Should Your Child Take a Gap Year?

The idea of taking a “gap year” – born of the independence of the post-war 60s generation that challenged themselves to create a life different from their parents – has come a long way in 70 years. Since the new millennia, it’s been taken up by parents and young people alike who have lived through the accelerating pace of the new world order – and see little chance for such an extended pause once they start college and forge fledgling careers.

If you read my post in late 2017 about coming face-to-face with my empty nest, you’ll recall that all three of my children took a gap year between high school graduation and the start of their college career. And they did so with my blessing – and strong encouragement.

As I write, increasing numbers of high school seniors are in the process of planning their upcoming gap, which is typically defined as deferring college acceptance for a year to pursue a variety of travel, volunteer and/or non-academic activities and interests. While it’s becoming increasingly more common, parents still have a lot of questions about its wisdom and benefits, such as:

·      Will my child fall behind his grade-level peers?

·      What if they decide against college all together?

·      Isn’t it scary when your child is in a foreign country far from home?

·      Is it expensive – and is it my responsibility to fund it?

·      What does a “successful” gap year look like?

Before I elucidate why I believe a gap year is valuable (wearing my Human Development and Learning specialist hat), as parents we have to redefine success as navigating the entirety of the experiences, no matter how (or when) it ends. Ultimately, a successful gap year is about giving our children a unique opportunity to grow, developing the skills necessary for navigating our modern world and becoming resilient, capable people.

In that vein, success doesn’t mean that each program you child embarks on will meet their expectations. Nor will the people they meet along the way necessarily lead to career connections or lifelong friendships. For some families, financing a gap year is an essential part of the planning process, in part driving what the gap will look like. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to volunteer for nonprofits the world over that include room and board. 

Above all, a successful gap year certainly doesn’t mean that there will be no bumps on the road. The most amazing result in my family’s experience is what a parent might least expect. Namely this: All three of my children say their gap year was successful not in spite of the missteps and challenges, but because of them!

Clearly, nailing resiliency is just one reason to consider a gap year. Here are some others:

Developmental Maturation. Four years of college go by quickly, and all parents want their children to use their time well as they figure out their majors and navigate a different kind of independence. But not all 18 year olds are created equal. A gap year allows kids who are less developmentally mature to grow up a bit more. Then there’s this: there is both anecdotal and increasingly quantitative research that demonstrates that gap year students out perform their non-gap-year peers.

Academic Refresh. Some kids have burned the candle at both ends during high school, and frankly, they are burned out. A gap year enables them to take a break from academic pressure and scholastic demands so they can enter college renewed and reinvigorated.

Interest Exploration. Most 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. A gap year can expose them to career options, internships, personal exploration and more.

World View. We live in the most interconnected and interdependent world in our history, yet many of us know little about our global community. Gap year students fortunate enough to travel or pursue an opportunity in a different country end up with greater global awareness and often develop fluency in a foreign language. 

Tool Belt. Undeniable benefits are the skills learned, the resiliency discovered and the confidence acquired. All of these get added to the metaphoric tool belt our children need to succeed in the college environment – and beyond.

Many of the greatest gains from a gap year are intangible, and some benefits only reveal themselves as a result of the experience. My youngest son completed his gap year (and documented it on his blog) before starting college in Fall 2018. Here, in his own words, he shares the surprising things he learned that year that he simply did not expect.

1) Everyone I encountered who were also taking a gap year had their own rationale, none more significant than the other, but it was interesting to see what motivated people and how diverse the population of gap year students is.

2) I was amazed at how different foreign culture really is. Though I had traveled internationally and extensively, the opportunity to really immerse myself in foreign culture showed me that my narrow American perspective is not the only way to live life.

3) I was surprised by how much I grew as a person
and an intellectual. Most people think that a gap year is a break from the intellectual and educational world, but I found myself learning more than I ever did in a traditional school. The magic of experiential learning is real.

 Enough said.