What to Do When Your Student Comes Home a Different Person

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coming home
The countdown has dwindled (to your great joy, to your kid’s great despair) and the end of the Gap Year is now upon us! You look up from the kitchen table to see your child on the couch and it’s like a year hasn’t passed. But it did, and while your child might look the same more or less (save for that new tattoo?!), their mind and soul might be a little different.

Getting to know that new person takes time. We know you love them, but how do you set both guardians and child up for success when they come back and they aren’t quite like you remember.

Before They Come Home

Establish open lines of communication. Before the Gap Year, during, and especially after; it’s important that you’re able to “talk it out” with your kid. If you have expectations for their participation in, or attendance to, certain family affairs, let them know in advance. Invite them to help plan meet up’s or other obligations – your kid will appreciate that you value their input. Ask them, as well, what they’d like to do in their first few weeks home. Discussing what these first few weeks will look like can help mitigate any misunderstandings.

Discuss curfew, chores, and house rules. Your kid just experienced a whirlwind of independence – anywhere from choosing their own meals (and meal times) to deciding when they want to leave the house and when they don’t. That degree of independence can be liberating, but you must discuss with your child if self-government holds up in your household.

  • Can significant others stay the night?
  • Is drinking permitted?
  • Should curfews be abided by?

Instead of deciding top-down how their life back home after their Gap Year is going to look, have a dialogue about what would be best for both parties.

Remind them you love them. When you come back to a life that feels entirely different, with a new sense of self and new life goals, insecurities can be quick to bubble up.

  • “What if they don’t like me now?”
  • “What if I don’t fit in anymore?”
  • “How am I going to end that relationship?”

These questions can lead to much vulnerability. Tell your kid, time and again, that you love them for who they are, who they are becoming, and for who they were. Prepare a soft landing for them in this tumultuous period of their lives.

The First Weeks Home

Transition your “role” as parent – not as a lawmaker, but as an adviser. Your kid will be navigating a LOT of emotions as they return home, not least of which is their newfound self-sufficiency and relative “adulthood.” As a parent, it’s critical that you offer support during this period and a backboard of advice. You can talk about the gambit – their life abroad, their next life plans, college, grades, relationships, friendships. But ask out of genuine curiosity and with a willingness to offer objectivity or new perspectives, not to mine for reasons to chastise or punish your kid. This will help establish healthy boundaries as your wee one is growing up.

Remember: you might be different, too.

Just as your kid coming back might not feel like the same ol’ Timmy or Susie, you might feel different to them, too. Maybe having an empty-nest shed new insights on your personal life, maybe you’ve offered forgiveness to someone you swore you never would, maybe you love Pilates or the Pittsburgh Pirates now. Whatever it is, keep in mind that you’re also a dynamic individual and your kid might have a hard time adjusting to your “new you.”

Don’t Pressure Your Kid to Maintain Old Habits

If your child comes back a vegetarian, don’t make their favorite ribs for a “Welcome home!” meal. Maybe your child has expressed concerns about their lethargy, their apathy, or their inability to focus on getting important things taken care of. Rather than tempt them to join you for a last-minute movie spree, encourage them to maintain and actively pursue their goals.

Remind them you love them! This is just good advice all-around, and worth mentioning again.

When your child returns from abroad, they’ll be experiencing a heavy dose of reverse culture shock. While it’s a difficult psychological experience for your kid, it can also do a number on Mom and Dad (or other guardians). Be patient with your child as they figure out what their life back home looks like after all of their time away. Their new self will be your favorite version of themselves before you know it!

What Matters More Than Talent: Meta-Learning

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meta-learning
I once led a six-week leadership retreat for five young people taking self-directed Gap Years. I rented them their own apartment in the bustling town of Ashland, Oregon, and challenged them to devise a clear set of independent learning goals, which they would pursue with daily mentorship from me and my co-leader.

One student wanted to learn about biology and Kendo; another wanted to improve her photography and web design skills. So I sent them away to interview biologists, martial arts instructors, photographers, and designers. My students boldly introduced themselves to complete strangers, pushed themselves to learn both online and offline, and blogged about their successes and failures, over and over again.

Those were just the weekdays. On the weekends, I sent them on wild adventures to build their self-directed resolve in some rather unusual ways.

For “hobo weekend,” they hiked on train tracks (on which trains weren’t actually running) to a local reservoir and camped out under tarps and thin blankets, a lesson in the importance of maintaining one’s attitude in a difficult situation: like not having a home to return to at night.

For “travel weekend,” I challenged teams of students to get as far away from our home base as possible, and back, in 48 hours with only $50. I showed them how to use Craigslist (to find cheap rideshares) and Couchsurfing (to find free housing), gave them some safety protocols, and then sent them on their way. One team made it as far as San Francisco, a 700-mile round-trip.

