To board or not to board, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of separation
Or to take up homeschooling against a sea of deprivations….
If Hamlet had been a prospective missionary to Africa, he might have begun his soliloquy this way. Parents considering missionary service in Africa, or any number of other locations around the world, have to take the issue of their children’s education very seriously. Trying to balance the twin priorities of keeping the family together and ensuring that their child receives a quality education is tough in many places.
Unfortunately, the missionary boarding school is perceived by many on the outside as a way for the missionary parents to keep their kids out of the way so they, the parents, can devote all their time to “church work” on the field. On the contrary, missionaries would love to have their children growing up with them and learning to serve alongside them. It is a tremendous testimony to the local people for them to see the missionary couple raise their children according to biblical values. In reality, it grieves parents to part with their children. The opportunity cost of separation is great, but it can be worthwhile with certain safeguards in place.
I, too, have heard the stories of preachers’ kids and missionary kids who grow up resentful of their parents’ devotion to their ministry, sensing a neglect of their emotional needs. They feel distant from their parents and even farther away from the God they served. No doubt, quite a number of PKs and MKs do feel that way. In fact, I was drawn to the Rift Valley Academy partly because such experiences did seem so tragic to me. I wanted to be part of the solution. I wanted to help my students appreciate more deeply their parents’ calling, and I hoped Eva and I could give them some of the love they craved during the months they were separated from family. But is the boarding experience, in and of itself, traumatic? This is a question I’ve had to delve into.
It is easy to say that with so many fantastic homeschooling resources available, any loving missionary parent would choose to homeschool their children on the field, keeping them close by. In fact, that is the expectation for missionary parents, even from RVA’s perspective. With few exceptions, students do not start boarding at the Rift Valley Academy until they begin middle school (Elementary-aged students are predominantly the children of missionaries serving in Kijabe). The heart-wrenching decision to have their children study at a boarding school comes at a time when the parents realize that homeschooling, as up-to-date as it can be, will not provide the students–at least in the African setting–with the kinds of socialization, access to technology, and extracurricular involvement that will prepare them for college life, presumably in the West. This is primarily true for missionaries serving in rural settings, but it can be true for those in many remote urban settings.
There is no doubt that the effects of the cross-cultural experience on the parent and child is profound. In many ways it is enriching and in other ways, taxing. Just how profound the effect is will vary from family to family. And just how debilitating is the separation involved in attending a boarding school? Is it alone the main culprit for the issues many MKs struggle with? It is often worthwhile to look at how well the family functions when they are together, the quality of the parent-child relationship, and the choices the child has made. These factors alone–aside from separation–can account greatly for the type of self-identity a child develops growing up. Family life before boarding is more likely to determine the quality of the boarding experience. Children who come from dysfunctional families are more likely to interpret being sent to a boarding school as a form of rejection. An authority on boarding school education has noted, “Family unity is based on something deeper than geographic location. I know of no study that would support the idea that sending a child away to school is, by itself, detrimental to the child. In fact, studies indicate that if parents (families) are having troubles, it will not matter how the child is educated–the problems will probably transfer to the child.”
But separation from family is indeed difficult, and RVA’s mission is to see that the students there have access to high-quality education in a loving, Christ-centered environment. RVA tries to create a family atmosphere on campus with small dorms where students have more contact with their dorm parents. Special evenings during the course of the term are set aside featuring activities that help promote healthy and meaningful relationships between staff and students. In addition, discipline is not authoritarian and arbitrary, but rather approached in such a way that students can develop healthy and independent decision-making skills. And no matter how difficult the separation is, the family is reunited for one month at the conclusion of each 12-week term. Eva and I feel privileged to work with such a caring community.
Below are some interesting statistics relating to missionary kids and their experience with boarding schools:
How academically prepared are they? 90-95% go on to higher education, and 75% graduate. 40% obtain some form of graduate degree.
How emotionally mature are they? In one study, separation from family enhanced the students’ self-identity. 93% of MKs responded that their relationship with father was a source of enjoyment for them, compared with 58% of their North American peers. And 95% of MKs, according to one survey, indicated that they would choose to relive their boarding school experience.
Eva and I are called to love the kids at RVA, no matter what kind of family background they come from or whether they perceive their time there to be invigorating or immensely difficult. We want to teach, equip, encourage and send these children out to serve as missionaries alongside their parents when they return home on break. We hope some of them will occasionally ask us to join them in serving there with them, too!
[Some information adapted from Phil Dow in School in the Clouds: The Rift Valley Academy Story, Chapter 6.]