Malia Obama's Taking A Gap Year, What About Your Child?


When our youngest son told us that he wasn't interested in college tours, and needed a break from school, I wasn't really surprised. He had been miserable in school for most of his four years of high school, and the idea of going straight to college was something he did not want to do. "I'd like to take a gap year," he told us, the summer before his senior year. In typical type-A personality mode, his father and I began researching gap year programs that would allow him to have an adventure and do something that would look good on college applications. It never occurred to us that he really meant: I want to take a break, and not go to school for a while ... And if it did occur to us, we were sure we could steer him in the "right direction."

We were wrong, and letting our son figure some things out on his own, was exactly what he needed. It was also exactly what we needed.

My youngest child has always been on a different path than his siblings, both of whom were driven in school and were researching colleges long before senior year. They both researched details in Princeton Review, College Board, and other similar sights. They knew which schools were party schools, what the teacher to student ratios were, what academic and social life was like, at the various colleges and universities. They read lists of qualifications that had them both making their own lists: of schools to visit; which schools were a reach; which were "safe," and a host of other details that eventually led to tours, and getting ready to leave for college. Their "baby brother" had no lists; he did not want any of that.

"A" struggled with ADHD throughout his grade school years. He was well liked by teachers and peers, for his sense of humor and sweet nature, but he definitely marched to his own beat. While teachers knew he was bright -- it was not uncommon to have a teacher tell us: "he could teach this class as well as I can," his issues with focus and test taking did not reflect those skills. He struggled to get assignments in; his grades were low at best, and he couldn't seem to find a groove that allowed him feel successful and confident. He was the youngest in his graduation class, and often fell behind in social changes, that his peers were charging forward with. He had a small, but close group of friends, who had his back, but aside from his friends and long-distance running, school was tedious at best, and often a soul-sucking experience for him.

As parents, we felt constantly thwarted in our efforts to get our son what he needed, to be successful in school.

While testing showed that he had significant challenges with his ADHD, but he was "too smart" to qualify for help in reaching academic goals. All of this lead to a boy who was unhappy within the school environment, and anxious to get out of it. Still, when he first showed no interest in doing college tours, during junior year, we assumed he'd come around later. However, after plenty of conflict and debate, I reached a place where I was able to set aside my own expectations for him, and listen to what he was saying. I could see that he was burned out, and that his self-esteem was low. This transition was a lot harder for my husband. We both went straight from high school to college, and then on to grad school -- no breaks, or short cuts. My husband is driven and successful, and it was hard for him to accept our son's insistence that he wasn't ready for college. He worried that "A" would fall off track and not go back.

In the end, whether it was my prompting or my son's, my husband and I were both able to support "A's" decision to do what he wanted; we "let go." We stepped back from asking him if he was getting assignments done; we stopped searching for programs that would be "right" for him; we let him lead the way, with less attachment to the outcome. It was a huge challenge at times, but exactly what our youngest needed.

As soon as we stepped back, he stepped up.

Just after high school graduation, the one gap program he had applied to (despite our urging that he pursue several) fell through, and our son was faced with the disappointment and the consequences of those actions. Suddenly he had nothing else lined up, and all of his friends were leaving for school at the end of the summer. There were a rough few weeks, as reality set in and "A" realized that he had nothing planned, but he rose to the challenge. He got a job at the local grocery store, and surprised us all by enrolling in a class that interested him, at our local community college. A week later, he came home and told us that he'd picked up a couple more classes.

We were gobsmacked. The last thing we expected was to see him enroll in any class, let alone several -- including two that would be "requirements for eventually transferring." The more we stepped back, the more our son took on bigger challenges. By the time summer ended, he had signed up for a full course load, and was working 30 hours a week. He was hardly recognizable from the kid who only wanted to play video games and hated school, for the past few years. The management where he worked, really liked his upbeat personality, and appreciated his hard work, intelligence, and commitment. He came home from work feeling good about himself, and was putting away money. By the time school started in September, we were living with an entirely different child; he was motivated and invested in both work and school! He began expressing interest in seeing colleges, and by January was actively talking about a transfer. Still a procrastinator, he didn't do as much about that as we thought he should, but we remained determined to maintain some distance and let him continue on a trajectory that was showing positive results. The more success he experienced during this unusual "gap year," the more invested our son became in his own future, and it was clearer and clearer that part of that, involved us staying in the background.

As his confidence grew, his interest in moving forward increased.

In summer 2015 I flew to New York to accept an award from BlogHer, as Voices of the Year, and then was flying on to Israel for the birth of my first grandchild, our eldest daughter's first baby; I was going to be gone for five weeks. Because he hadn't really invested in filling out transfer applications, I was anticipating that "A" would be attending the community college for another few months (at least), and would be considering a transfer in the spring; anything sooner was entirely off my radar. I figured I'd have one of my chicks left in the nest for another year, along with two nephews who had moved in in the spring. "A" is easy to live with, and that was fine with me. He was doing very well in his freshman year of college, and living at home; all of this felt just fine. When he sent me an essay to edit (ironically, I have tutored high school seniors in college essay writing, for the past nine years, but he had refused to let me read anything!), I agreed-- assuming it was for spring.

The week before my grandson was born, my youngest child informed me that he'd been accepted to three colleges, and he would be starting his sophomore year at the University of Denver, at the end of August. You could have blown me over with a straw! I knew he'd visited the school during a ski trip with his dad, but he seemed most interested in other schools. I knew nothing about University of Denver, and now my son was telling me that he would be living there, starting two weeks after I would return home!

Our son's gap year was not the gap year that most people envision: he didn't travel abroad, do a "mission" trip, or even leave his own backyard, but it was his gap year, and he got exactly what he needed from it. He figured out his path; he did the research; filled out applications, had transcripts sent; set his own course, and followed through. He grew up a lot, and we learned to trust that he could do those things, without our "management skills." Nearly nine months later, he is about to finish an incredibly successful year at an academically challenging university. His grades have been excellent; he has participated on University of Denver's mock U.N. (and was even asked to mentor high school mock UN participants for three states); he's gone to concerts and skiing with friends, without asking for money; he's figured out his banking, personal care, and managed to keep all the balls in the air, while mom and dad watch and learn.

We have learned that one size does not fit all.

Each of our children had different needs, and different paths. What was best for us, or what was expected for us (back in the 80s!) is not what necessarily works today. We learned to let go and let our son experience his own success and failure. We will always provide a safety net; we love our kids and are here for them, but we had to learn these things through our son's guidance. In the end, his gap year did as much for us, as it did for him. As he prepares to return home for the summer, and then spend a semester abroad, we are confident that he can manage his own life. Our son took a gap year, and we all grew and changed; that's an investment worth making!

Is your child considering a gap year? Have you already done this? Share your thoughts in the comment section; I'm listening. Share/Like on FB; simple things make me happy! Become a "fan," with the icon next to my name, at the top. If you'd like to read more of my writing, check out my blog Tales From the Motherland, and Follow me on Twitter

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