For “entrepreneur weekend,” the students attempted to earn as much money as possible using only $5 seed capital. For “paperclip weekend,” they traded up a worthless starting object (a paperclip) into a more valuable one (a set of golf clubs) using only their wits.

For the final weekend, I gave them surprise one-way tickets on a Portland-bound Amtrak train, a to-do list with tasks drawn from previous retreat activities, and the challenge to eat, sleep, and get themselves back four days later, with a budget of only $80 each. (My co-leader also boarded the train, trailing the group undetected with a fake moustache, as an extra safety measure.) Spoiler alert: they made it.

meta-learning-in-portland

What Matters More Than Talent

When the program ended, everyone went home happy—and I spent a long time asking myself why I ran it.

The leadership retreat combined some of the most fun and interesting activities I’d picked up over my years of hanging around innovative summer camps, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, world travelers, and outdoor educators. I hadn’t thought about how they fit together before I ran the program, but there had to be a common thread. What was it?

An excerpt from a blog post by the author Seth Godin finally nailed the answer for me:

“An organization filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, ethical and driven people will always defeat the one that merely has talent. Every time.”

The world is full of places that try to teach “talent,” school and college being the preeminent two. But the world has far fewer places that attempt to teach honesty, motivation, ethics, and the other traits Godin described.

Yet for many businesses and other enterprises, these traits ultimately matter more than talent. People get hired for professional skills and fired for personal skills.

That’s when I realized that what I was teaching at the leadership retreat was what educators call meta-learning: the personal skills that help you learn effectively in complex and unpredictable environments.

Building the Skills That Matter

The leadership retreat wasn’t really about sleeping under a tarp or finding rideshares or learning Kendo: it was about building resourcefulness, creativity, self-regulation, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and focus.

It was about greeting a stranger, learning from a defeat, arguing one’s case, and telling a good story. Meta-learning was the thread that connected all of my own formative educational experiences, and I was trying to pass that thread along.

If you’ve spent the majority of your life on the competitive college-prep track, then you’ve gained a very specific set of meta-learning skills:

The ones that help you succeed in structured and academic-focused learning environments. But if you don’t see yourself becoming an academic or corporate professional—if you want to have a more self-directed life that defies conventional expectations and boundaries—than you’ll need to expand your meta-learning capacities.

Gap Years are Laboratories for Meta-Learning

When you leave the academic bubble to travel, work, and learn in the real world, you’re navigating complex and unpredictable environments. You’re tackling novel, multi-faceted problems each day. You’re developing your heart as much as much as your mind.

No matter if you sign up for a traditional Gap Year program, do a crazy program like mine, or bootstrap a solo gap year, you’re doing a service to your career and your soul. You’re signing up for an experience that doesn’t just pour information into your head; it helps you learn how to learn. The investment will pay for itself over and over again.

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Blake Boles is the author of Better Than College and The Art of Self-Directed Learning. He leads gap year and travel programs through his company Unschool Adventures.

This post was adapted from Chapter 15 (“Learning How to Learn”) of The Art of Self-Directed Learning.

How to Support Your Traveling Student From Home

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let go.
Well done! Despite feeling nerves like never before and wanting nothing more than to squeeze your kid tight and never let go, you’ve managed to support your child as they’ve gone through the (admittedly-more-arduous-than-you-anticipated) process of preparing for a Gap Year. But now they’ve taken off from JFK/SFO/ATL, and are en-route to the learning experience of a lifetime. So, now what?

Even though you’re thousands of miles away, you, as a parent, will still play a critical role in the success of your child’s Gap Year. As per usual, you’ll wear many hats – friend, confidant, parent, cheerleader, soundboard. But new territory to navigate will also present itself: without the convenience of face-to-face interactions and a shared physical presence, finding ways to connect can be more challenging than expected.

So how can you support your child while they’re thousands of miles away on a Gap Year, anyway?

Encourage Making Good Decisions

Here’s the reality: you don’t know exactly what your kid is experiencing every day. And that’s pretty scary. Hopefully you’ve instilled some street smarts in your kid over the years that will allow them to handle their new day-to-day road bumps. In the end, the best you can do (both for your child and your own sanity), is to consistently encourage them to make good decisions.

Good decisions come in handy in a variety of circumstances. Coach your kid into thinking clearly through their actions, considering others throughout that decision-making process (especially in light of their role as a visitor in a foreign country), and ultimately making choices that aren’t always “easy” but are always “right.”

