Struan Robertson, head of Lakefield College School, a co-educational boarding institution in Ontario's cottage country, is constantly seeking a cure for "mom syndrome."
"We have to convince the moms that they're not being bad parents by sending their kids to Lakefield," the head of school says from his office on the green and wooded 315-acre lakeside campus, about two hours northeast of Toronto. "They're giving their kids the opportunity of a lifetime to live and learn in an environment that builds resiliency and allows them to participate in arts, drama, outdoor education, leadership activities and teaches them how to get along with others.
"It's not about sending your kids away. It's about your kids taking that opportunity and kicking it out of the park."
But with today's helicopter parents, constantly hovering over their kids, and boomerang children, who keep returning to the nest well into adulthood, it's a unique subset of students who end up at private boarding schools, which cost about $50,000 a year for tuition, lodging and food.
Samuel Grant, who graduated from Lakefield last June, sought out a boarding school education after Grade 10. His local high school in the town of Orangeville, Ont., which he had attended for grades 9 and 10, "definitely wasn't the best fit," he says.
"The average student there wasn't looking to university," says Mr. Grant, who is entering the engineering program at Queen's University in Kingston this month. "I really wanted to be with more people who had my mindset regarding the future."
The other factor that drew Mr. Grant to Lakefield, famously home to Prince Andrew for six months in 1977, was that his father had both attended the school and taught there. That made boarding a familiar concept for Mr. Grant, whereas most teens learn what they know about these schools through the Harry Potter series or The Catcher in the Rye.
William and Thomas Lynn, 17-year-old fraternal twins from Thetford Mines, Que., also had a family connection with boarding school before they started at Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Que., three years ago. Their father had attended Trinity College School, in Port Hope, Ont., in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the idea that his kids might one day go to school away from home was always in the back of his mind.
"I wanted to offer them that opportunity that I had enjoyed so much," says their father, Philip Lynn, who owns an equipment company that services the mining and pulp and paper industries. "Also, coming from a small town, I wanted them to be able to get out and meet other people – widen their horizons a little bit."
But boarding schools aren't just for students who come from small towns or places where top-tier education isn't available.
"There are a huge number of our kids who come from Toronto," says Lakefield's Mr. Robertson, noting that more than two-thirds of the schools students are boarders, and 30 per cent of those come from abroad. The administration is also proud that one in three students receives financial assistance, averaging more than $17,000 a student.
Some kids who have been in private school from kindergarten to Grade 8 are looking for a change, Mr. Robertson says, so they choose boarding school for their secondary education rather than staying where they are or going to a similar private school in Toronto. And children who have attended a smaller, specialized private school that goes up only to Grade 8, such as Toronto's Sterling Hall School or Montcrest School, often choose Lakefield in answer to the question: Where do we go next?
In 1983, Chris White was one of those kids. He had attended a Montessori school since kindergarten and, when it ended after Grade 6, he needed to find a new school. His family looked at a private day school in Toronto and at Lakefield, which has since cut its grade 7 and 8 programs.
"When I saw the school in Toronto I really felt like I just saw classrooms," says Mr. White, vice-president of corporate strategy for RSA Canada in Toronto. "But when I went to Lakefield I saw the classrooms and the academic programming but also the lake and the beautiful setting. It had a different feeling, with all kinds of experiential and extracurricular opportunities."
Mr. White, who is on the board of directors for Lakefield, credits his boarding-school experience with teaching him how to get along with others in all situations, build a love of the outdoors and become a self-reliant individual early in life.
As a father of three – a three-year-old son and two daughters, ages 6 and 8 – Mr. White is open to the possibility of his own kids attending boarding school one day, but says it will be a decision the family will make with each individual child, when the time comes.
Who thrives at boarding school?
Not all kids are cut out for boarding school. But, according to U.S. psychologist and bestselling author Michael Thompson, who went to boarding school and consults for boarding schools in Canada and the United States, these are the types of children who can hack it:
- Very capable children who are highly independent and want to test themselves in the world. "It takes some courage on the part of parents to acknowledge that the world of the family is somewhat too small for their child now, and that the child needs his or her own world," Dr. Thompson says in an interview.
- Children who are underperforming in their local school or who are stuck in a rut and need a jolt. "These kids respond very well to a boarding school," Dr. Thompson says. "There's an evening study hall so you're not at home, alone, fighting about homework with your mom. Instead, you're in a dorm with everybody who has to do their homework from 7 to 9 p.m."
- Students with special requirements, such as elite dancers or musicians or students with learning disabilities. "There are many niche boarding schools that serve a specific kind of child," Dr. Thompson says.
Foreign students who are preparing to get into North American universities. "Their families want them to come to a school in Canada and it's a huge sacrifice for those families," says Dr. Thompson, whose most recent book is Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.