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What?! You want a gap year?

THE gap year was unheard of 30 years ago. When we completed school, we went to university, and then straight into the work force. Today, the scenario is very different. Some teens want to take a “gap year” after school to decide what they want to do. Others are in no hurry to do anything at all, quite content to stay at home and live off their parents.

The gap year is something that has been practised in the west for years now. Counselling psychologist Ivy Tan says it is quite common in countries like the United States and Britain.

“Taking time off or a gap year could be beneficial to the child if they don’t already know what they want after college graduation, or even secondary school. It is a time for reflection and personal growth through cultural exchange, making a real difference and impact on the environment or the social cause that they believe in. This is an opportunity that young people nowadays have the privilege to identify things that align with their interests,” she says.

Inspiring time

Parents should refrain from being judgmental and nagging them. She believes that the gap year may not necessarily lead to a great job offer or a certainty in career profession, but it might inspire the teen and spark ideas for their future.

Instead, parents should help their child come up with a plan for the gap year. The usual gap year activities are travel, community service, cultural exchange, or even working at a minimum wage job, which might end up being a great lesson on hard work, the value of money and the importance of education.

“Even with a minimum wage job, they may acquire organisational skills, interpersonal communication skills, and work efficiency, which you can’t get from books. Parents could look at it from the perspective of knowing their child is out there being autonomous, self-directed and empowered by making their own decisions – important decisions, not which cheeseburger set meal to order or what movie to watch.”

Ivy suggests the gap year plan include looking into university deferring entry procedures and backup plans. If going abroad isn’t going to work, parents could also look into our local community service programmes or social enterprises that support its respective causes. She recommends parents coming up with a list of what worries them the most in the gap year programme and problem-solve it with the child to come to a mutual agreement.

“It is important to note that the gap year isn’t an extension of a holiday paid by parents for doing mundane jobs at home. A successful and well-structured planned gap year creates productive youth and allows for self-reflection so that they perform better in school later on.

The planning experience with the child is an influential part of your child’s developmental growth and this allows the child to see that parents are supporting their not-so-normal decisions and are equally excited for them to learn and explore new cultures or communities,” says Ivy.

Young adults not working

If your son or daughter is now a young adult and doesn’t want to study or work, then Joseph Tan, chief executive officer of Leaderonomics Good Monday, suggests letting them raise their own support and finance for their self-imposed sabbatical.

“By the way, the concept of the sabbatical is such that it only makes sense if you have worked hard in the period leading up to it! There is a parent I know who does not allow his son to stay at home beyond a certain age because the son is responsible to earn his own keep,” says Joseph, whose organisation works with youths and adults in developing talents.

“Our role as parents is to train our youth to rightly respond to an ever-changing and challenging environment. The need is not so much for the development of skills as is the critical need for the development of wisdom. The youth of today may be smarter, however, the wisdom quotient is sadly lagging when compared with previous generations. The glaring generation gap as I see it is not a gap of skills but a gap of wisdom,” he adds.

Sharing responsibilities

Ivy recommends parents finding out why the young adult doesn’t want to work and even rule out any health or mental health concern that has led to the current state. They should seek professional help if necessary.

Secondly, parents would have to review their parenting styles and take note of what is working and what is not when communicating with the young adult. They are after all parenting an “adult” not a child.

If the gap year programme falls through, parents can offer support and understanding and collaboratively work out a plan to alert the young adult’s role in the family. Also drawing appropriate boundaries to the young adult for taking on more adult-like responsibilities and carry some commitments.

“All these require the parents to gradually let go of bearing the responsibilities and letting the young adult take them on. By not letting go and making excuses for their young adult as though they were still a child, parents may unconsciously be enablers who are the ones allowing their young adult to stay in the current role. The cycle goes on and parents would continue to feel exhausted, not knowing what to do.

“Talk to them age-appropriately, share with them using empathy and without comparing them to others. Listen to them with patience. Parents can first identify and help to explore the youth’s values. The values youth have today will be part of them throughout their life. Research shows that values stay consistent with us over a lifetime but are expressed differently as we grow older.

“Parents can try to put away traditional judgments such as, ‘what you’re doing isn’t the right path!’ Reduce unspoken assumptions that belittle or put down the youth such as, ‘You’ll grow out of it’, ‘I was young once and I know!’ and ‘I don’t get it.’

“The ‘When I was your age …’ conversation can show empathy and validation to the youth that they are going through a rough time of not knowing and it’s okay. However, using it to compare them with yourself will have a devastating effect. Something like, ‘When I as your age, I was able to craft my path without a gap year!’ will only create even more barriers in communication with the youth,” advises Ivy.

Instead parents need to do more coaching, offer support and continue being a good role model.


Joseph and Ivy both don’t believe it’s too late to try and help children when they are on the brink of adulthood.

“I do not believe this is a lost cause because what the younger generation need is a stronger sense of purpose, a call for life which is bigger than their personal preferences. The truth is, we as parents need to act more as leaders at home and set higher expectations for character growth rather than just academic qualifications. Someone once said that when he hires, he hires for character and then trains for skills. It is time that we as parents start exercising our God-given responsibility to lead our children in growing their character. That’s when we will begin to see more wise kids rather than just smart kids,” says Joseph.

Ivy doesn’t believe on giving up on them unless they have already given up themselves. “Even if that’s the case, we still try because we’ll always be their parents. There are always second chances if they choose to make the best of it. As parents, we try to create as many opportunities for them to do better. It’s never too late to learn how to communicate and understand them.

“They may have values and a mind of their own, but a conversation that touches on values or a positive reminder of what you see in them could empower and reignite them to thrive again. Encourage them to join organisations like Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), NGOs, community services, and social enterprises that are aligned with their values. And if professional help is needed such as a career counsellor, do seek one so that your child can navigate his/her life again.”

Article republished from Brigitte Rozario (28 February 2017, ThotsnTots)


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