What sending my kids to different schools taught me about parenting

Chalk and cheese: listening to your children's individual needs.
Chalk and cheese: listening to your children's individual needs. Photo: Getty

I was having breakfast a few weeks ago next to a stranger with a kindergartener. Once she realised I was a mother and not just a person with dirt on her, we talked about schools. "I don't know how to choose the right one!" she said. "My kids are so different." 

I have two daughters. As smaller versions of human adults, they have distinct personalities. Daughter #1 loves science and reading and introspection. She's that kind of fictional archetype: smart, dorky, bored. She finds it hard to make friends. She has issues with sensory processing and is easily overwhelmed. She likes to be alone, to be inside herself. Daughter #2 is more creative. She draws and paints and sews stuffed animals out of scraps. Her imagination is huge. She loves people and making friends and being in clubs. She carries her heart around in a Pyrex container.

We set about finding Daughter #1 the "perfect" secondary school. We were as upfront as possible: these are her special learning needs, these are the issues she's been having, this is what needs to happen to support her. It was a lot to ask of a school. "Here," I heard myself saying, "please take my special and unique snowflake and give her exceptional treatment." But we found it - a school that loved science and reading, like she did. It was a perfect fit. And she's only lost three jumpers in two years, so I'm calling that a win.

When it came time to move Daughter #2, we assumed we'd just send her there too. "What a great school!" we told her. "Your sister is practically going to a party every single day!" But she refused. She didn't want to go to an all-girls school. She didn't like the uniform. She didn't want to do science all the time. She would rather, she said, put her face inside a helicopter rotor.

Negotiating with a ten-year-old is a fool's game. Their fingers are so germy and they can shout really, really loud. But she was steadfast, and when I tried to think of a good enough reason to stand my ground, I couldn't. An extra 15 minutes for drop offs! Two weird Mother's Day mornings! Two newsletters! The injustice of it.

So I took her on a tour of a different school. They had a whole building just for being creative in. They had a different uniform and kids like her. They loved painting and sewing and making things out of boxes. It was the perfect fit - for her. Off she went. Now we have two drop-offs, two newsletters, two tuckshop menus. Their schools are completely different, like they are. One is outgoing and arty, like Daughter #2. The other is quiet and reflective, like Daughter #1. We get to be smug parents who tell our story to strangers in cafes because how clever are we, how empathetic, how insightful (never sit next to us, for your own sake)?

But how much difference will it really make, in the long run?

Counsellor and behavioural analyst Denise Ball of Bamkins runs workshops teaching parents to listen to and validate the feelings of their children. Although I begged her to congratulate me on my caring approach to mine, she says that the school itself isn't the important part.

"What's more important is that, as a family, thought has gone into the needs of the child. The school is only one segment of what creates the end product."

Choosing schools based on the individual needs of a child is just one approach, and for all kinds of reasons it might not be an option for every family. It's probably not even necessary. Ball thinks it's more beneficial to take a holistic approach to raising an emotionally supported child.

"The validation is what's most important," Ball says. "She's told you she doesn't want to go to that school and you've heard what she's said." Giving children choice in a controlled way, hearing and addressing their concerns, can be just as effective as actually giving them the final say. "Say there was only one option. She could have gone to the first school and been supported in a different way, and that would have been okay, too.

Ball says parents who think of each child as an individual person with unique needs are more likely to raise people who feel empowered by choice. The final outcome is less important than giving them space to make decisions. "It shows them it's okay to listen to their gut." 

So for us, we can keep being smug in cafes – but not because our kids are at different schools (or because we're terrible people who should be avoided). We didn't find a magic machine to pump out functional adults. We barely thought outside the box at all. Turns out we just showed them we were listening.