As a parent, it’s your moral obligation to be the (slightly) naggy reminder of all things safety. Gentle prompts to be travel-savvy, such as storing money in multiple places on your person, are not overbearing – they’re necessary. Be the voice of reason in case your child is getting caught up in all the fun.

Frame Conversations Appropriately

While it’s great to learn about their trip to Victoria Falls and (gulp) when they hung over the edge of somewhere called “The Devil’s Pool,” try to redirect conversations to focus more on what they’re learning and what they’re gaining from their overall experience. Fun and adventure will inevitably be a part of their Gap Year (and it should!), but ideally, your child has more robust goals for their trip than a couple of cool photos.

When you have your check in with your kid, ask them more pointed questions about things they’re learning about themselves or personal reactions to experiences they hadn’t anticipated. Don’t ask them to give you the play-by-play. Instead, challenge your kid (and yourself!) to avoid giving a chronological “report” of their experiences abroad. Ask them about their favorite “teacher” – even if it’s an unconventional one like their homestay mother – and if their goals have changed or adjusted throughout their experiences. What new insights do they have? New passions? New ideas for a sense of purpose?

Yes, you want to hear about toppling all over each other as your kid and their friends recreated the Tower of Pisa in Italy, but don’t allow these surface-level discussions to be the core of your check ins.

No Guilt Trips: None!

We know you miss them. We know it’s hard. We know that your spouse just isn’t as much fun without your kid around. We know that you have more free time now than you know what to do with. But do not – under ANY circumstances – guilt trip your child because you are heartsick for their company.

There’s a difference between communicating your love for them meaningfully without sliding into the “I wish you were here’s” and the “Well, if you hadn’t left us forever…” eyerolls. Now is not the time for being overly dramatic. Now is the time for you to find new avenues for personal emotional support healthily.

Guilt tripping your child can backfire in a major way.
You might get satisfaction in the short term but it’s harmful to the relationship in the long term. Why create feelings of regret or resentment for your kid when they should be focusing on learning all the lessons this great big beautiful world has to offer?

Develop a New Identity for Yourself

Having a child “fly the nest” isn’t an easy process for any parent. After years of investing time and energy and laundry detergent and love into a little person, you suddenly realize they’re all grown up and capable of making important decisions independently. They walk away and you’re left feeling less-than-whole.

Rather than wallow in self-pity and an identity crisis, look at the experience as an opportunity. It’s an invitation for you to explore new understandings of yourself. There’s a lot you can do with your newfound brain space; devote it to hobbies or activities that DON’T include memorizing your child’s extracurricular schedule.

Your child will only feel wholly supported when their parents are feeling stable and grounded.

Smile. Laugh. Be Interested.

By the 11th phone call of their epic trip, you might start feeling a little zoned out when your kid is giving you updates. Sure – your kid may drone on, and sure – you might not need every detail about that mango sticky rice, but it’s important that you are fully present for your long-distance conversations with your kid. It can be tempting to have one eye on your favorite reality TV show as you chat. But your kid needs you to listen, respond, engage in conversation, and treat them like their stories are as cool as they think they are.

Give Them Space

Whether you regularly Snapchat your kid goofy photos or are still LEARNING HOW NOT TO TEXT IN ALL CAPS, it’s safe to assume you have regular in-person and digital communication with your kid. While the ongoing daily conversations serve a purpose, they’re not realistic for your child’s stint abroad. They need to be fully present and actively participating in their experience (not to mention WIFI can be spotty in other places).

Instead of demanding daily check ins or four-hour-long gab seshes every weekend, invite your kid to propose a check in schedule that works for them. It may change over the course of their Gap Year, depending on their needs and their availability. Phone chats might happen once every three days for a period and then be separated by two to three week stints.

Remember: the underlying goal of a Gap Year is for your kid to develop some serious self-awareness, and this can be hindered by constantly disengaging through phone calls home.

Finding your groove as a long-distance-parent takes time. You might feel things you’ve never felt before. You might hit the ground running. You might flounder a bit. Just as your kid is learning in this new stage of life, so are you – practice patience and self-love. You’ll get there!

A Parent’s Guide to All Things Gap Year

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parentsgapYour kid just proposed a (slightly outlandish) idea to you: “I want to take a Gap Year.” Maybe you’re 100% on board (you don’t need lots of convincing to understand its benefits) or maybe you’re still on the fence. It’s okay to worry – after all, you have your child’s best interests in mind, right? Regardless of which side of the support spectrum you fall in, here’s everything a parent needs to know to help their kid rock a Gap Year.

Finances

Ah, yes. Money. The necessary evil (and backbone) to a successful Gap Year. The important thing to keep in mind, as a parent, is that a Gap Year is an investment. There is plenty of data suggesting students that take a Gap Year eventually become successful, happy, productive adults. So, like any typical freshmen year for your kid, look at this year as short term (financial) sacrifice for long term gain.

