Montana Academy & A Community of Parents

We have always respected the work of Montana Academy and John McKinnon’s ability to put into words so very well some of the reasons that parents need to send their children to a therapeutic boarding school. While he is writing (below) about a time when a parent did NOT hold a boundary well and it created a minor rift in his school community, what makes this post so impactful is the idea that in a therapeutic  boarding community, the parents, staff, and students all come together to share a common set of beliefs and boundaries: there is a belief that it is NO OK for adolescents to use drugs or drink alcohol or not follow the rules of their parents.

There are so many times when we hear parents say: “I can’t control what happens to my child when they leave my house and my supervision. Other parents are not supervising what their children are doing and when my child goes to their home, I risk my child being allowed to do things I would not approve of.” One of the main benefits of a therapeutic boarding school placement is the ability of a parent to say in a strong, but loving, way – no. No – I do not think you should be drinking, smoking pot, having sex, cheating on an exam. And, I love you enough to create a safe container through a special environment in which you will not be allowed to engage in unsafe activities that put you at risk of not growing into the wonderful young adult I can see emerging.

Montana Academy HorseMontana Academy – Letter from Lost Prairie: A Community of Parents

Contemporary socio-economic blather puts such emphasis upon the individual that some people can’t help but imagine that they live independently, that they need to count on no one else, and that they need not be accountable to anyone else, either – and so live entirely in emotional isolation, careless about the needs and happiness of others. By their behavior such people betray their conviction – and so teach their children – that the good life is every man for himself.

It’s hard to miss that this is not what the adults at MA believe. It’s not how they behave, nor what they teach. A few encounters with other parents at a workshop, or a few of your son’s or daughter’s accounts of teammates’ parents, will quickly demonstrate that we have made an assiduous, conscious effort to choose students whose parents don’t think or behave that way, either. Why? Because we do not choose individual teenagers to treat in isolation, or families to help one at a time. With every enrollment, we are creating a community. We learned long ago that in significant part the constructive change that happens to individual students and their families at Montana Academy results from a collective impetus – it is a function of a common culture – to which every student, staff, and parent contributes.

What does this mean in practice? It means the effort to help a student shrug off past misbehavior, wriggle free of developmental obstacles, and grow up, psychologically, into a competent, confident young adult is a shared parental effort. It means that every parent helps every other parent – by sustaining a collaborative, friendly, affectionate culture that recognizes teenagers clearly and by setting limits for them consistently and firmly. Every parent keeps the circle close and closed, and together we hold all the community’s children, and hold them all accountable. Every parent is supporting all the staff and all the parents’ children when they embrace MA’s cultural norms, accept the community’s constrains and clan requirements, participate in community rituals, and defend the community’s common rules – accepting them even at the cost of inconvenience, and showing the children that, when you choose to join a community, all of its rules apply to all. When we all lift together, the community feels light, and sharing in the structure of a common culture with integrity feels right to teenagers, too.

But this requires us all. It’s immediately noticeable, given how interconnected we are, whenever a student lets go of her teammates, or of his parents, and willfully refuses to participate. It is palpable when a parent lets go, and fails to help support other MA parents and other parents’ sons and daughters. Every other student and parent feels this breach, and the whole community feels a bit less safe and wholesome. Some of these rare events took place recently, as you may know, when a student nearing eighteen caught sight of her boyfriend on Facebook, sneaked a furtive phone call, against the rules, and then demanded on her right (on her birthday) to walk away from her team, from the community, from her siblings, and her parents. After considerable discussion  and over the strenuous objections of her team, she then did so.

Montana Acdemy teamUpsetting to the ranch community as this was, it was the more disturbing once it became known that her departure was abetted by the parents of the ex-boyfriend back home, miles from Lost Prairie, who had taken it upon themselves to encourage their son to interfere with her parents’ legitimate prerogatives. Worse yet, another MA student (on a different team) colluded in texting plans to the boyfriend, who showed up in Montana on her birthday to pick her up. The colluding student’s mother made her own cell phone available for this purpose and colluded with her daughter also “not to tell MA”.

