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Three Ring Schoolhouse: Raising Kids In The Circus

Ever dream of running away with the circus? What about adding kids to the picture? If you've wondered what it's like for circus performers to raise their kids in the circus, we're going to give you a glimpse behind the scenes of family life on the road in the circus with one family from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Greatest Show on Earth.

circus performer on an elephant

Many kids experience the joy of the circus as spectators, but how many kids actually get to live and travel with the circus as they grow up? At any given time, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has about 25 children, ranging in age from nursery school to high school, on tour with its show. The kids live on the train with approximately 200 other residents—performers and crew members—and travel from city to city with the circus. But despite their nontraditional lifestyle, these kids are a lot like your kids: They go to school, make friends, and dream about what they’ll be when they grow up. As the circus rolls into town this month, we caught up with one circus family and teacher Cindy Trent to get the scoop on exactly what it’s like to raise a family in the circus.

Meet the Boudreaus

circus family mom dad two kids

Jeff Boudreau is the general manager of the Ringling Bros. Circus, and his wife Charleny Neves is a fifth-generation trapeze artist. The pair met while working together in 2001, married three years later, and now have two children, Bianca (age 8) and Josue (age 5). Dad Jeff describes the circus as “a small town that travels on the rails,” referring to the Ringling Bros.’s train that’s more than a mile long and houses everything it takes to create the circus, from elephants to food services to the performers themselves. (In addition to the train, the circus has a fleet of seven trucks that carry additional show gear from city to city.)

The Boudreaus agree that their favorite part about being a family in the circus is the opportunity to travel and experience new things. “Our backyard changes every week,” Jeff says, adding that the multicultural nature of the show allows his kids to have experiences they would never get elsewhere. “My daughter’s best friends are from as far away as Russia,” he says.

Daughter Bianca says she likes to stand in the vestibule, a type of balcony built between the two train cars, and wave at people as the train chugs past. The family also agrees that being in such close proximity to one another is a perk of growing up in the circus. “I like watching mommy working,” Josue says. And if he has five minutes free during the day, Jeff says, he can wander down a hallway to the school or the nursery and give his kids a quick hug.

Circus School Days

When it comes to education, kids on the train follow a curriculum and study for the same amount of hours as children do in a standard classroom, but things are structured a bit differently—and the classrooms are anything but standard. A new classroom is set up in an area of the arena in each city the circus visits, with materials that the teachers travel with. School days are four hours long, instead of seven, and they start much later because the circus has performances almost every evening—Bianca starts school at 3pm, while Josue’s school day begins at 7pm. But don’t get too excited, kids! The circus school year doesn’t include a summer break.

One of the circus’s resident teachers, Cindy Trent, joined Ringling Bros. about a year ago. A native of Central Florida and a mother of two, Trent says the circus has always been special to her, and being a part of the circus had been a dream of hers for more than 10 years. Trent received her degree in elementary education in 2006, but it wasn’t until her younger child left for college in 2011 that she applied to Ringling Bros.

teacher at school teaching student

Some of the biggest differences between teaching at a typical public school and teaching in the circus, Trent says, are the bonds she forms with students, the amount of attention she can devote to each individual, and the diverse age range of kids. The classmates also come from diverse backgrounds and often speak two to three languages, teaching each other their native tongues so they can communicate with ease.

Bianca’s favorite subject in school is math, she says, and Josue says he likes to draw. In her free time, Bianca also likes drawing, especially characters from the Monster High doll franchise, and she wants to be an artist when she grows up. The Boudreau parents have some ideas about what they’d like their kids to do when they grow up, but like any other parents, they know that ultimately their kids will have to make their own decisions. As a fifth-generation circus performer, Charleny says she feels privileged to continue her family legacy and would like to pass it on to her kids if she can, because “it’s very special to me.” Jeff says that both kids will definitely go to college, and joked that, as a native Texan, he’d like his daughter to be a congresswoman from Texas and his son to be the third-baseman for the Houston Astros. “But,” he says, “I have a feeling once you get a taste of the circus, it’s kind of always with you.”

Shows in the NYC Area

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Built to Amaze will stop by five venues in the New York City area this spring:

Prudential Center, Newark, NJ: Feb. 27 – March 3

IZOD Center, East Rutherford, NJ: March 6-10

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY (Long Island): March 13-17

Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY: March 20 – April 1

XL Center in Hartford, CT: May 9-12

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