Let your children go
Children taking a gap year shouldn't scare parents.
You have three more weeks to let your children go. Just let them go.
That's the date when universities all over Australia open their doors to thousands of students starting their studies for the first time. And many thousands of them should not be heading to university straight away. They are going because you and I tell them they must go. We are too frightened to let them have a gap year because we think they will never return. We think they will end up jobless, purposeless, drifting from pub to pub, if they don't march straight to university. It will lead to drug abuse and aimlessness.
We are desperately afraid of what might happen. Believe me, I feel your pain. As the parent of three children who were never very obedient, my fear about the gap year was all that and more.
My children never much enjoyed the authority of school. How would I be able to keep them down on the farm after they'd seen Paris? (Apologies to whoever wrote this song, but it ran through my head a lot when I was trying to counsel my eldest child, who always looked like ice wouldn't melt in her mouth).
In the end, her will was far greater than mine (that's the thing: these children reach the height of their powers just as we are beginning to be frail, to weaken and die). She took a gap year. Then took another gap for six months. She started a degree she hated. Yet here she is at 27 with her dream job; with one degree under her belt and another well on its way. I need not have freaked out. Especially when she was on the phone from some tiny European nation telling me about her marriage plans. At 18. Oh, how I laughed.
This year, professorial research fellow at the University of Sydney in the faculty of education and social work, Andrew Martin, will reveal new figures that show teenagers who take gap years do better. It's not night and day, he says. What he means is, it is not as if the students who take gap years are scoring high distinctions on every measure and the ones who don't take gap years are clawing passes. But the difference is plain.
''They achieved more highly across the first four semesters of university life,'' he says.
So if you take the average of all the students who did gap years, compared with those who didn't do them, the gappers had a higher grade point average than those who went straight to university.
This is on top of research Martin published in 2010, which showed that students who took gap years were more highly motivated than students who went straight to university.
On all important measures, these students did better. The gap year students valued their education a bit more and they were more persistent in their studies and the other activities available at university.
But here is my favourite improved attribute: gap year students were a little better organised. That's the one that makes a big contribution to adult life. If you've had to turn up for work every day and be part of a team; or if you have backpacked your way around Serbia and Croatia with a tiny budget, that makes you more likely to be able to sort yourself out when it comes to university life.
In the classroom, you can really tell those students who worked to pay for travel, who have had to make compromises in the real world. They know the price of a cup of coffee and the price of a loaf of bread; and the cost of the next trip to Glastonbury and environs.
I'm occasionally asked to counsel young people about the possibility of a gap year. Here's what happens. The prospective university students come to an information session at the institution where I work. The student sits down and the parent gazes over their shoulder.
The young person says: ''I want to take a gap year.''
Then the perfectly coiffed parent suddenly starts to twitch, head shaking from side to side, hands making slicing motions across the throat. This is meant to be a sign to me that under no circumstance should I encourage said prospective student to do anything other than march from one educational institution to another.
In the past, I've joked: ''Your mum looks like she needs a drink of water.'' Or I've just ignored the violent hand gestures.
But I think in future I might point them to professor Martin's research. As he points out, most of us who are or have been in the workforce have not followed an entirely predictable path.
''The parental concept of development is linear and lock-stepped … but once school finishes, things become a lot less linear,'' he says. ''Parents think of their children, 'oh, they can't lose a year' and they think that even though their own experience is often non-linear.
We also need to recognise that learning doesn't just happen in the classroom. You'll learn a lot from that moshpit at Spain's Benicassim festival. Such as how to get back to your parents in one piece.