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How to be the Perfect Gap Year Parent


Gap Years /

How to be the Perfect Gap Year Parent

Milly Whitehead, director of The Leap, advises parents of leapers flying the nest

Non-stop communication is a huge relief to parents, but might be missing the point of a gap year.

The Leap Gap Years

The concept of a gap year has been in existence for a number of decades. Over this time, it has taken on many identities: the hippy exodus of the ’60s and ’70s, the daring ‘money belters’ of the ’80s and ’90s, and the volunteering pioneers of today.

All of these ‘identities’ are filled with equal measures of adventure, challenge and fun. However, there is one significant difference between gap years of the past and present, and that is communication, or more specifically, what we mothers demand from our offspring: ‘homebound’ communication.  It’s instantaneous, comes in many forms, and is designed to keep us in the loop, therefore it’s worlds away from the olden days, when we had access to nothing but blue airmails (remember those?) and parents literally prayed for our safe return after months of silence.

Could it be though that this instant communication is coming at a cost? Gap years may be huge fun, rescuing turtles or building new orphanages are unforgettable experiences, but their real purpose is to promote independence. A gap year provides the means for a young adult to loosen the apron ties with home. But the level of communication now feasible thwarts this. We’ve all read those books on bringing up resilient children, but technology seems to encourage us to break the rules (I am no exception as I am currently glued to my phone, praying my emails will help my very homesick 14-year-old).

I have enormous respect and empathy with the parents of our leapers, who not only let their kids venture out into the big wide world, but actively encourage it, putting both parties well out of their comfort zone. It’s not easy but the rewards are huge, as their children return with a newfound inner strength and resilience, the result of overcoming so many emotional and physical challenges, which act as a means for them to dig deep and discover what they are really made of.  Being an instant phone call away, however, doesn’t help this process.

Calls like ‘Mum, this is horrible, there’s a snake in the roof, I feel ill, I don’t like the group’ don’t help anyone. For mothers it’s painful and frustrating, as there really isn’t much we can do, given time and geographical restrictions, so far better to let go, ignore the phone and go back to sleep. What can they expect us to do anyway? Shoo the snake away?

We once had a boy who complained about everything to us and his poor parents on a daily basis. After four weeks, I rang his parents to offer an exit for their son, who clearly wasn’t coping with the challenges and was desperate to return. His dad’s reply was this: ‘Under no circumstances is he to come home, the project leader is to remove his phone and tell him he can only email us at the end of the week. We cannot help him; he can only help himself. Quitting is simply not an option’. Tough love indeed! Following his request, we set about putting these tough boundaries in place and (thankfully) it worked. I wonder what he’s doing now – was this his life-turning moment? I like to believe so, for it’s moments like this that give substance and joy to my working life.

So, in a nutshell, go for it and be tough – this is your bridging moment, you don’t want to be taking steps backwards. We are looking for brave, young adults who will grasp the life that lies ahead of them.

With all this in mind, should I stop sending those emails?

Five gap year rules

  1. A gap year is not a holiday, but a bridging point in your child’s life, enabling them to grow up and learn from difficult experiences. New found resilience and confidence will impress employers,and help them at uni, socially and academically.
  2. There is no better time to take a gap year to learn those valuable life lessons than right after school, before they begin university or working life.
  3. A gap year must challenge and stretch natural limitations but not freak them out. Make sure it’s what they want to do, not a tick on your wish list.
  4. Give it time. Two weeks won’t cut it for character building. One month but  ideally three enables them to complete the series of challenges that are part of the evolution process.
  5. Decide together how you will communicate when they are away. Remind them of the problems caused by time difference and illustrate how a distressed text message text at 2am will do nothing but cause panic at home. Reiterate that ‘problem solving’ should be done by them on the ground. After all, what can mum do from 10,000 miles away? Come up with a plan that will work for both you and them and don’t shy away from setting clear boundaries.

READ MORE: What Does it Mean to be a Global Citizen?/

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