This Is Your Gap Year

Months ago, when COVID-19 was still a whisper, I was interviewed by a local San Francisco news station about my homeschooling plan for kids ages 2-7. The segment was long, the questions many. How much school do kids “need”? How can working families pull it off? What’s your advice for those just getting started?

Six months later, the pandemic roars. Our nation’s priorities have been thrown into a sack, shaken, spilled onto the floor. Tried-and-true expert strategies are hardly applicable, let alone sustainable. How do we move forward now that our methods of wellness – daily yoga, HIIT at the gym – are deemed unwell? When our social infrastructures – Sunday morning brunch, concerts in the park – dissolve? How should we proceed when our indoctrinated school system – a teacher stands and speaks, a group of children sit and listen – is now disputed for safety, efficacy?

I have few answers, but I know the importance of the question. It is no longer: What is happening? It is only: What happens now?

Welcome. This is your gap year.

Do you know how gap years began? The practice was first adopted commonly in the ’60s when the younger generation sought relief and respite from the severity of their parents’ wars. By 1969, the first gap year organization was founded in Massachusetts with the intentions of delaying academics to instead teach young people self confidence and community activism. In rapid succession, gap year companies, trips, and programs began cropping up throughout the world, touting lofty purposes like greater contributions, increased self-awareness, and developing new cultural perspectives.

Now – nearly six decades later – our young seek much the same: relief and respite from the severity of war. Today, it seems, a battle rages for everything – opioids and bullying to shifting economies and climate change (there is even, per the documentary namesake of 2009, a War On Kids). We need only scan headlines to witness the immediate shrapnel.

I’m hesitant to paint a pandemic in rosy terms such as “relief” or “respite,” and yet, the reality is this: we have been handed a year of turmoil. Norms are toppling, status quos are being called to question.

What happens now?

Back in March, Other Goose welcomed over 10,000 quarantined families while schools closed nationwide. Overnight, the questions poured in from families of kids ages 2-7: Where are the worksheets? Can I see the scope and sequence for a 3-year-old? I want to ensure my toddler stays ahead in phonics.

As the daughter of two retired public school teachers, I understand the root of the question. The traditional school model many of us know is based in compliance, uniformity. Blending in, staying on track, never falling behind. Common core or bust! I knew how much agency the child lost in the process.

But I didn’t realize how much agency the parent lost, too.

Over and over, I spoke with caregivers who needed reassurance that our all-in-one plan would keep their child ahead of the pack. But when pressed for which “pack” they were referring to, for what standards they’d like to see their children stand for, the answers were the same: Well, you’re the expert! Whatever is essential these days!

And so: I watched parents bend over backwards to juggle their own daily conference calls with their child’s Zoom classroom schedule, and I witnessed burnout across the board. One parent asked if we could recommend a Skype math tutor for her 2-year-old. Another asked what sort of STEAM programs were available for babies. Time and time again, questions fired off, laced with the deepest fear a parent knows: Help! I’m not enough for my kid.

I have spent the better part of the summer continuing to field these questions, even more so in recent weeks as an increased number of school shutdowns and remote learning options have been announced. And while I can’t say what’s best for each and every child, I do know what’s best for each and every parent: Reclaim your agency.

Try on the wild idea that you might know more about educating your child than an institution does. Think about what your family values. Think about what makes your kid light up. Then: guide your child toward both.

If you can’t muster up the confidence to call this exploration of undiscovered passion an actual “education,” then call it something else: call it a gap year.

Maybe your 9-year-old will discover the joy of sewing – and stumble into his own bespoke bow tie line. Maybe your 8-year-old will embark on a great CEO adventure after designing a cup for her grandfather with Parkinson’s. Maybe your 11-year-old’s local lemonade will sell for millions at Whole Foods. If nothing else: your teen’s failed attempts at baking sourdough at home will make for a far more heartfelt admissions essay than the C+ sheet cake recipe from Home Ec.

What will happen is this: your entire family will tilt toward discovery. You’ll spend less time fretting with your kid’s school over tech issues and Zoom schedules and more time igniting wonder in your child’s soul. You’ll educate in the way that worked for generations prior: one of apprenticeship, of practice, of trade. Your child will gain independence. He’ll make his own lunch. She’ll wash her own socks.

(Yes, even the littles.)

Your child will learn from you.
You will learn from your child.

You’ll invite your kids into your daily life, whether through accounting spreadsheets or blueprint renderings or sauteed garlic. You’ll find your own answer to the wise question posed from columnist Bethany Mandel in The Atlantic, “If an out-of-work restaurant chef is now home with his kids, will they gain more if he helps them do busywork problems in math, or if he teaches them how to cook?”

