Some kids—no matter their ability level—need gap years, time away from formal education after high school. They might want to consider options, opportunities, and interests they haven’t had time to explore during high school. Others need time to think seriously about what they want to do next in their lives. Others feel a need to recover from the previous twelve or fourteen years at school. Others need to take care of more urgent priorities, like a sick parent or grandparent. And some kids need to make some money to pay for their higher education.
Although many parents and teachers see education as a continuous line from preschool right through to the end of university (or even to the end of graduate school), there’s increasing evidence that that schedule doesn’t work well for everyone. There’s enormous diversity in people’s temperaments, life experiences, circumstances, interests, skills, and developmental timing. And that diversity means there are a lot of different possible pathways from childhood to adult competence and success.
Top universities are increasingly granting deferred admission status to students who take gap years. Harvard, Oxford, McGill, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology now have official policies supporting young people in exploring the world of possibilities before they commit themselves to university programs.
In my work with young people who’ve done gap years, I’ve seen them return to their formal education refreshed, keener to engage in academic learning than they’ve felt since kindergarten. They’re more mature, and better able to handle the social and academic pressures of college than those who go there directly from high school.
Yesterday I received this e-mail in response to a blog I wrote about this topic:
Dear Dr. Matthews,
When you suggest that taking a year or two before university to figure things out, what criteria would you use to make a decision on how to use that time? Gifted, or not, college is competitive and expensive. Thank you in advance for your thoughts.
parent of 18 year old male
My response to Liz, and other parents with questions like this one starts with the observation that college or university isn’t the best choice for everyone, so I’d begin by suggesting that you open up the conversation a bit, and ask, ‘What’s next, after high school?’ rather than ‘What will he do before university?’
The range of answers about what comes after high school is as wide as your son’s (and your) imagination. In addition to college—which, as you point out, is competitive and expensive—it includes apprenticeships, independent study, volunteer work at home or abroad, trade school, business enterprises, travel, community service, and deeper pursuit of one or more interests or passions.
Parents often picture a gap year as a time of sloth and indolence, where their almost-adult child sleeps until noon every day, loses all ambition, and becomes an uneducated bum. But (as I see it) as long as parents are paying the bills for room and board, they get to make some rules.
One good rule for a planned no-school-while-living-at-parents’-expense year is that the young person be doing something productive with her time. Each family has to work out what that means, but it should probably include working for money (perhaps raising money for college expenses), investigating possible career options, and/or gaining self-knowledge (discovering preferences for scheduled work or autonomy; for being indoors or outdoors; for constant change or routine; for competitive challenge or collaboration; etc.), all of which can lead to better information for future decision-making.
Parents can encourage their child to do some planning in advance of a gap year. That means thinking ahead about what kind of daily schedule he’ll design for himself, as well as his activities over the year, and possibly longer term. The young person can consider what opportunities he wants to explore, and from there, who to contact, as well as fall-back options if things don’t work out as planned. Parents can sometimes help in arranging internships, apprenticeships or mentorships, all of which can provide great learning experiences that inform future decisions.
An educational gap offers a chance to consider which of two or more interests to explore in more depth professionally, and which to relegate—for now—to hobby status. Having many interests and abilities can be a serious burden, and kids caught in a dilemma among choices can be more in need of gap years than those who pretty much know which direction their talents and interests take them. And with the time for exploration that’s allowed by a gap period, a young person can think more creatively about the ways that his different interests might be combined. I know one young man with a talent for business, who’s seriously interested in all kinds of sports. He’s working as the head of marketing for a chain of sports bars. A dream come true—he goes to ball games on company time!
Another young man I know is enjoying a gap this year, and using it very productively. He’s thrown himself fully into one of his passions—horseriding—and is working long hours at a riding stable, as well as investing considerable time in training, and competing in meets throughout North America. He’s also exploring another of his passions—photography—by working part-time at an innovative photography studio. He’s managing to make some money for university (for which he got deferred acceptance). He’s working harder and longer hours than he’s ever worked before, and will enter university with solid work habits and more mature attitudes and understandings than would’ve been possible without this year ‘off.’
His parents’ only demands for this year were (1) that he be up and out of the house every morning by 8 a.m. (the same time he would have had to be out for school), and (2) that he cover all his expenses for clothing, entertainment, and other personal needs.
Back to your question, Liz—What criteria would you use to make a decision on how to use that time?—I’d recommend sitting down with your son and discussing his plans for his future. I’d ask him how he sees himself living his life ten years and twenty years down the line. If he’s like most of the young people I’ve worked with through the years, he won’t really know what he wants to do in the world of work, or he’ll have lots of ideas, many of which are unrealistic, either because they don’t conform to his strengths and abilities, or because they won’t afford him the lifestyle he wants. Lots of young people want to be rock stars, but very few ever make even a subsistence living in that line of work. That’s just fine—this is the best time in a person’s life to find that out for himself.
So I’d start with that conversation—What do you want to do with your first career? How do you want to spend your time and earn a living during your twenties? Implicit here is the understanding that people’s work lives are in the process of changing dramatically, and fewer and fewer people are staying through to retirement in one occupation. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions—you’re encouraging him to begin to ask himself these questions, hoping he returns to them over the next several months.
The next topic of conversation concerns where your son sees his strengths, interests, preferences, and challenges. Again, it’s not time for him to define these, but it is time to consider them seriously. They make a big difference in thinking about which careers he’ll enjoy—and not. I’d encourage him to write down his answers to each of these questions, and keep the lists on a bulletin board or in a file where he can change them over the next several months as he digs deeper into understanding himself. His answers will provide important information when it comes time to decide on a career or his next investment in education.
You’ll also want to think about your conditions for the gap year. Do you want him to contribute to the family financially? Do you want him to save some money for his possible return to education? Do you want him out of the house for a certain number of hours a day or by a certain time in the morning? What do you need in order to be okay with his plans, assuming he’s intending to live at home and be supported by you? That might sound tough, but at this stage of parenting, you’re not doing him a favour if you make it easy for him to do nothing and stay dependent on you. Based on what I’ve observed about development across the life span, he will feel a lot better about himself if he’s using his time productively, and it’s your job to provide the constraints that will help ensure that.
Good luck with this adventure you’re embarking on, Liz—the early adulthood of your child. I look forward to hearing back from you over the next months and years.