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April 11, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 114

Should My Kid Take a Gap Year?

Episode 114

Does it always make sense for students to enroll in college immediately after high school? Dr. Lisa and Reena discuss when and why parents might want to think seriously about having a teen take a gap year. They weigh the pros and cons of “stepping off the conveyor belt” to college and talk about how gap years are best spent. Reena shares her concern that allowing a gap year makes college less likely. Dr. Lisa explains how having an extra year can go a long way toward helping students make the most of the college opportunity.

April 11, 2023 | 32 min

Transcript | Should My Kid Take a Gap Year?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 114: Should My Kid Take a Gap Year?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
We talk a lot about the college process, Lisa because it’s so anxiety riddled. We’ve had authors Jeff Selingo and Ron Lieber on but it’s interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts on a gap year.

Lisa Damour
It’s true, right. So we’re at the point right now, where kids and families have a lot of information. And they know, largely probably where they got in, they may know where they didn’t get in. And they’re trying to sort that out. They also are probably waiting on financial information. Many families are trying to figure out what schools are offering in terms of support. So this is a big decision making time. And one of the things that folds into that can be questions about whether or not it makes sense to go to college right after high school.

Reena Ninan
And that’s the letter we got from a parent. I want to read it to you. Dear Dr. Lisa, I love your podcast and regularly share episodes of my friends and networks. You recently talked about the price of college and I followed it up by listening to Ron Lieber’s book as a follow up question. Can you talk more about a gap year? Is it a good thing? I’m not sure my 16 year old junior has enough motivation drive commitment to be as successful as he could in college, especially when we’re looking at $10,000 a year. I like the idea of a gap year so he can get a bit of growth and maturity. When I was going to college in the 1990s. This wasn’t a thing I even heard of. So where do we start getting information, our gap years of good investment? How do we help them plan? So it’s not a year of watching Netflix? And playing video games? Thank you again for your podcast. It’s really helped me think about parenting teens during post pandemic in a whole new way joyfully. Well, there’s a lot here. First off, how do you know Lisa, if it’s a good thing for your kid to take a gap year because as a parent, I worry oh my gosh, you give him a gap year, they’re never going to come back.

Lisa Damour
That’s the worry. Right? That’s that’s usually the anxiety that gets in parents way. And what I would say, honestly, if you’re looking at a senior right now, with your question of should my kid pick a gap year? My hunch is the answer is probably yes. Right? It’s a question is even on your mind, if there’s something going on developmentally? Like I think you want to keep that question in the mix. And we’ll come back to how you really evaluate it. It’s interesting, this boy is a junior, he’s 16. And one of the things I’m sure I’ve said before on this podcast is that for me, teen years are like dog ears in a way that like one year of life for us is like seven years of life for them. And so I would probably not know for sure or not be too confident in decision making around a 16 year old because I have seen 16 year olds who were very like bluntly, kind of immature not holding it together and not go to class not managing themselves well. And then something shifts in them and something inspires them. And they suddenly become very, very serious students and they get down to business. And the kid who I’m looking at 17 is almost unrecognizable from the kid I knew at 16. So I would say I love that this parent is actually way out in front of this and starting to ask the question, and what I would say, really at any point, but especially if you have a junior, where this is coming up, I think the parents should play the cards face up at home and say, buddy, I love you. And I see here you are 16 You got one more year of high school. I just want you to know if you’re still rolling like this next year where you are not taking full responsibility for your work or for yourself. You’re not going on to college like let’s just be clear about that. And what I will tell you is the beauty of giving the kid that heads up at that distance though you are no in no way obliged to send a kid to college this fall if you don’t feel good about it right now. But the beauty of giving the kid that kind of runway is that, number one, they have a lot of warning, right? So if it doesn’t pan out for them to go with their cohort, it’s not like you surprise them with it. The other is, I have seen a lot of kids where they are like, Are you kidding me? Like there is no way I am not going with my cohort. And that that actually potentiate a lot of motivation, they suddenly grow up really fast, because they’re like, Alright, I’m not risking the possibility that you guys are keeping me away from college when I think I’m going.

Reena Ninan
Yeah. So I what I’m hearing from you is talking about this early, potentially, if this is something you want to put on the table, but how do you know if your child… if a gap year is really a good thing for your kid.