That doesn’t mean you have to foot the entire bill. Gap Years, at their core, are a time for incredible learning. This can extend to the pocketbook. Invite your kid to play an active role in saving money, budgeting, and fiscally planning for their gap year. In fact, you may be doing yourself (and your kid) a disservice by not including them in the process of financing their Gap Year.

Activities

Your child can pick from a variety of activities for his or her Gap Year. It’s ultimately up to your kid’s passions and interests that will fully influence their decision. Work, language study, volunteering – all excellent (and oft-chosen) options for students.

Other students may choose to travel fully, to spend their year backpacking and foregoing a specific program. This is a fine option, though there is the added risk of your child not having a reliable safety net, as well as a higher potential for them to not spend their time productively.

Talk to your kid about the bigger picture of their gap year activity decisions and how they can positively (or negatively) affect their next steps in life, be that college, more years of travel, joining the workforce, signing up for the military, etc.

Locations

The beauty of a Gap Year is that it can be done anywhere! Talk with your kid about their goals for their Gap Year. Do they want to get to know one region, such as Latin America or the South Pacific, intimately? Would they rather have a taste of a little bit of everything, something like a gap-year-world-tour-sampler-platter?

Encourage your child to be intentional about their Gap Year destination decisions. Avoid using language that lends itself to being too “touristy,” especially if certain destinations or communities are being harmed by increased foot traffic from international visitors. While you can get excited for Angkor Wat, be sure you more strongly emphasize how cool it will be to get to know Cambodians, contribute to a meaningful volunteer project there, or learn Khmer.

Safety

Safety is probably your #1 concern as a parent – and for good reason. You don’t need to turn on the evening television to know the underbelly of the world at large. Fortunately for you, this is just one small slice of the real picture; many places on the planet are actually quite safe (and wonderful!) to visit.

That being said, you should talk to your kid about street smarts. Make sure they’re prepped with the necessary information to be responsible in times of trouble (passport copies, emergency numbers, etc.). Talk to them about splitting their money into multiple places on their person. Talk to your kid about crowds, political rallies (and how they should be avoided), and the fact that the US government can do little to help you if/when you are arrested abroad.

Many parents ask their kids to seriously consider signing up for a program rather than traveling independently. This added layer of safety, reliability, and general protection and security helps parents have more sound sleep (and your kid to relax more). Instead of worrying about their own well-being, your kid can just worry about all the awesome learning, instead.

Communication

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but it’s important that you talk with your child as they are on their Gap Year! You will need to check in to hear how they’re doing, listen to their favorite stories from their adventures, feel closer to your kid while they’re far away. It’s important for both parent AND student to keep the lines of communication open.

However, don’t plan on talking to your kid every. single. day. while they’re traveling. It can be tempting, especially with the proliferation of smartphones and pocket internet, but it can actually detract from your child’s ability to succeed rather than elevate it. It can make your child feel more homesick, less invested in their experiences, and more detached from their life abroad. We know you mean well, but sometimes, saying “No” to the daily text message or Skype call is the way to go.

Make a plan to chat once per week for a good chunk of time (an hour or more); otherwise, minimize communication to the occasional email and intermittent Facebook comment.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Will my kid be “behind?”

Technically, yes. But that doesn’t mean he/she is worse off for it. In fact, as far as maturity and clarity is concerned, your kid will probably be leaps and bounds ahead of their peers. But they might start college a year+ later than your friends’ kids. “Behind” is relative. If you look at it another way, your student will be a whole world ahead of her peers.

2. How can I support my kid on their gap year?

The conversations you have with your child, starting now, should emphasize your kid using their Gap Year to learn as much as possible. Empower your kid to design a gap year that is related to their interests or might introduce them to new ones. Encourage your child to be intentional with their time and prudent with their money. Financial support is important, but not nearly as important as emotional support.

3. “But I’m going to miss them!”

We know it’s hard. No one wants to empty the nest, but it’s important that you separate your personal sadness for the temporary good bye. Don’t let it hinder your child or influence their decision. It’s okay to feel sad (teary airport partings are REAL), but try to keep it together for your kid, too.

4. “Are you SURE I can’t text my kid every day, even just to tell them I love them?”

Don’t do it. This is a time for them to grow, to step into their own, to really embrace the transition from “kid” to (semi-functioning) adult. It’s hard. It’s weird. It feels wrong. But it’s a stage, and you’ll both eventually come out on the other side. The best part? Your kid will come home knowing how to do their own laundry.

Image Credit: João Silas (Stocksnap)

Article contributed by Megan Lee