The Beauty of the Gap Year

 

My oldest child, Aidan, will be closing out his Gap Year soon. When I think back to our airport goodbye last September, I’m filled with nostalgia. It’s been less than a year and I’m wistful. I will never have that first, big, questioning, scared, excited goodbye ever again. My son has grown by leaps and bounds this past year and it shouldn’t surprise any parent that I have, as well.

I don’t know the actual statistics on how many American high school seniors choose to take a year off before college or entering the work force. I’m sure it’s quite low. I sit here and chuckle as it figures that I’m the one to steer my family into unchartered water. I sometimes envy the predictable, the tried and true choices of others and wonder why that genetic make-up skipped me. I’ve resigned myself to stop questioning and just be.

I know parents want quantitative facts when it comes to their kids. We register our children in various activities hoping for a desired outcome down the road. We enroll our children in art classes to spark their creativity. Or we teach them chess to improve their analytical skills. Sports start out innocently enough—for the social aspect and learning the importance of being a team player—but then we loose our heads and envision scholarship opportunities so we justify losing the dinner hour and most of the weekend to ensure our kids get plenty of playing time.

I can’t quantify a darn thing when it comes to Gap Years. And I’m okay with that. Because the best things in life never came to me in any logical way. They came to me either out of dumb luck or because I listened to my inner voice that nudged me to do something hard or meet someone I may not have had the guts to approach. I believe a skill we don’t talk about enough with our kids is honing their innate sense of curiosity and reaching for the thing that frightens them more than just a little bit.

Our children spend 13 years sitting at desks, learning from textbooks, now iPads, and then taking tests to measure if and how much they have learned. While I know this is an absolute privilege, and I remind my children often how many kids around the world don’t have this educational opportunity, I also know this type of learning environment doesn’t foster creative thought. Endorsing and encouraging my son to take a Gap Year was a way for me to remedy that a little bit.

Let me address one issue that comes up a lot with parents and their kids when I talk about Gap Years: Money. Everyone believes it costs a lot and my husband and I wrote a blank check to our son. Ha! Not in a million years. My husband and I provided a round trip airplane ticket for Aidan and that’s it. We strongly believe that if one of our kids want something bad enough, they have to figure out how to pay for it. This is called life. Without credit. Aidan financed the entire venture himself from working a part-time job after school for two years.

The first part of his Gap Year was spent on an organic farm in Italy. It was a structured intern program that Aidan had to apply for and be accepted into. He worked 5 days a week for roughly 5 hours a day for 3 months in exchange for his room and board. There were a number of other perks and benefits, chief among them—deep, abiding friendships. You get close with people when you share a profound experience and this program was, indeed, profound. He also had hands-on training in sustainable farming, butchering & cooking. He worked with animals, harvested olives, made wine, and met guests from all over the world during a nightly five-course dinner. He even attended a formal Italian language class once a week. Aidan had no idea how fun it was going to be learning about things he didn’t know he had an interest in. How cool is that?

 
 

Gap Year opportunities do not have to cost a thing, other than the sweat equity you put into your research. Your time and labor in exchange for a warm room and stocked cupboards is well worth the price of admission, in my opinion.

Aidan enjoyed weekend jaunts around the countryside where he spent very little money. Trains, busses and youth hostels proved to be an affordable way to travel. As this was his first trip away from home solo, I think he preferred to stay close to what he knew. This changed for him during his second semester abroad, but confidence does that to you. You are ready and yearning to push past your comfort zone. His first semester away gave him that confidence.

His second semester found him volunteering at a “Glamping” site in Portugal. Similar to his experience in Italy, Aidan worked 5 days a week in exchange for room and board. Other volunteers from around Europe worked side by side with him. They varied in age, English speaking abilities and temperament. Aidan relished in their differences. He found it to be a constant source of fun to discover what they would all bond over. A card trick? A board game? Hiking to an obscure watering hole? He learned very quickly, in close quarters, how to be more patient, forgiving and adaptable. His social awareness has only deepened while away, as has his gratitude. All skills that will serve him well in our family. And in life.

