Gifting children the opportunity to live away from home at an early age — even for just three weeks during the summer — helps develop independence and confidence as they start to see their place in the world beyond their bedroom.
When I was about five or six years old, I had my first sleepover at the home of my best friend, Paul. Things seem to be going well, until somewhere in the dark of night, I decided that I needed to be home and in my own bed. In those more casual, un-alarmed days, I simply got out of bed, slipped on my sneakers, and walked the four doors down to my own house. Of course, it did cause a bit of alarm when Paul and his mom woke up and noticed I was missing. But a quick phone call to my home confirmed I was snug in my bed.
Decades later, as a house head, and then dean at a boarding school, I learned some surprising things (at least to me) about independence and homesickness. The school at which I worked also admitted “post-grads,” a group of students who had already graduated from high school, but were attending another year of school to better position themselves for college.
These students, already legal adults, struggled with homesickness in greater proportion relative to the ninth graders, who were four or five years younger. They felt the separation from home more profoundly than these younger peers, and I learned from calling home that many were living away for the first or one of the first times in their lives.
At EXPLO, we have learned that starting early is a blessing. When students are young, they don’t feel the need to put up a front and pretend to not need adults.
Colleagues of mine who work in colleges and universities often remark on the surprising homesickness of first-year students. They are supposed to be celebrating the freedom of being away from home, but instead many are rife with anxiety and sadness. Or, in what is perhaps an attempt to “treat” that same anxiety, act out with drinking and other behaviors that are less than positive.
At EXPLO, we have learned that starting early is a blessing. When students are young, they don’t feel the need to put up a front and pretend to not need adults. Students entering the fourth grade are able to let our staff know that they have needs and accept help with gratitude. It fortifies them, rather than embarrassing them.
Don’t let college be the first time they spend significant time away from home. Getting started as soon as possible is the best gift you could give your child as they start to see themselves as capable members of the world community.
Believe it or not, Paul and his mom invited me to stay over again a short time later. This time, Paul’s mom said that if I got lonely or scared, I could wake her up, and we could talk and get a glass of milk. And that’s exactly what happened. I awoke in the deep dark again, but instead of slipping out in the night like a thief in reverse, I asked for some help, got it (plus a glass of milk), and went back to bed.
It was a major victory, and it paved the way for other successful sleepovers. It actually did more than that: It taught me that I could do it — with just a little help from adults. Which taught me that the world could be bigger than my little room, and that I had a place in that larger world. By allowing myself to be dependent on others outside my family, I took the first steps towards being independent.
Even with our older programs, we have learned the way to provide dignity-preserving comfort, and eventually, confidence, for our students.
I have learned that it is simply best not to wait to let your children have a significant experience living away from home. Don’t let college be the first time they spend significant time away from home. In my experience, the younger the better, but getting started as soon as possible is the best gift you could give your child as they start to see themselves as capable members of the world community.