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A Parent’s Guide to a Gap Year

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Helen Winter

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Written by: Rachel Gallagher

Traditionally a gap year is time taken away from education either between school and university or immediately after university, but in fact a gap year can be taken at any time. It is really a period of time, anything from a month to a year or more, during which your child can focus on things that they wouldn’t normally do and develop their experience of the world. It’s a time to get away from the day to day, whether that’s at school, at work, or at home, and to have the freedom to fulfil a dream and experience new cultures.

A gap year can be spent doing any number of things either at home or overseas. You can volunteer to help those less fortunate than yourself or to help the environment; travel and learn something about other cultures; perhaps learn new skills such as a language, skiing, cookery or martial arts; for someone older, you could go back into education.
Essentially it is anything that will help your children to discover themselves and to establish a sense of their own identity. Time to fly the nest!

Why is a gap year a good thing?

This is what we as parents want: our kids to grow and develop into rounded people who are aware of their place in the world, and who can deal with whatever life throws at them.
A gap year gives them the opportunity to do this; it is the opportunity to broaden their horizons, to learn to communicate with people, to develop resourcefulness and to appreciate other cultures and attitudes.
Universities value the maturity and focus of post-backpackers who are more prepared for university than those who go straight there, not really knowing what they want to do. Employers value the life skills such as initiative, communication and decision making skills, character, confidence, financial planning and achievement of goals that travellers can show on their CVs. In short, a gap year will make your child stand out from the rest.
Check out our 10 Ways a Gap Year can Improve your Career  article for more information on how travelling can boost your child’s employability.

Choosing a gap year

Remember that this is your son or daughter’s gap year – not yours. Whatever your hopes and aspirations, this is your child’s opportunity to decide what they want to do. However, it is your duty as a parent to ensure they assess all the options and work out what is right for them.
You may feel that teaching deprived orphans in Mongolia would be an enriching experience for them but perhaps they’ve got other ideas. Maybe they want to chill out on a beach in Goa or spend time travelling (aimlessly in your opinion) around the world. It’s their decision, your only worry will be what they’ll eat, if there are flush loos and what horrible diseases they are at risk from, but in the end there is nothing you can do about it. It’s best to accept that sooner rather than later.
The basic options for a gap year are volunteering, work experience, getting a job, travel, study and ‘doing your own thing.’ With options as varied as working at a local newspaper/radio station for a year to once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as an Arctic expedition, time spent working out every option available is just as valuable as choosing the right one in the end.
Talking through your worries and resolving these differences in an amicable way will be one of the keys to a happy gap year for both of you. If you look around gapyear.com you will find a ton of information and ideas about gap years – funny that.

How much will it cost?

This is really like asking, as the saying goes, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Some years cost nothing and others need a substantial amount of money, and on some you even earn money! This is something that has to be talked about between you and your child but most backpackers will manage to raise most, if not all of the money needed through a combination of working and sponsorship.
Be quite clear with your child about what you are, and are not, prepared to pay for. For example, if they are living at home but earning money, will they have to pay towards the household or can all those earnings go towards their gap year? It is important not to use money as bribery – ‘I am quite happy to pay for you to teach in a school in Nepal but will not fund backpacking around Australia.’ Remember it is their gap year and not yours.
Look at the guides to fundraising. They will give you ideas on fundraising, budgeting and so on.

Consider volunteering

It is important to remember that your children are, in the main, unemployed school leavers in just the same way as many thousands are in the countries they are visiting. The best things they have to offer are English as a first language, and the confidence that comes from being brought up in a technically advanced society.
Try to encourage them to have realistic expectations about the sort of jobs they may be offered and to understand that what to them may be only beer money, would probably be enough to support a whole family in that country.
Above all, encourage them to be open-minded, tactful and not too pushy. It is possible that they will be in countries that are much more conservative than their own, where the young are expected to respect their elders, where religious belief is an integral part of the way of life, and where attitudes towards dress are much more conventional.
In these countries they need to appreciate that, although people will be interested in their own culture, it will be neither understood nor appreciated as a foreign import. It’s all too easy to arrive somewhere and assume that your normal behaviour is acceptable, when in fact you may be offending local people in everything that you do. Any visitor who tries to understand and conform to the local culture will be accepted much more readily into that culture.

We all worry

What do we as parents want most for our children? That they stay safe and well, and in touch. There is no magic potion that will stop you worrying about your offspring but here are a few things that might help.

  • Try to understand that your children probably know more than you think they do, and probably on subjects like drugs and sexually transmitted diseases (and the internet).
  • Remember that there are a huge number of youngsters who go abroad each year, who become part of a network that passes on information and tips on things like places to stay, how to get around, where is safe and so on. This will be of immense help and is probably more useful than most things you can tell them from the comfort of your armchair.
  • Make sure that they know that they shouldn’t hesitate to contact you if they have problems. Many children are too embarrassed or afraid to call home until things have gone totally wrong.
  • Come to an agreement about how often your children will contact you, and don’t expect more than that – any additional communication will be a bonus. Tell them the most likely time you will be in. This will stop you waiting endlessly by the phone for news and them from trying and getting nothing but the answer machine. However, don’t arrange for them to call home at a particular time each week. This will not always be possible, and you’ll only worry if you don’t hear from them at the allotted time. It is important to remember that not everywhere has an internet café, efficient telephone system or even regular postal deliveries.
  • Exchange telephone numbers with the parents of the children they have gone with or might meet up with. This way you can pool information.
  • Make sure that they have at least a basic knowledge of health and food hygiene.
  • Reassure them that although they will sometimes have bad times, the good times will far outweigh them and even if today may not be looking rosy, tomorrow can always promise something better.
  • And reassure yourself that the chance of anything happening to them is very low.

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