“What I Wish I’d Known About Private School Before We Made the Choice”
Academically, private school was the best choice for our daughter. She is a different learner who benefits enormously from small classes and individual attention. Socially, however, the departure from public school has been quite another story.
A few years ago, my husband and I made the difficult decision to send our daughter to private school. Not because she is academically gifted and would benefit from an advanced curriculum (if only!). Not because we are well off financially and want to give her an edge up at college and in life (still dreaming!). And not because we wanted her to have a religious education (we are lucky to see the inside of a church on major holidays).
None of these conventional factors made its way into our decision; we chose an independent private school for our daughter because she learns differently. As a result of her Inattentive-Type ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder, her learning style doesn’t fit into the square box from which so many public schools pull their lessons.
While we have been thrilled with the small class sizes, individualized attention, and unique approaches to curriculum (shout out to visual learners!), no one told us about the sacrifices we would make in our daughter’s social upbringing.
In many private schools, classmates and friends to live across all parts of the district, if not the county. In our case, our daughter’s friends are scattered across multiple counties. This means a simple playdate may involve a 60-minute roundtrip in the car; forget the bike ride or casual walk across the street.
Extracurricular activities are another challenge. While some private schools offer sports and after-school clubs to reinforce social and team-building skills, not all do. This means finding a local league that your child can join — though fitting in as the only private-school kid is seldom easy. Sideline conversations, carpools, and post-game pizza parties end up being pretty exclusive.
At first, these differences didn’t seem so bad as we talked ourselves into focusing on all the benefits our child was receiving at her specialized school. But the lack of community camaraderie did continue to creep its way into our parenting brains.
Both my husband and I have fond memories of joining our neighborhood friends for a stroll to the local candy shop, of playing before-dusk hide-and-seek games across neighborhood yards, and of walking home with a friend to study or just hang out. Sure, today’s tweens and teens have different agendas and technologies, but the closeness they crave still counts.
For our daughter, the after-school routine looks like this: a 20-minute trip in the car followed by at least two hours of homework (if we make it a full week without a crying episode over math or writing, it’s considered a win), a rushed dinner, a series of speech and occupational therapy home exercises (all part of the struggle to keep up with the rest), and an early bedtime (anything less than 10 hours of sleep results in a cranky monster emerging from her bedroom come morning). After-school sports or clubs are limited. Snow-day rendezvous are rare.
Finding ways to keep her engaged with local kids requires a constant effort. It’s not just a matter of joining the community pool club. When you have kid who is not at the local school (and a super shy kid who may not catch all the social cues), you are the one who has to do the interacting. Not only does she not fit in, but you don’t fit in either. You are immediately judged for choosing private school over their school (see paragraph 1), you have to explain why your child is attending private school (more awkwardness), and then you have to constantly work to keep up those relationships — if you can form them in the first place. It’s emotionally exhausting and mentally spiraling.
Just the other day, my heart seemed to free-fall five stories when I saw my daughter longingly watch a group of tweens laughing and walking down our street on their way to the public school. Dressed in skinny jeans and logo-filled sweatshirts, they looked as though they had jumped right out of an Abercrombie catalog. Sure, my daughter has some of those threads in her drawers, too, but since private school life comes with a dress code, she has to limit her “fun wear” to the weekends. But what really got me — and, I imagine, her — was not the girls’ clothes, but the bond they seemed to share. The ability to walk next door, buddy up with friends, and gab about everything from the Halloween decorations in the neighborhood to the homework they did last night. Meanwhile, we had to get in the car, wait for the windows to defrost, and drive three towns over to her school.
I don’t regret our choice. My daughter is getting the education she needs. But it’s hard not to notice the little things she is missing. The knocks on the door to say, “Hey, wanna come over?” The school team wins. And the neighborhood traditions that we all cherish in our own childhoods. Like any parent, we can only hope that the choices we made were worth it to her when she’s all grown up.