I mention these details, because they are in the public domain at MA. Possibly you already know of it, and perhaps were upset to hear about it, as of course we have. Yet my point is not to suggest that this breach of student and parent solidarity is unique, or to dwell further upon its particulars*, but rather to make this issue one that we can all think out loud and talk about. Certainly it’s not new that one student may “help” another student to run away or to break the rules. Such incidents are to be expected in a school in which such misbehavior is the occasion for many of our students’ enrollments. It is more unusual for a parent to betray other parents, or to disrupt another son’s or daughter’s treatment, but it’s certainly happened, over the years, that a parent in ways small or (occasionally) large, betrays the MA community of parents by breaking MA rules, violating pass “agreements”, failing to supervise a son or daughter on a pass, permitting a 16 year old to drive a rental car, and without a license, or to sip Daddy’s martini in a public restaurant. In my second book, I alluded to such breaches of parental solidarity and considered why otherwise-intelligent parents find effective limit-setting difficult:

“Some parents are reluctant to set limits because…they’re ashamed or guilty about a marital failure, sorry about what divorce has cost the children. Some recognize their own defects as parents and know they should control their tempers better, come home sooner, drink less, and pay the bills on time. Some are humiliated by past failures (to conceived)… and worry they may not be able to bind an adopted child to themselves…Some adults are themselves ill or disabled, and sorry about what they’ve been unable to provide… [and so] they wince at the idea of holding a son or daughter to account” (To Change A Mind, pg. 88-91).

There are other reasons. Bitter divorces earn special mention, for sometimes one parent, competing with the other for a son’s or daughter’s favor, will fight with MA, as if MA were yet another antagonistic rival. Other parents may not know how to set a limit, and haven’t bothered to learn, it being easier to delegate this sometimes onerous task to others to preserve a cozy permissive illusion of parental wonderfulness. Other parents can be too narcissistic to accept limits for themselves, so why require a son or daughter to accept any rules, either?

Montana Academy SoccerHere I am not trying to be exhaustive as to all the reasons a particular parent may fail to parent, but rather I am trying to call attention to the corrosive effect of such failures upon the integrity of the parent community, where responsibility for each and all children is shared, and no family lives on an island, entirely of itself, and where every parent is a piece of a shared adolescent continent, a part of the main. And we don’t share every detail every time a parent makes a mistake, in this regard, yet we want you to understand the underlying reason that we take such matters seriously, both at admissions, and afterward, and sometimes, to preserve and protect the MA community, we take firm steps. The reason is: that we all need the community’s magic. And we know, from experience, that it only takes a few parents – who join in sneaky, sketchy behavior with a daughter or son, who bully our staff, or excuse themselves from the rules, or even the law, or “pull” a son or daughter prematurely, and without regard for the impact upon other students and parents – to break the spell.

Someone said “it takes a village”. Most of us know this. So it probably hardly needs to be be said, in closing, that this is not just an MA issue; it’s a national problem. Every Mom and Dad in every “village” in the nation struggles to rear sons and daughters without knowing for sure that other teenagers’ mothers and fathers can be counted upon to help, particularly around limit-setting. It is an American commonplace that some adults fail to supervise, and may not let you know about your children’s risk-taking or misbehavior. Some provide drugs or unsupervised bedrooms, as if they thought they had the right to just be “pals” and fellow teenagers – and so put other people’s children at risk.

I expect I am not telling you anything new. Yet I want to emphasize that at MA we have the opportunity, for the brief time your sons and daughters are residents here, to do what often seems otherwise impossible in the “real” world your children refer to. In this select community of parents, we have the chance (not to say the obligation) to collaborate closely in the care of your children, sharing a common culture and an explicit set of limits, which we all need to follow. Such an adult consensus is felt with relief throughout the adolescent community. And we, the adult community of staff and parents, know and feel that we are all in this together. – John McKinnon

Montana Academy Garden

*Perhaps, I should add, albeit this is somewhat beside the point, that the boy did show up on campus unexpectedly. Rosemary, our Director of Admissions, sent him packing. With her parents’ knowledge and permission, the students’ therapist and team leader took her to Kalispell and dropped her off at the “homeless shelter”. There the boyfriend picked her up. The student who colluded was dropped back to the earth clan, and still now endures the opprobrium of the girls’ community. Rosemary confronted her mother, and wondered out loud whether she was capable of participating reasonably in this parent community. To her credit, her mother offered a confession, a full apology, and made it clear she was humiliated to have been gulled by her daughter and to have let down other parents, realizing in retrospect how appalled she would have been if any other parent had done something like this with her own daughter – and so she will stay, and hopes to recover her rightful place in this adult community.

Some have been troubled to learn that a “boyfriend” could and did just drive onto the MA ranch campus. In the event, he behaved reasonably well, but the point had been taken. None of us thinks it desirable to turn the ranch into an armed fortress or gulag, and in sixteen years, this is the first boyfriend or girlfriend ever to show up unannounced and uninvited. The iron was that, after Rosemary asked him to leave, and he departed, even before I could get to the ranch from McGregor Lake, his mother called from another state to say that, not being able to reach him on his cell phone in Marion, she worried that we had locked him up or harmed him – and threatened to call the police. Just to be clear, however, albeit we think we are not much at risk, we do plan to review our situation again with our Sheriff, just to make sure we all know how we can get help of that kind, should we ever need it.

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