Lisa Damour
So I will tell you that I’m generally biased towards gap years, like I want to, I want to actually be forthcoming and just say, if it’s something a parent is weighing, I think there’s something interesting about the fact that it’s even on the parents mind, and I would take it pretty seriously. I would also say that post pandemic, I am more supportive of gap years, because one of the things I’ve heard, you know, I talk I get to be with educators and talk to educators all the time. I have heard from high school, college counselors who stay in good touch with college, colleges, and you know, college admissions officers, say things like, you know, what they really needed another year, right? Are they really like they weren’t really ready for college like that there, they would have helped them to grow up one more year before they went. And so I think that, you know, we’re an extraordinarily unusual point in time, where every teenager out there at some point in their education, had, you know, a couple of years or a year or so in a ditch of the pandemic. And so, as biased as I was towards gap years prior to the pandemic, now even more so unlike, if you have questions about whether your kids maturity is what it needs to be for college to be a good, safe and fiscally sound idea for them. Consider a gap year.

Reena Ninan
So is it fair to say that a gap year is really for kids who you think need a little more maturity? Could there be a reason where a child might be able to go to France and learn painting or something? Is there? Are there other factors that could play in besides lack of maturity?

Lisa Damour
It’s a great question. Um, certainly is, I mean, some kids have, like really enterprising things going on, and they need to kind of keep going with it. I think that there are some very wise and insightful kids who are like, you know, what, I just want to go to this other thing first, and I’m going to college like, I don’t really doubt that. And this feels like the window where I can make that happen without disrupting college. But I would say overwhelmingly, it’s usually a question about college readiness. And and I think that’s something you know, that we want to think about and weigh very carefully. And I’ll tell you Reena, it’s funny, like to watch the through lines that start to emerge across our episodes. A lot of times, for me, it’s a bit about considering the alternatives. And I’ll tell you exactly what I mean. I have seen parents have real questions about whether or not their kid is ready for college. And often it comes up around stuff, like they’re not turning in their work in a consistent way. Or they’re partying really hard, and they’re, you know, drinking a lot, and they’re pushing it on the risky behavior. And parents are anxious, rightly anxious about how this is going to play out in college, when it goes off course. And what I mean by that is a kid where there were questions in the spring of their senior year about readiness and everybody kind of white knuckles and sends them to college anyway. And then it doesn’t go well, right. And this happens all the time, right? Where they’re not going to class, or they’re getting in trouble around substances, or, you know, the weekend culture, or their, you know, the college has questions about their safety, when that kid is home in October, right, because that can happen. Either the college says you gotta go home, or we’re kicking you out, or we’re not giving you a lot of choices, you gotta go pull it together and come back, or you’re on academic probation. I mean, this can go down in a lot of ways. October is awful, in that scenario, because the kids options are suddenly really, really limited.

Reena Ninan
So, I want to talk a little bit, you know, especially with this pandemic, we have seen, you know, our children with us all the time, you know, especially if you have children high school who went through this pandemic, it’s really hard because they should have had moments of independence to break away and they were sheltered with us as we were all kind of sheltered in place for some time. I want to talk a little bit though, about the upsides we know, taking a gap year how could it be good for them?

Lisa Damour
Well, I think you’re really, it’s what you’re saying, right? I mean, that it’s a little bit of practicing independence, especially if they leave Don’t go somewhere or they go do something that requires for far more independence, you know, then couchsurfing like this mom was worried this kid might do, which we’ll come to. But if we ask them to go do something independent, it’s almost like, it’s like a trial run without the potential downside of if a kid blows it. Now they’re being sent home by a college. And now this is the beginning of their college record that is still going to follow them everywhere. And I think this is, this is a huge important point for people to know, if your kid gets sent home with these, at the end of the first semester, they cannot apply to another college without revealing those grades.

Reena Ninan
Wait. So I thought, okay, you don’t do well in a college, let’s say you go to some college, it’s a little bit above. And even if you flunk out or something, you’re saying that you can’t apply to another like, there’s no one else will take you?

