June 6, 2022

Do our graduating high schoolers need a victory lap?

Remember the old joke about the guy who finishes last in his med school class. What do people call him? Doctor!

Tell that one to your Grade 11 or 12 child. Cause they weren’t listening a  few weeks ago when Steven Del Duca (who??) suggested that because high school students have suffered so many academic and social losses thanks to two years of COVID, they should be offered “optional Grade 13.” Sure Steven. And I’m Dolly Parton. High school students don’t randomly choose more school. And those on the verge of fleeing the nest are unlikely to want to delay their dash to freedom – aka party time in the residence.

And yet Mr. Del Duca, who is unpopular but far from stupid, had a point. Are these kids ready for university? Not so much. The past two years, instead of learning about self-management, self-control concerning substances, and some semblance of self-motivated study habits, they’ve been on TikTok. Alone at home in their rooms.

They haven’t gotten to grow the independence skills that kids in high school usually pick up; and heading off to university without those is a recipe for binge drinking and drugging, indiscriminate sexual activity, lousy study habits and crappy impulse control. None of which bodes well for first year university, which on a good day is already challenging in that regard. Remember the public hand-wringing of university presidents last fall about their students appallingly excessive frosh week drunken behaviour? I worry that kids leaving high school now will be even more vulnerable to making these kinds of bad decisions.

What then are parents to do?

You can’t make a 17 or 18-year-old do more high school. Unless they flunked, which most won’t, because schools are going easy on grading thanks to Covid.

But you can strongly encourage a gap year, and give them lots of help to make this happen. Broadly speaking there are four kinds of gap years: Working versus study and home versus away. If this were normal times, I would counsel parents that teens should be pretty much entirely on their own making gap year arrangements, whether work or study, home or way. But this cohort simply isn’t ready to do that. To add to their social and academic difficulties, many are also anxious, and they’re not as resourceful as the kids who graduated high school before COVID. Not their fault. They need more help than pre-COVID high schoolers.

You may be surprised how attractive a gap year looks to your teen when you offer to throw in money, and do some of the heavy lifting. It doesn’t matter whether the gap year is staying home and pulling shots at Starbucks  or learning French in Aix-en-Provence or backpacking out west or volunteering at community programs. The point is simply to postpone university for a year, to give them time to get much needed life skills. And some independence.

The goal is that when they do, a year later, get to university, they’ll have enough miles on their tires out in the world that they’ll have learned some judgment and enough impulse control to make sensible decisions about intoxicants, sex and schoolwork. And that pesky influences like peer pressure will lose some of their power thanks to life experience.

But most of all, the power of the gap year – for these teens right now – will be the confidence it allows them to gain. Because more than anything, at a deeper level than academics or social success – and indeed what underpins them both – is the belief that I can do it. This is the core of resilience. It is what COVID stole from them, and what they need to find inside themselves.

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