Gap Year Guide for Parents: Sorting Fact from Fiction

There’s you thinking your child is still, well…a child…and here they are announcing they’re about to head out into the big wide world on a gap year…alone! In one moment you have to accept two things – your child is an adult now – a tricky phase for any parent – AND they are going to be doing something which you might consider unwise/unsafe/unreasonable/unnecessary…or insert another word of your choice.

Although we totally get why, at worst, your first instinct might be to try and talk your child out of this ‘rash’ step or, at best, envisage waving them off secretly consumed with fears and doubts, you might like to read the following. Here you’ll learn what a gift you’ll be giving your child by supporting them on this incredible life journey and why most of the things which are probably scaring you right now are little more than myths.

What is a Gap Year?

Traditionally a gap year was a period of time taken by students before they immersed themselves in the stressful and hard core study years of university and was typically the privilege of the wealthy. Times change however and today gap years are not only super common but come in a multitude of guises. The ‘gap’ can be taken in the traditional sense before college or university, alternatively it can also be during or after university or there may not even be any university in the mix at all and it is just a period before starting work or a career break.

And then there’s the ‘year’ part of a gap year which can be a total misnomer. Some people do indeed take an entire year while others take only a matter of weeks – there are no rules.

Last of all – what do people do on a gap year? That is entirely down to the individual and may depend on what they are hoping to achieve from their time away. Gap year folk end up all over the world – with trips covering just one country or many – while some may choose to stay in their home country; their time may be spent gaining some specific work experience, participating in voluntary work, taking on some kind of casual job, studying, simply travelling and soaking up the experience or perhaps a combo of any of these.

Addressing the Worries with a Bit of Myth Busting

As humans we are fascinated by the dramatic – even the tragic and macabre – and the world’s press just loves to feed this fascination. So it is in this way we each know of some travel horror stories. What we don’t hear of are the millions upon millions of travellers who have had the most amazing time and then – goodness! – even made it home safe. Little wonder our imaginations as parents run riot, fuelled by the media stories or baseless third-hand stories, when our own children embark on their journeys across the globe but the following might help put some of those fears to bed.

I’m worried that…it’s just an excuse for bumming about/wasting time/it will negatively affect their career path

One thing is for certain – the child you wave off at the airport will not be the same one you greet on their return because travel educates in a way sitting in a classroom never could. There may well be periods of what you might call ‘bumming’ but these are rarely wasted. During such times the ‘University of Life’ will be, sometimes silently or simply by a subtle process of osmosis, giving its most precious lessons. There will be observations of sights and sounds, social interaction with totally different (and similar) cultures and occasions which give rise to the need for resourcefulness or tolerance to diverse attitudes – each of these is aimed at turning your child into the well-rounded human being you always hoped they would be. Typically the biggest changes are most noticeable in the areas of confidence, independence, self-reliance and an appreciation for home and its privileges which may have totally passed them by before. According to those who know, returning gap year students are often the most focused and most energised of all students.

So, will your child come back and be behind on either the academic or career ladder? Far from it! Gap year students and workers actually tend to stand out a little from their peers and can even have higher value in the eyes of university selection boards and prospective employers; in the former case because of the maturity and focus they show and in the latter, for demonstrating they have already developed abilities with regard to decision making, financial planning and initiative.

I’m worried that…They won’t be safe

The safety issue is perhaps the main cause of concern for parents but which actually has very little foundation in fact – unless your child is getting ready to head into a war zone that is. Bet you don’t worry every single time your child climbs into a car although statistically this is far more likely to be a cause of injury than any kind of backpacking or gap year travelling. We can’t stop you worrying – that is a natural part of being a parent no matter how old the child – we’re just saying keep it in proportion.