Lisa Damour
You have to show them what you did. So they’ll take you maybe what you got, it’s not like you hit the reset button. Right, they will say send us all of your high school transcripts and any college transfer transcripts you have. So this is what I mean by like, if a parent is on the fence about this, when it goes sideways, it goes so sideways. And then like I’m just gonna play this out right now, because I have seen this and I just don’t think that people know how tricky this becomes. So often, the way this plays out when it goes badly is a kid goes to college, it doesn’t go well, for any variety of reasons kit comes on home, either mid semester or at the end of the semester with grades that are going to be like an albatross, right, then they have to then deal with for a long time. And then they often will enroll and I have I think this is great in a lot of ways in a local college or community college just to take some classes to keep things going to figure out some structure for their day. And then they often try to transfer or go back to the school where they were at or go to a different school. If the school they were at won’t have them back, which will sometimes happen. It’s not that often, but it will sometimes happen. And what they’re often stunned to discover is how few of those credits actually even transfer because the other interesting variable in this which I’ve learned from watching people learn it the hard way. colleges don’t love taking other colleges credits, right because, right, it’s first of all, there’s the they can make the educational argument, but it’s often the financial argument like they don’t want to… They want you to pay! And so I have seen these poor, earnest kids who like they just shouldn’t account when they’ve gone, dragging around the aftermath of this for years and taking classes that they think like okay, well at least I’m not losing ground. They don’t know that they’re not losing ground, those classes may or may not transfer. And that doesn’t mean they’re not without value, but that you can hear me saying like it gets really messy if the kid is not college ready.

Reena Ninan
So we’re talking about whether you should take a gap year. Are there any other downsides that you worry about, Lisa?

Lisa Damour
Well, I do think if we just see it from the parents perspective, because we’re going to also have to think about like where’s this kid with all of this, but if we see it from the parents perspective, I think it’s very much the one that you articulated which is the parent is like, what are you going to do for the year the time gonna be filled. And I this letter writer started by asking like, where do you get information or where do you find this? And it turns out if you hop on Amazon or anywhere like if you do a quick search, there are several solid looking books about how to make the most of a gap year. So it can be like you get a job or you go volunteer, you know as part of your religious Unity in, you know, some other part of the world where you’re taking care of other people, or in your own community where you’re taking care of other people. So I think that it should be absolutely understood that the year not going to college will not be a year of, you know, it’s potato chips and Fortnite, right? That’s not what that’s what’s happening.

Reena Ninan
So do you suggest we said doing like some sort of saying, Okay, you’re gonna have to go study abroad and being a program, but if you’re concerned that they couldn’t function by themselves in college, like is really sending him off to some program, the smart thing to do?

Lisa Damour
Well probably not, right? I mean, I think that that’s probably how you’re going to measure what the options are, right, which is, maybe it’s a kid, I can sit, let me play it a couple ways. So maybe it’s a kid, you actually have real anxieties about their ability to be independent, to move away from home, because they’re, like you said, there’s a lot of kids who are very anxious about this. So for that kid, you might create a low stakes scenario where they do leave home. But if it doesn’t go, well, they’re not dragging a whole bunch of college aftermath home with them, right. So maybe they do go elsewhere, and spend a year, making sure they can be away from home without having a problem. Whereas if you have a kid where you’re like, Dude, you are partying in an out of control way, this is scary, we are not putting you on a college campus where you can keep this up. I think that is a good way you’re like, you’re here, you’re getting a job. You know, we’re shutting this down. And one of the things, thinking about Ron Lieber’s book, which was mentioned in this letter, one of the things is in that book, and it’s the price you pay for college. And that’s how to think about the cost of college is he talks about families where they require their kid to pay the first semester or maybe the entire first year of college. And so, if you have a kid where you’re like, your maturity is not there, and I am not about to put my money on the table for you to go, I think you could say to that kid, okay, not only are you not going, you’re gonna stay here and work, and we’re gonna house you for free and feed you for free. And you’re paying for your first semester when you do go. Right did that. I mean, I appreciate like, that’s really putting the screws to the kid. But I will also say, desperate times Desperate Measures, if you have a kid who is skywriting, that they are going to go to college, and it’s going to be way too much fun and way too much aftermath. That’s what screws are for. Right? That’s when we really do bring out the more rigid response.

Reena Ninan
How does this affect college? Like this is a high school junior, by this time, you’re sort of narrowing down visiting colleges, knowing what you want to do. Maybe you have a conversation, your junior year saying, Look, if you don’t buckle down and get these grades up, show me some responsibility, you’re not going. But how does this affect in terms of when you apply for colleges to colleges?