I thought I should go directly to the source, though, and ask him, “What have you learned during your Gap Year abroad?”

His first answer was that everyone comments on how mature he is for his age. I get it. Eighteen years old American boys are not exactly known for their levelheadedness. Aidan has, indeed, grown in maturity while away, but he’s always been ahead of the curve in this area. So I pressed him for more.

He said that what really stands out to him is the amount of elderly travelers he runs into. In talking with some of them he has found that most are traveling for the first time in their lives. They were “tied down with university, careers and family. Not negatives, necessarily, but they never got to experience the joys of independent travel.” They all, without exception, told him he’s lucky and smart to be taking a Gap Year before life takes over. You travel differently when you’re younger. You are physically capable of doing so much more and your endurance never seems to end. Your need for clean sheets and a comfortable bed is at an all time low at this age, too. You’re not as fussy or demanding and as the world is unfolding before you, you tend to be more open. Aidan expressed gratitude, more than once, for allowing him this opportunity and that’s worth a lot in my book.

Last week, I texted Aidan a bunch of places I think he should visit as he has a rare 2 week holiday. He was less than enthusiastic when he answered me. I was frustrated that he wasn’t embracing my suggestions and called him out on it. His answer: “Mom. This experience is more about the people I’m meeting than the places I’m visiting.” Well, what can I say to that other than bravo my little grasshopper.

If you are a parent of a child who needs or wants a break from the classroom environment, I highly recommend a Gap Year abroad. The sky is the limit as to where he or she can go and for how long. The only limitation is in your imagination.

To learn by doing is the absolute best way to learn. When your child gets lost or misses his connection, he’s forced to deal with stress in a constructive, self-reliant manner. He will experience the kindness of strangers and in turn, pass it on. He will learn, intuitively, that risk taking is a part of life and it pays off in immeasurable, yet meaningful ways. You will marvel at your child’s social awareness and interest in the people around him. And most importantly, his world expanded therefore the possibilities before him expanded. He isn’t plodding along one path. He sees many roads now and endless opportunities.

I hear fear and angst in so many teenagers. They worry about college acceptance letters, loans and keeping up with their version of the young Jones kid next door. What if we told them to put those stresses aside and go live a life far from home for a year? To explore and learn on their terms? Sometimes we forget, as adults and parents, that being young is the perfect time to get off the well worn path and forge a new one. A path of their choosing. A path they can call their own and forevermore be a source of pride and enrichment in their lives. We forget to tell them real growth comes after doing something scary, meeting someone who is nothing like them and living a life different from anything they’ve lived or experienced before.

What’s the worse thing that could happen if your kid takes a year off? They would never go to college? Research shows that over 90% of Gap Year students enroll in college within a year and tend to have a renewed vigor for academics. Some of the most prestigious universities in the United States actively encourage their Freshmen to defer their enrollment and take a Gap Year because their independent research shows that these kids come back as engaged student leaders.

The hardest part of this past year has befallen to me. Whoa is me. I know. I admit to waking up at 3AM, terror in my heart, convinced that something terrible happened to my son. In daylight hours, I would chastise myself for thinking such nonsense but in the middle of the night, irrationality reigns. Deep breathing exercises and a thorough and compulsive search through social media, hunting for a recent post, puts my fears to rest. The internet is a remarkable source when your child is far from home.

I realize Gap Years aren’t for everyone. Not every teenager is ready and able to take on such a huge life choice. But I would argue that a lot of 18 years old kids are not ready to take on certain aspects of college, either. And with the rising costs of college tuition, parents should start talking, honestly, about that expensive first year experience. By writing this piece, my hope is to get families talking, early and often, about alternative choices and growth opportunities for their teens. Parents have to push out of their comfort zones and lead the way. After all, we are our children’s first and most influential teachers and they learn from and mimic our behaviors. Let’s show them that fear is a manageable and constructive tool to move forward. Pushing past our fear and need to have our children close by, doing what everyone else is seemingly doing, will empower them for life.

Thank you, Aidan, for paving the way. Your brothers and sister are already mapping out their Gap Years and are excited to share their plans with you. Safe travels. We can’t wait to see you.