For many, taking a year off between high school and post-secondary education is a rite of passage, but is it right for your kid?

by Stefanie Phillips

WHEN KIRAN KHALID FINISHED GRADE 12 at her high school in Brampton, Ont., she didn’t go straight into university along with the majority of her friends. Instead, she took a year off to work a part-time retail job and visit family in Pakistan. Her parents supported her decision to take a year off, but encouraged her to apply to universities before she left.
“I initially told my parents that I would take a year off and then I would go [to school],” she said. “I knew I was going to go next year. There was no rush.” After applying to Ryerson University in Toronto and Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ont., in January, Khalid left for vacation. While there, she was accepted to both universities and decided to come back to Canada at the end of May. Once home, she started working and applying for Ontario Student Assistance Program  to help pay for tuition.
Now at Ryerson University studying psychology, Khalid is happy with her decision to take a gap year. “I honestly could not be more grateful and I think that’s why I’m so appreciative of school, because I’m not being pushed into it.”
Khalid is not alone. According to a 2008 Statistics Canada study, 30 per cent of Canadian high school students took more than four months off before starting a post-secondary education. And while some parents may not see the value in enrolling in school if their child isn’t sure it’s what they want to do, others may feel like any education is better than nothing at all. Either way, you can’t force a person to learn, so if your teen put the brakes on school, here’s what you should know.

THE CASE FOR TAKING A GAP YEAR

Psychologist and author Sara Dimerman advises parents to refrain from pushing their teenager into a degree right after high school. From her experience, teens that are pushed into school often end up hating their degree and finishing no further ahead than when they graduated high school. Case in point: a 2008 study by the Canadian Education Project, an education policy and research association, found that 38 per cent of college or university students drop out or change minors at some point in their undergraduate academic career. Although the numbers can’t be linked to parents forcing their teens to enroll in a program they’re not sure about, it does show that more teens might need a little more time to figure out what they want to do.

TALKING TO YOUR TEEN

If your teenager comes home asking to take a year off before pursuing a post-secondary education, Dimerman says you should sit down and have a discussion with them to understand why they want to take time off. “If parents are open with their children and encourage an open communication…then teenagers may be more inclined to go back to some type of education—even if it’s not what the parent wants for them exactly.”
Since most concerns come from parents believing their teen lacks the life experience or foresight to understand how a gap year might affect them, parents should give their teens a chance to explain themselves. Dimerman suggests that parents start the conversation by asking their teenager to “convince” them why a gap year would be beneficial. By doing so, parents can see what their teen really needs, whether it’s a chance to travel, work, complete an internship or take a mental health break. After discussing their reasoning, parents can make a pros and cons list with their teen. The conversation should end with a consensus agreement. “You want to make sure that your teenager has a voice, he has a say, that he’s able to communicate what he wants and why.”

THE CASE AGAINST TAKING A GAP YEAR

Another main concern Dimerman hears from parents about gap years is that their teenager won’t want to go back to school for a higher education once they get a taste of making money. She recommends that parents vocalize this concern in the open discussion, and they “might get some reassurance that it may or may not happen.” A parent whose teen isn’t particularly strong academically might be more hesitant towards the idea of a gap year. She recommends those parents suggest alternatives to taking a whole year off, such as giving the teen a chance to not work over the summer and enjoy more of a break.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR TEEN DECIDES TO TAKE A GAP YEAR

Once the decision has been made and your teen has decided to take some time off school, Dimerman suggests parents lay down some guidelines and ground rules to encourage them to be productive. This might include working to contribute to household expenses, like paying for a phone bill or insurance that they weren’t before. Dimerman says the amount a teen is contributing needs to be weighed against how much they are earning and what else they are spending their money on. If the teen wants to travel, parents can make it clear that they will have to fund the trip himself, or at least a portion of it. Everything should be discussed ahead of time so that the teen is fully aware of their situation.
If the terms of the agreement are not being met, it can be frustrating as a parent, but this doesn’t mean you should hand out ultimatums. Instead, Dimerman says parents should initiate another open discussion to talk about consequences, including taking away an allowance, increasing or adding to their household contributions or introducing a rent cost.
That way, your child will know you’re serious about how much you value their promise to go back to school—whether it’s next semester or next year.  ■