So I bailed: Why I sent my kids to private school

Lessons learned by a mom who made the switch

AS A CERTIFIED control freak and perfectionist, I was not a shoo-in for keeping my kids in public school. I tried. Really I did. In principle, I believe public education to be a core tenet of community and that when people like me walk away from the public system, we do it — and ultimately our communities — untold harm. I was torn — I didn’t want to raise my kids to be elitists, but the rubber hits the road when you contemplate giving them less than the best start in life.

All was well in public school until my daughter and her two best friends wrote swear words all over the playground at recess in Grade 2. The principal told me it happened because the girls were bored. Apparently they had learned all the material in their Grade 1/2 combo class. When I asked what could be done about their boredom, he replied: “The mothers could take them to the Science Centre.” He said my daughter could be tested for the gifted program in Grade 4, but until then, there would be no enrichment of the basic program.

So I bailed. My son went to Upper Canada College (UCC), my daughter to University of Toronto Schools (UTS) and SOLA, and I learned two things from my experience as a private school mom (other than how to write cheques): Both lessons were about control. (Most of my parenting lessons are about control.) The first lesson is that private schools are no more influenced by me than public schools. The people who talk to parents are way smoother at the private schools and they had nicer offices, but underneath the spin, they pretty much never did anything I asked them to do — just like the public school people.

The second lesson about control was much more important, and, unlike lesson one (disappointment layered on disappointment), it was a cloud with a huge silver lining. This lesson concerned homework, both for itself and as a metaphor for larger issues about taking responsibility. I had always assumed that homework was a parental responsibility, that it was my job as a mom to ensure that my kids did their homework. Which I did the way control freaks do such things: nagging garnished with threats of consequences. Hounding kids to do schoolwork came naturally to me. But a funny thing happened: my son suggested, somewhere around Grade 5, that homework should be his responsibility. I thought he was nuts (after all, he’s just a kid), but an expert told me to shut up and let the kid take charge. She said that otherwise he would either never learn to take responsibility for himself or would resent me for life.

So I let it be his homework. I stopped nagging and hounding. I gave up reminding and threatening consequences. Lo and behold, the unimaginable happened: He stepped up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park, graduated from UCC an Ontario Scholar. The private schools did the job for me.

Unfortunately public schools lack the resources to pay close attention when kids don’t keep up, so kids fall through the cracks. But good private schools have the person power to pay attention and work with kids who aren’t producing.

This is not simply about rich parents contracting out homework hounding. When we opt out of the homework project and let our kids own their work (and its outcomes), we send kids a many-layered important message. We’re saying: I trust you to learn how to make good choices and I am counting on you to learn to take responsibility for yourself.

That messaging is an important act of mature parenting. It builds a more resourceful and independent child, which is who we all want to raise.
Like every act of letting go, it’s terrifying. It requires a strong stomach to tolerate the bumps along the road. Sending my kids to private school made it easier. It lowered the risk — I knew somebody else was watching and would notice and sound the alarm if my children dropped the ball.

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is the director of Camp Arowhon, in Algonquin Park, where she teaches 150 staff to parent effectively and acts as “Mom” to 300 kids at a time, every summer.

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