Yes, you’ll still have time to yourself. Yes, your kids will get the basics covered one way or another. Yes, your child can take ownership over their own education with a few hours/day and a library card.

Yes, it can feel tricky with littles. (That’s what this is for.)

No, it is not feasible for everyone, logistically-speaking. Neither is remote learning, or business-as-usual, or co-ops, or pandemic pods.

But it’s an option for some, nonetheless. And it’s one worth considering.

You will, perhaps, get what you wanted all along: a child that begins to value Alma Thomas over taco day, activism over athleticism. You’ll get the choice to switch out Laura Ingalls Wilder for James Baldwin. You can ban Dr. Seuss; you can veto letter grades. Toss the uniform, and the uniformity. You can educate as an act of resistance, and you can raise children to think critically about their role as an advocate for the world around them.

If our future generations have indeed inherited a faulty system, if goodwill is hard to find, if our kids feel lonely and unsafe and ill-equipped, perhaps it’s time to offer them a gap in the war.

What happens now?

It’s up to us.

  • What inspiration to rethink and creatively problem solve this drastic change in our world, schools, jobs, everything. Thinking from the angle that what you as a parent, you as a person, can offer your child is so valuable.

    • Very interesting! Such positive, out of the box thinking. Even if one chooses to continue schooling this year, all of those suggestions are great parent/ child activities . They certainly focus on child development, growth, social skills,etc and less screen time!

  • Beautiful perspective and so true! A gap year! I love the promise of exploration that holds. Perhaps this is what keeps America’s creativity alive in the end :)

  • And can I say a hearty AMEN?! Yes, I just did. This is all what I have been discovering over my last four years of homeschooling and I am so excited it can be shared with so many other fellow lovely parents. Thanks for sharing Erin. I look forward to every perspective changing post you write! If you every want to create a connection place for already homeschooling parents with new ones to love on them, I would be up for that!

    • You’re so welcome! And please let me know what you have in mind! I’ve been loving our forums inside Other Goose — connection places are 100% essential over here! :)

      • Erin, that’s awesome. My kids are 7 and 9 so we are beyond other goose(although I could have used it my first years bc I drove myself crazy). I am so glad you are doing that. But what if we could pair a new homeschool family with a family that has been homeschooling to kind of mentor/encourage, for those who are interested.

      • I LOVE THIS IDEA! Let me ruminate a bit on whether or not I have the bandwidth at the moment, but I’m happy to keep this comment section open as a running matchmaker list! :)

  • Oh Erin, I love this! We are going to homeschool our kids this year and are so excited (and nervous!) 😁

  • This is great encouragement for those who are new to this whole homeschooling gig. I’ve shared it on my FB as I have many friends reaching out to me about homeschooling. We unschool and it is a shock to many that I don’t fill my children’s day up with bookwork. They ask many of the same questions on how they’ll know that their children will keep up with the “standards.” I’m a big component for stepping outside of the norm and marching to the beat of my own drum.

  • As an elementary educator, I just hurt hearing all the pressure parents are putting on themselves for their so very little, littles. While baby Einstein may have it’s place, what children need is creative play, stories, and lots of TLC from those who gave them life. Having worked with children who have experienced the heartbreak of broken homes as well as those who have been well-loved, I know that a stable, loving space will put them years ahead even if they miss some Common Core things for a year.

  • I yearn for a gap year, but I also just fell into my dream job right before COVID and I don’t want to walk away from it.

    Currently trying to figure out how to do both. Also currently cracking under that pressure.

    • I can so, 100% relate. You’re not alone! It is do-able to be a working parent and a homeschooling/gap year parent, but of course, every situation and scenario is totally unique. Here to assist in brainstorming if you’re ever in need! My personal belief is that – once all options are considered – there’s no such thing as a choice that can’t be learned from and moved through. You can’t go wrong here — no pressure necessary.

      Cheering you on!

  • I absolutely love your perspective! My 14 year old son is going to stay home this year instead of starting high school. He is going to be learning Japanese, doing lots of Anime style drawing, reading Anime novels and starting a business. We may throw in some traditional math but everything else are things he wants to learn. He has never really loved school and this is the MOST excited I have ever seen him about learning because he has chosen things that he is genuinely passionate about. I’m excited for him!

  • Such good words. This is my favorite quote: “If an out-of-work restaurant chef is now home with his kids, will they gain more if he helps them do busywork problems in math, or if he teaches them how to cook?”