Lisa Damour
So what’s quite beautiful is you don’t have to decide on a gap year until after you’ve been admitted to a college. So whatever you can defer. So what I would generally advise is that families make full use of their high schools College Counseling Program, right. So if you’re like, Dude, you’re taking a gap year, that doesn’t mean don’t apply. It really can mean, do the process, go through it, make good use of this college counselor? Who knows you make good use of the teachers who are teaching you right now who can write for you? And then we’ll see how it will see if you’re going. So I would say go ahead and use those things. Now, you know, what’s interesting is gap years can be wildly maturing for kids can really help kids grow in really quite compelling ways. And again, back to that, you know, dog years thing, like they gained seven years of development, like in a year. And I will tell you actually, I remember kids who came to college in my cohort who had taken gap years. And at first I was like, Oh my God, You are the bravest person that I know. Like, I would never in a million years get off the conveyor belt like I am such a little follower. And then I also remember that they felt to me like adults like that they carried themselves I have very vivid memories. Yeah, I’ve been like, Oh, you guys are like grown ups, like the rest of us are just rolling over here from high school, like you guys have, like lived in the world. So even I was 17 when I went to college, and I have such a vivid memory of them seeming so much older. Okay. So where I’m going with this is, say a kid like, doesn’t have a great high school record, or has just made a lot of mistakes, and that’s what they’re applying to college on. So they go through the process in their high school, and they don’t end up with options that are what they really want. What I would want people to know is okay, say that kid spends a year learning and growing, contributing to the world making money, any variety of things that can can go back usually to their own high school and ask for help reapplying to other places. So most high schools are like your yours. You know what your will care for you. It doesn’t all have to be limited to your senior year. And it may be that a kid who can really show like they did something important or interesting or they grew up a whole lot may be able to apply to places and get in, but they couldn’t have gotten in based on what they did in high school.

Reena Ninan
So just to be clear, if you apply your senior year choose to take a gap year, you can apply in your gap year again?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, you can apply. Yeah, absolutely.

Reena Ninan
You mean to new colleges.

Lisa Damour
To new colleges. And I’m sure there are parameters that need to be considered in terms of, if you’ve already told another college you’re coming. And you know, like, you have to play by the rules. But there are ways I think that families might see this as a chance, and kids might see this as a chance to expand their options.

Reena Ninan
So since we are in a totally different field post COVID. Now there’s so many other factors to consider. What if the kid doesn’t want to take a gap year wants to go with their cohort, but the parents know, in their gut, this kid is just not going to cut it in college? How do you reconcile that?

Lisa Damour
So I think, right, this is a really interesting question, because like, the letter writer is like, I’m not sure that my kids ready to go. But it’s not the kid who’s saying, like, it’s hard for kids sometimes to feel like they’re gonna get off that conveyor belt, or they’re not going to do with their whole cohort is doing right. It’s much more they’re kind of caught in the wave of what everyone else is doing. Yeah. So what I would say to parents, and this is an imperfect answer, and I know it, set extremely clear parameters for what your kid needs to show you in order to be able to go to college, and set a date by which they need to show this like don’t make it August 20. Right away, you’re like, alright, you seem to clear the bar, you can go. So I think if a parent is starting to have concerns, they should bring them up when they have them. Because that will in and of itself often spark quite impressive developmental strides. But then if the kid is just not getting with it, not getting on it, I think that it would be helpful for a parent to say, Look, I know you say you want to go, we want you to be able to go. But you are basically, you know, with every, all this behavior, and we’ll come back to the specifics, you’re telling us you’re not ready, right college is, requires that you manage yourself well. And you are giving us like tons and tons of data that you are not managing yourself well. So here’s what we need to see happen between now and June 20. Right? For us to green light, for us to green light, we need you to and then you know, come up with the list like call when you say you’re gonna call walk in the door, when you say you’re gonna walk in the door hand in your stuff, right? Not, you know, like, whatever it is that the parent feels, is good evidence that the kid is pulling it together and taking things seriously. And I think it could also be, and we need you to not deduct it until lunch runs, you can’t come home drunk, you can’t count, you know, like you can’t do these things. These are the rules. And then the kid can make their choices with their own behavior. But it may need to get very specific and very granular. And what makes this highly imperfect is the kid can do all the right things and still go to college and blow it right, that can happen. You can also say, to even get a yes from us, we need to see all of this by June 30. And to be clear if any of these other things happens in July or August, like we’re still pulling the plug, right? I mean, you can really play it out. And no one wants to be in this position. But let me say again, sending a kid who is not ready, the ramifications are far more vast than I think any family appreciates until it happens.

