“Parents and boarding staff – working together to care and mentor the children of our future”. – Michael Barton, SMGS Deputy Principal

This article isn’t about parent bashing – there are other commentators who do that and I’m not one for dividing the partnership that needs to be established between a parent (home) and boarding staff (school). This blog is about reflecting on the situational context when a particular parenting approach is required more than another.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in education now for sixteen years. I started working in education during my first year of university when I commenced as a Duty Master at an independent boys’ boarding school in regional New South Wales. I’ve been fortunate to work across schools in New South Wales and Queensland in my teaching career and I have been lucky enough to enjoy each one of my sixteen years in education. In addition, I’ve enjoyed making many good friends with the parents of students in my care.

I’m not a biological parent. I do not have any of ‘my own children’ and it may seem rather hypocritical that I am writing about parenting approaches when I have ‘not had to do it’ myself, personally. On the contrary, I’ve been involved in the residential care of approximately 700 boarders in my vocation so far – that excludes students whom I teach in the day school. I’ve been involved in comforting them when they have received bad news, I’ve been side-by-side with them when they have faced consequences for their actions and I’ve been with them as they celebrated some of the biggest personal achievements of their lives. I may not have given birth to them or been involved in their conception, but I’ve guided, loved and cared for them as if they were my own. I’ve also had many of the emotional feelings that parents experience as they care and love for their children.

When I reflect across the many experiences of working with parents and their children, there is no denying that parents love and care for their children. I struggle to think of one parent who has not wanted the best for their child. At times, what they have thought is best may have been in contrast to what I have thought is best. In some cases, well many, the children have not appreciated the way in which the parent has gone about showing their love and appreciation for them, nor have they fully understood the reasons why their parents have made the decisions they did. In the end, though, I’m yet to find a parent who went out of their way to make bad decisions for the care of their children.

It’s never easy making decisions. Adult life is full of them and my mind often swirls when hearing ex-students comment about how life was much easier when ‘they were in boarding’. Their personal reflections suggest to them that adulthood has brought about increased level of responsibility and the expectation that ‘you get it right all the time’. When we share stories about some of the challenges of life as a boarder, they lament the decisions their parents made for them. That time they were not allowed to go to a party, or the time their parents reduced their allowance for some reason. This is usually associated with ‘if only they knew what we were really up to’. That’s the biggest challenge during the adolescent years – caring and mentoring young people. This is because they are still coming to understand the world and their place within that world. They need adults in their lives to mentor, challenge and, at the end of the day, make decisions for their best interests. That’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

Parenting Approaches – What Theory Shows Us

I came across the image above while doing some professional reading around the topic of homesickness. It’s from a body of work by Nijhof & Rutger (2007) about parenting approaches and students’ coping strategies through the expression of homesickness. It’s interesting to see research exploring parenting approaches and homesickness.

I want to highlight where I started this blog – looking at the situational context of when a particular style of parenting may be required over another style. They are not mutually exclusive and nor does each situation demand the same style. Similarly, the different personalities of children will require a different approach, as would the age of the child, but I would find it hard not to suggest that the optimal zone is the authoritative parenting style. Again, this is not parent bashing!

  • Permissive Parenting is a style of parenting where the child is considered to be in charge. This style attempts to avoid confrontation and there are few rules for the child. This style of parenting tends to be accompanied by low expectations and leniency that is non-directive. It’s often characterised by the phrase, “you’re the boss”.
  • Uninvolved Parenting tends to replicate the lower level of control and strictness in the same manner as permissive parenting, but what distinguishes this style of parenting is the absence, passive and/or uninterested nature of the parent. Sometimes this style is used when there are competing priorities. It’s often characterised by the phase, “you’re on your own”.
  • The third style, Authoritarian Parenting, is based on high expectations and structured environments. There is an autocratic relationship between the parent and child where clear rules and punishment exist. There is often little warmth and the relationship can be emotionally distant. It’s often characterised by the phrase, “because I said so”.
  • Finally, Authoritative Parenting, is when a parent uses a style that sets high expectations, clear standards, but is responsive and flexible to the wants of the child. The relationship tends to be more democratic and there is shared power in the relationship. The relationship is reciprocal, yet assertive. It’s often characterised by the phrase, “let’s talk about it”.

Around all of these parenting approaches is a level of extremity for each as well as the interconnectedness of approaches to context, age of child and circumstances.

So what did the researchers find about parenting approaches and homesickness?

Children who were raised by parents with a style that was authoritative and permissive experienced more homesickness than children raised by an authoritarian or uninvolved parenting style. In contrast, children who had parents with parenting approaches that were authoritarian or uninvolved showed more internalising and externalising problems when reacting to homesickness. Not surprisingly, the results showed:

“…the importance of a loving and accepting home environment for the development and expression of homesickness, as well as the importance of the way in which students learn to cope with their problems”

As I sit and reflect over the parenting approaches above, I cannot help but think to myself that our boarding staff, our vocational leaders in our schools, have much to take from the various approaches and the challenges of knowing which style to use in which context with students in the classrooms. The same challenges that parents face are very real and similar to the challenges faced by teachers.

Finally, my praise to our parents who work with our teachers and boarding staff. While we all make mistakes and are only human, we value your trust in us to mentor and guide your children. Together, we can achieve great things.

Reference List

Nijhof, K. & Rutger, C. (2007), Parenting Styles, coping strategies and the expression of homesickness, Journal of Adolescence (30), 709-720

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