At Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, we have a phrase and practice- the power of presence. By which, we mean simply being present as an adult; you don’t have to say anything; you just have to be present, cognizant, aware, and available to our teenage students.
Happily, the quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant. (NYT)
Engaged, present, but, often quiet, adults are the keystone of the boarding school environment as students grow, navigate the world, ask questions and begin making decisions. Adult presence can settle the world and serve as a checkpoint in a student’s decision making process. We know this from years of practice.
I was wowed, yesterday, reading Lisa Damour’s New York Times Piece What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents. We know the power presence works to calm and shape adolescent behavior. But, I’m amazed at just how powerful, the science shows, even a silent adult presence nearby can be.
Amour brings together several studies to make the case that, although your teenager may tell you “go away,” (as ours tells me) “They wish their parents were around more often.” (NYT)
I’m currently the parent in our house who, in classic teenage fashion, according to our fourteen year old, cannot do much right. I know little to nothing. I am not welcome at close distance. And, I serve only two clear purposes: “Dad can I have a ride?” Or, “Dad can I have some money to go eat with my friends?” The only acceptable answer- according to our teenager- is “yes,” without much follow-up.
Having attended, and lived and worked in boarding schools, my wife and I, as teachers, know that being kept at a distance by your teenager is par for the course. Even though, by teen judgment, I’m none too bright and, apparently, live in a persistent veil of ignorance, I’m still around asking questions and, last weekend, assembling the new bed.
The power of quiet adult presence is quite something and not to be underestimated.
It turns out presence might be exactly what adults need to offer for healthy adolescent development:
Damour writes: “…findings also suggest that parents don’t have to be home all the time to be present in their children’s lives, but it helped to be home at certain times. A classic study connected the total time at least one parent was home before and after school, at dinner and at bedtime to improved psychological health in adolescents. Importantly, the studies of parental presence indicate that sheer proximity confers a benefit over and above feelings of closeness or connectedness between parent and child.
In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.
That there’s value in simply being around should come as a source of comfort for parents raising adolescents…”(NYT)
Just like home, and, in some cases, maybe better than home, quiet, steady, adult presence serves as one of the strongest bricks in the traditional boarding school experience. In my adult boarding such experiences, I can’t tell you the amount of time that I’ve spent answering questions and, quietly, making sure that everything was going well. Traditional sit-down meals with faculty and friends might be more important that we know. It seems our greatest adult contributions might be as a quiet, steady, reference presence.
Last week, our fourteen year old asked about going to boarding school- maybe thinking about a setting with some quiet, present, adults (who aren’t mom and dad) and, in his case, an opportunity to pursue more fine arts and music.