oxford. This school was the first step on the road to Oxbridge. Although I was two years his senior because I was a girl I remained with my parents until I was age 12 and, only then, was likewise enrolled at a girls' boarding school in Wiltshire for the next 5 years of my life. Neither my brother nor I found this an easy adjustment but we, and our parents, accepted it as the natural order of things and a necessary part of growing up. This was simply a routine part of upper middle class British culture. My tender hearted mother grieved a great deal but she kept it to herself. I don't ever recall a complaint while she got on with the job of being a diplomat's wife in the Middle East and doing her best to help others less fortunate than her own children. We communicated by weekly letters exchanged across great physical and temporal distances as we got on with the business of growing up. English literature of the time is replete with stories of children separated from their parents by the month long sea voyage to India. "Little Black Sambo," written by one such Scottish mother for the young children that she had left in England before returning to India, was one of my earliest books.

I am inclined to think that American parents are not suffering any more or less than their British counterparts of an earlier generation in sending their sons and daughters away to school. I think that it is rather a matter of cultural expectations. My father, an only child who had lost his father at age two, was raised by a doting mother. His maiden aunts considered him spoilt, in danger of "not learning to tie his own shoes," and packed him off to a local Oxfordshire boarding school at age 10. He always told me that he was terribly unhappy there but that he learned what it took to be successful and worked hard for a place at Oxford. My mother, who was one of six children whose father died when she was 13, helped to raise her younger siblings and earned a scholarship to nearby Queen's University, Belfast. My parents were grateful for their hard earned educations and were determined to do whatever it took to ensure that their own two children received good educations also. They saved their money carefully and were grateful that they could afford to do this duty. This was by no means unusual.

I also believe that there has been a significant cultural change in acceptance of the necessity of sending some young people away from home to therapeutic boarding schools or other placements since Montana Academy opened in 1997. Visiting parents share that they have met or talked with someone else who has sent a student to a residential program. Parents are increasingly willing to talk to each other and support each other in making these hard decisions. Many educational consultants are now offering support groups as part of their outreach to parents who seek their advice and expertise. Parents are no longer so alone and this makes the sense of shame and loss more bearable. One mother wrote to me recently to tell me that her sister-in-law was worried about her college age daughter and had expressed her envy that her nephew had dealt with his difficulties when he was a teenager and that it was possible to maintain a sense of normalcy (school, exercise, friends, chores and trips with clear boundaries and tight structure) sooner rather than later. We all hear stories of young adults whose lives remain in jeopardy because their parents couldn't, or wouldn't, make the necessary commitment whether they liked it or not. And there is considerable press currently about "basement boys," young men (and women) still living in their parents' homes long after they should be out on their own. Current statistics suggest that 64 percent of college graduates are back in the nest. A recent New Yorker cover (May 24, 2010) depicts one such young man moving back into his room where he hangs his PhD on the wall, while his anguished parents watch from the doorway. While this reflects the changing economic climate it may also be indicative of a broad cultural failure to help children grow up.

Some of our students manage to spontaneously express their gratitude to their parents for making the hard decision to send them away and for investing in their futures. One young man about to leave campus in May wrote to his parents to say, "I guess that I have never really thanked you guys for sending me here. When I am struggling or even when things are going well, I forget how much you guys sacrifice to help me…I know that you would do it over again without hesitation…I want to make you proud more than anything else and to show you how much the last year and a half has meant to me." What parent would not be overjoyed to receive such a letter?
Our students sometimes joke about sending their own kids away from home to wilderness when they reach those difficult teenage years and, although I certainly hope that this is not the case, I am amused by the sentiment. Transporters and wilderness treatment have become a singular rite of passage for a small group of privileged youth who toss around the supposed virtues and restrictions of ending up in one or other therapeutic placement. While this new culture does not yet hold the status of the most famous English public schools of Eton and Winchester, it amuses me to think of parents and students in assessing the relative merits of Carlbrook versus Montana Academy as well!

About the Author:
Rosemary McKinnon, MA, is the Director of Admissions and Founder of Montana Academy, a therapeutic boarding school located in Montana that emphasizes treatment and education. For more information, contact Rosemary at, 406-858-2339 or visit the website:

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