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What is Wheelbarrow Parenting?

During my first year as a dean of residential life, I began to more fully understand how challenging it can be to be the parent of a boarding school student. It was then that I began to liken those parents to wheelbarrows.

In our yards, we use wheelbarrows to carry heavy things that we do not feel strong enough to carry in our own two hands or unpleasant things like the wet, decomposing leaves currently sitting in my gardens. Those carts are vessels for the items we cannot or will not wield on our own.

The parents of boarding school students, particularly those whose students live on campus away from their families, often find themselves in the role of the wheelbarrow. Children rarely call, text, or FaceTime with joyful, light, or easy news. More often than not, those calls and conversations center around the parts of the students' experience that feel too heavy or too unpleasant, and so they need a place to put them down, somewhere strong and sturdy, where they can leave these heavy challenges and ease their burdens.

Many parents find themselves taking on those burdens in ways that feel unfamiliar and taxing. When these same types of difficulties arise at home, parents still carry the burden but have the opportunity to see their children daily, to exert some direct control over their child’s day. When children live away from home, parents cede that control to their children and to the adults who are acting as in loco parentis. The distance makes being a boarding school parent even more challenging.

So, how do we help these parents shoulder the burden? The truth is the experience of parenting a boarding student has changed rapidly since cell phones landed in our pockets, and schools need to adjust. We can complain about parents all day, but it gets us nowhere. Empathy, compassion, and partnership, on the other hand, might actually help us shift how schools and families relate.

I wonder what it would look like if orientation, especially for new families, including parents in a meaningful way. And no, I’m not talking about the 30 minutes in the auditorium with the Head of School and a few colleagues introducing themselves and sharing a few words of wisdom. Those sessions are nice but not necessarily impactful. Developing a relationship takes more time and work.

At our recent Strategic Work Retreat, our attendees shared ideas on building those relationships and - no surprise here - landed on parent education as a missing link in the communication chain. Summer info sessions held online, meet and greet calls over the summer with advisors, orientation day sessions with dorm staff and administrators, and maybe even ongoing access to work with an outside expert were all tossed around. The answer will, of course, look different at each school. Some trial and error is probably necessary. But we know what won’t work: expecting parents to act like it’s 1956 and a letter home every few weeks will do, and complaining about parents growing needier, more involved in the day-to-day, or less trusting of the systems at your school.

Let’s take a look at those wheelbarrows our parents are handling and find the commonalities in the struggles of our students. Then we can add parent and family education, expectation setting, clear communication strategies, and ongoing support into the mix. There is a front-end time investment here that is worth doing if we are truly ready to engage in a useful partnership with our co-parents.

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