By Jane St. Clair

Most adults can recall the image of the late Princess Diana saying goodbye to Prince Harry the day she left him at boarding school. Like his older brother Will, Harry was only 8 years old when he entered Ludgrove School. Many Americans could not understand why the princes went away from home at such a young age. After all, Diana, who had been a kindergarten teacher, had been a very “hands-on” mother.

Among European aristocrats, children have traditionally been in the care of governesses and nursery schools until they reached age 7 or 8, when they enter boarding school. This tradition dates back to the early Middle Ages, when the sons of wealthy families went away to monasteries to be educated by the clergy.

While 8 years old seems like a young age to live away from home to some Americans, in many cultures it is a celebrated “coming of age” moment for young children to attend boarding school. Some boarding schools even offer programs for kindergarten-age children. While some of these very young children live at their schools only on Mondays through Fridays or attend as day students, just as many board at the school and come home only during holiday vacations and semester breaks. In China, over five million children 6 to 8 years old attend boarding schools, and the government there is building about 3,000 new boarding schools every year.

Why Boarding School?

The most common reason parents send their children to boarding school is that they believe the benefits strongly outweigh the disadvantages. For example, the Chinese government supports boarding schools because they ensure that children have proper nutrition, housing, and education.

Many Europeans have found that boarding schools offer superior academics. Studying at Eton or Harrow is considered a passport to Oxford or Cambridge. Parents like the idea of a more wholesome life in the countryside, where children have room to ride horses and roam in a natural setting. Many of these schools feature world-class gymnasiums, heated swimming pools, equine programs, Jacuzzis, and many other amenities.
Most children experience a bit of homesickness initially but quickly adapt to their new environment. Experts like Christopher Thurber and his colleagues have found that nearly all children at sleep-away camps and schools experience some form of homesickness, but that only 1.6% have intense symptoms. They also found that children feel less yearning for home if they take an active part in choosing the camp or school, if the parents are supportive, and if the staff is talented at making the children feel at home.

While younger children may experience more homesickness than older ones, it depends on the individual child’s maturity, personality, and readiness. Another study found that individual factors such as a child’s extraversion, rigidity, assertiveness, and earlier experiences were markers of vulnerability to developing feelings of homesickness.

Some children look forward to attending boarding school. When the Harry Potter craze was at its highest, many children in London asked their parents to send them to boarding schools because they wanted to have the fun of living with peers and sharing glorious adventures like their literary hero. 

When the Lloyds sent their 8-year-old son Tom to boarding school, his mother worried about him. After he returned to London after his first term, she gave him the choice of living at home. Tom’s emphatic response was, “Mum, have you gone mad?”

Boarding Schools for Troubled Teens

“Prep schools” aren’t the only option for teens who would benefit from the boarding school experience. Therapeutic boarding schools, which offer rigorous academics and traditional boarding school experiences as well as intensive therapy, work with teens with emotional, behavioral, or learning issues. These private boarding schools provide many of the same advantages as traditional boarding schools, but with the added benefit of interventions like equine therapy, art therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and much more. While most of the schools focus on adolescents, some specialize in getting younger students, as young as 10 years old, back on track in school and at home.