    I’m so glad you posted this. These are concepts I know in my heart (I was homeschooled, and have homeschooled my own four for seven years now). I love the freedom it gives our family, but I don’t have the words to explain it well to others. Now that you’ve written this essay, I can now share it with them. ♡

  • Erin, I love your philosophy, and was a member of Other Goose. However my boys are now 8 and 9 1/2; do you have any suggestions of where I can go for resources for older kids?

  • Oh Erin, I have missed your words during this time. You are so wise and these truths are like music to my ears! We are starting our first year homeschooling and not only am I excited- I feel empowered. I feel a bit wild and free like I’m charging through unknown territory (silly I know) but mostly I just feel alive. So thankful to reclaim my parenting. Reclaim my agency. <3

  • So beautifully written and incredibly in tune with what I’m feeling right now with my 7yo daughter. Thank you for reinforcing my confidence that what we’re doing is OK, and perhaps even better than trying to force fit online education into our daily routine. We have become way more intuitive with how we do things around here and it feels infinitely better than stressing ourselves out trying to meet external expectations.

    • I’m so so thrilled to hear you’re finding your groove, Kimberlyn —- it’s well worth the growing pains to settle into something that feels true! :) Well done.

  • I read this days ago, and though our girls are no longer small your writing resonates with me. There has been so much worry and anxiety. I’m leaning into what we know, what we can control, and being intentional about how we spend our time. Sometimes that looks like crafts like beading, tie dye and cooking. Other times it means her showing me tik toks (many that I don’t “get’) or watching movies together. But all of it has turned out to be precious time that I’m grateful for. Thank you for as ever helping with the mind shift.

  • This is beautiful, as your writing always is, and really hit me in a great spot as the school year begins next week, with my newly minted 6th grader set to stay home in lieu of walking into his school… Thank you.

  • Erin, it is really disappointing to read the following: “indoctrinated school system – a teacher stands and speaks, a group of children sit and listen – is now disputed for safety, efficacy?”

    Real talk: teachers do not do chalk and talk–and implying that this is the WAY of public schools and is evil wicked bad and nasty (by the use of a loaded term like “indoctrinated” is so careless and causes harm.

    Teachers in this country are either heroes or villains in this country: saints if they die in the line of fire for their kids during a school shooting, sinners whenever the the shoe fits to advance whatever agenda is assailing education at that moment.

    Teachers are just like everyone, trying their best to make a difference in a profession of limited resources and limited pay–NOT chalk and talking every day, while mindlessly handing out worksheets and counting down till they can run away for the day–while every profession has people who are less than professional, it seems like only in education, only when it comes to teachers are we allowed to paint with such a broad brush.

    It just really seems to show your true colors to publish a hit piece like this one from the place of profound privilege you occupy.

    • Hi Karen:

      I agree with you on this: teachers are just like everyone, trying their best to make a difference. As the daughter of two retired teachers, I’ve witnessed firsthand the passion and hard work that goes into such profession and am endlessly inspired by the many creative educators who seek to make the most of their limited resources and limited pay.

      To clarify, my use of the word “indoctrination” was in reference to the educational system itself, which by definition means “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” We need only to perform simple research to find hundreds of ways critical thinking is missing from a child’s educational experience – despite the teacher’s best efforts and most creative solutions. The system simply doesn’t lend itself to such outcome. This, from Huffington Post’s Frank Breslin was especially telling:

      In short: it is not my belief, nor goal of this post, to perpetuate the assumptions of teachers you’ve provided in your comment. Parents accepting their agency in a child’s education does not in any way diminish a teacher’s contribution, nor deny his/her influence and respect.

  • Thank you for this. I’m not a parent (yet — hopefully in the next year or so), but this has fed my soul. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now, and quietly learning about creativity and slowness and, for a hopefully maybe future, how to bring those things into being a parent.

    I’m a university teacher in Australia, and, honestly, we spend so much time and effort trying to help our students unlearn the models for learning that have come from their primary and secondary education. I watch young adults who have this simmering barely hidden creativity wrestle with wanting to follow that, and with whether they are safe to do so in a learning environment — even when that environment is an explicitly creative discipline. It’s tough to watch. (And tougher still to live through, I imagine.) I don’t know where I’m going with this, exactly, except to say that this earlier model for teaching doesn’t send children out into the world as young adults feeling (or even being) prepared to engage with it. What you’re nudging towards in this post seems to me much more likely to do so.

    • Thank you for such a kind response, Sophie – I’ve so loved getting a peek into your perspective as a university teacher in Australia! You’re not alone – I’ve spoken with so many upper level educators who have shared similar sentiments. What a gift it is for your students to have an instructor who is open to trying a new way!

      Blessings to you,

Comments are closed.