Parents of solo travelling daughters are typically the most concerned but the issues of taking steps to stay safe are the same no matter which country you are in. Luckily your daughter has been a female all her life and will hopefully already be familiar with female-specific safety issues although sometimes such things are country specific so a little homework might be needed. For example should your daughter walk around in rural Thailand in a strappy t-shirt this will automatically mark her out as a loose woman and she may attract unwanted attention. So, if it makes you feel better check out the hundreds of advice resources online which address ‘how to stay safe when travelling‘ and chat to your daughter – or son – about them.

A couple of things you might want to get a bit insistent about though are checking your child has these two things in place:

1) Adequate travel insurance (not least because you may have to pick up the astronomical tab for medical expenses should anything happen).

2) A trip to the travel clinic to check on any necessary jabs and to do this with plenty of time to spare. Some of the immunisations, such as rabies, are a course which spans several weeks.

I’m worried that…It will cost them (or me!) a lot of money

Gap years can gobble up huge sums of money while others actually make money if the person taking the gap year intends to work. Others again can attract sponsorship or funding.

Quite how financially draining it will all be may depend a great deal on what your child intends to do during their year out and in which countries they will be doing it. If it is the potential drain on your finances which trouble you then be very clear about what aspects of the trip you are prepared to fund. Don’t feel you have to give any support at all – many, many gap year takers use only funds they have raised themselves and it would appear that this kind of independence is much more likely to hone maturity, self-reliance, confidence and resourcefulness.

One last point – it can be perhaps be tempting to use money as a way to have your will imposed on the nature of the trip – for example ‘I will pay for the flight if you go and study in New Zealand but not if you just want to backpack around Asia’. This, by any other name (and you know it!) is bribery.

I’m worried that…They will be homesick and lonely

Fat chance!! The biggest dilemma facing your son or daughter will be how to get time alone not the other way around. Even if there are periods of loneliness this is something which most of us feel a little from time to time anyway in normal everyday life in our own country. Even the shyest individuals are rarely lacking in company when on the road. Fact!

I’m worried that…They will be stranded without money in a strange country

This is another very common fear for parents but there’s plenty you can do on this score to ensure this doesn’t happen and if it should, to know it really doesn’t have to be a great drama. Familiarise yourself with ways of getting money to another country fast – such as the Western Union wire. You may like to arm your child with an ’emergency use only’ credit card which they should keep apart from their other cash cards. Quite what means you want to put in place are up to you and your child to discuss but doing so can take away much of the anxieties on this score.

I’m worried …They’re not prepared/not planning properly/won’t cope

Stepping back from this one can be oh-so-tricky and all tied up with accepting (or not) your child is an adult; it will further depend on the kind of relationship you have with your child. They may be happy for you to be involved in every stage of the planning or they might view anything you try and comment on or help with as interference. You may well be thinking that son Joe doesn’t even know how to work a washing machine so how on earth is he going to find his way around South America without coming unstuck. We can’t really expect you to just take our word for it but he will find a way and he will be surrounded by others who’ve already been-there-and-done-that who will offer plenty of advice, support and friendship for those areas in which he might otherwise struggle a little. It’s all part of that University of Life thing again and making some mistakes is all part of the process anyway. You should feel proud that the child you have raised is now prepared to take the bull by the horns, seize their opportunity and head off into the sunset to see what the world has to give – and it’s going to be plenty.

I’m worried that…There are more cons than pros

Hopefully, after getting to this bit you’ll have realised there really aren’t any cons to this whole gap year business. Perhaps occasionally a gap year traveller never does take up that university place after all or another of the 1 in every 100,000 cases of a particular eventuality occurs but who is to say that wouldn’t have happened anyway, no matter where that person was in the world and no matter what they were doing. Statistically, each and every one of the main worries of parents concerning gap years occur but rarely – certainly much less than all kinds of troubles and worries which occur in our home countries all the time and with which we are so familiar we cease to concern ourselves with.

So, give support where it is asked for, bite your tongue when it isn’t and know that your child is about to embark on something which will give him not just memories but skills which he will use for the rest of his life. And be very very proud!