Reena Ninan
So just to keep that in mind, because I didn’t even think about if you get if you’re getting D’s or F’s, how difficult to transfer out somewhere. I mean, just didn’t register in my my head. What are the other things you can tell your child at you know, if they’re not on track to go to college about to make them aware, because I think often they just aren’t aware of until you’re actually in that situation.

Lisa Damour
You know, it’s interesting I for a long time I taught at the University of Michigan, I got my graduate degree there. And I was an undergrad I was a TA a graduate student teacher. And then I was a professor there for a little while, like adjunct. And so I care for a lot of college students because like, in some ways, it’s funny, like college students talk to their psych professors. I think that there’s something I cared for a lot of students in my office hours and often cared for students when they had real questions about whether they should leave school. And there are things I would say to them. There are two things that I always say. I would say, it makes no sense in the world that everyone is magically ready for college at 18. Like, it just doesn’t work like that. Like, why would it be that every kid somehow they turn 18 And then like a switch flips and they’re ready for college. And so I think in terms of what to say to a kid is you know, you can be 18 That doesn’t mean you’re ready, right? Why would everybody be ready at the same time? And then the other thing I would say to kids as they were thinking about whether it was time to maybe step back, or often there’ll be like a crisis and they’re trying to do college and deal with a crisis is I would say, the college is going nowhere we are here. You only get four years here. Why don’t you spend your time here, when you can really make the most of what we have to offer you? So why don’t you work with your clock, so that you make best use of the resources of this school?

Reena Ninan
Great advice. And I guess what I’m taking away from this podcast is almost like two different tracks. Because, you know, I think we can’t under estimate or talk enough about sort of the post COVID world that we live in. If you have a child who excels and does really well in Spanish and is organized in a great student and maybe wants to take that year to go do that. That That could also be a conversation equally as you listening to your gut if your child is not on track to go to college?

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. I mean, there can be very mature kids who say I don’t feel college ready. And if your kid is saying that, I would take it very seriously.

Reena Ninan
Even if they’re a good student?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And it really goes back to you, I just remember my office in Michigan and the conversations where I’d have which is, you know, conscious here, like you should be here, when you can really make the most of what we can do for you.

Reena Ninan
Right? That’s it, you know, I just, like I said, the South Asian mom and me is like, don’t get off that train, keep going, keep going. Because I don’t want you to not go to college eventually. But you’re saying there could be some great value. And it’s really important to have this discussion. If you feel like your child might not be ready.

Lisa Damour
I think there is. And just to visit this for one more minute. Okay, so what if your kid doesn’t go back to college? Did your kid need to go to college? Right, I think that we can have a default right? Of…

Reena Ninan
I think that’s a whole other podcast we need to do.

Lisa Damour
It’s a whole other podcast, but I just want to like, so I’ll put a pin in it. But I just want to say if a parent is so scared that the only way to get the kid to college is to actually jam them in on the conveyor belt. I think there’s a bigger conversation to be had.

Reena Ninan
I think I think we’ve got to do that podcast about should your kid go to college that wow, that’s opened up a whole new train of thought, Well, you got me thinking about this quite a bit. And I’m feeling for those parents, because I just You made me realize several podcasts ago about what it’s been like, for high school students and even college students, you know, who might not have had that independence coming back home? And that that growth and development is really important? Absolutely. So what do you have for us for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
So for parenting to go, what I want us to focus on is the fact that graduating from high school, and being college ready are two different things. And they sometimes get confused with each other. So graduating from high school, you basically have to not flunk out, not get kicked out. Lots of kids can do that. college readiness, you are mature enough to take care of yourself to take full responsibility for your own day and how you spend your time to meet your responsibilities without an adult supervising you that may not be in place, even with a kid who has graduated from high school. So we want to evaluate college readiness separately from the question of whether or not a kid has graduated from high school.

Reena Ninan
I love that you guys thinking of topics that I think even talking with your girlfriends or your friends wouldn’t have really come up because you’re getting us to look at issues and situations that our teens are going through that we need a process differently. So thank you for that.

Lisa Damour
I love doing it.

Reena Ninan
You certainly do. It shows. And next week, we’re going to talk about how you should manage tension with your kids grandparents. We’re going to have special guests, Laurence Steinberg. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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