The Intangible Benefits of Letting Teens Travel by Themselves

In praise of the post-high school Gap Year

High school’s complete. Graduation done. Caps have been tossed and gowns taken off. After all the pomp and circumstance winds down, what follows for many American post-high school kids is a summer of fun, and probably a job, before heading off to university in the fall. But why don’t more kids in the US take a longer break after 12+ years of constant schooling? Why isn’t a Gap Year option very prevalent here? As an American who lived in Europe for nearly seven years, I have raised adolescents both in the States and abroad. I am not unique in this case but offer as backdrop for my own personal opinion. Lots of European kids take an entire year off. To work. To travel and explore. Before they start higher education. And I think more American graduates should consider it. Here’s why.

I’m banging a drum for more independent Gap Year opportunities
What is a Gap Year?

I’m glad you asked. According to Gap Year Association – a website dedicated to the topic – a gap year can be defined as such:

“A semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.”, “What is a Gap Year?

For many Americans, the idea of a Gap Year off can conjure expensive trips funded by parents or through graduation gifts. But it doesn’t have to be the case. Kids can get jobs to earn and budget for their own Gap Year adventures. Taking part of that year off to work is a great way to do so. Being employed full-time – is a life experience in and of itself. Spending those paychecks suddenly more impactful since they earned it themselves.

Advocating for teen-directed exploration

Another pervasive belief in the States is that any gap year off must “mean something.” Or add value. A laudable line item on a child’s emerging resume. I’m here to argue for letting your child figure it out. Without signing up for a pre-packaged program or itemized itinerary or – gasp – more curriculum to check off. Unless that’s what your teen wants. Then that’s what you support. And just to be clear, I am not against organized tours or getting help with the planning, but when everything is sorted out and kids are just participants, they lose out on the opportunities for self-determination.

Deciding where to go next? How do I get there? What should I eat? How much does that cost? In all of these little personal decisions, that’s where the learning starts. Package trips and group programs can be a great place to start for younger teens or those not as confident to travel just yet on their own. But I am really talking about giving your teen the space to try life and travel on their terms.

With some guard rails of course. What those guard rails are – up to you and your child. How far away will they travel? For how long? Completely solo or with a buddy? Those questions are determined by the readiness of your child and your personal parenting comfort levels. But I’m here to tell you – letting them try is preparing them for the future.

Adolescence is a period of time when kids have their learner’s permit for life, when (in ideal circumstances) they still have built-in support when they make mistakes. 

How Independent Should Your Teenager Be?
Christine Carter, Greater Good Magazine
Gap Year solo travels in South Korea
Independent travel as a life experience and rite of passage

Independent travel offers teens space to garner that elusive real-world experience. Outside of their comfort zone. Skills they can translate when they return back to school. On their own. Research shows that 90% of kids who defer university enrollment and take a year off return ready to tackle higher learning. And other studies show higher grade points for the students when they do come back.

How to best prepare young people for the uncertain future. The vast majority agree that skills like critical thinking, resilience, creativity, systems thinking, and empathy are crucial … there’s a sense that young people need to gain real-world experience in navigating the unknown through some kind of authentic rite of passage—and more and more research is exploring what that might look like. 

How to Help Young People Transition Into Adulthood
Betty Ray, Greater Good Magazine
Exploring Laos on Gap Year Travels

Prepare for departure. Integral to the design of a rite of passage is that the initiate must leave the comfort of home and venture out into a new realm.

How to Help Young People Transition Into Adulthood
Betty Ray, Greater Good Magazine
Benefits and skills to be gained from independent teen travel

First and foremost, your child will gain self-confidence. To successfully navigate travel or even maneuver through inevitable mishaps that might happen on the road – the good and the potentially bad experiences will both enhance their resilience. They’ll have to get creative and problem solve on the fly. Without you. (You can always be backup.) Having tackled that time away on their own will give them the agency required to face most next steps on their path to adulthood. Be that university, work-life, or otherwise. And it doesn’t mean that the strings are cut between parent and child, but the loosening that happens is positive for both sides.

Ways to get your teen ready for independent travel

There are baby steps families can take before sending their teen off on independent gap year travel. Controlled experiences with time away from you – either at sleep-away camps or visiting distanced family like grandparents both a perfect way to start. Letting them fly as unaccompanied minors will get them used to being responsible in that realm. But just using public transportation on their own – a more affordable and simple way for them to add to their growing independent traveler skillset.

This cannot be overstated: Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers have a strong sense of control over their lives. A mountain of research demonstrates that agency is one of the most important contributors to both success and happiness.

How Independent Should Your Teenager Be?
Christine Carter, Greater Good Magazine
Where did our teens explore on their Gap Year travels?

We have three kids. Our two boys both took a year off after graduating high school. Or Gymnasium as it was called in Denmark. Since we lived in Europe and now moved back to the States, both wanted to explore a bit further afield. In the interest of transparency, I’ll divulge that as their parents we offered them the gift of airline tickets (within reason) to their destination of choice. But honestly, they made enough money to be able to pay for those as well.

Our eldest spent a month learning to surf in Australia and then met up with friends to explore Southeast Asia – all planned, booked, and budgeted by himself. Most of those plans were unfortunately cut short with 2020’s Covid-19 lockdowns. But we’re all grateful he got to see parts of Laos and Vietnam before returning home. Our second son just returned from a month of solo backpacking around South Korea. Again, a trip he worked for and researched on his own. We can see the leaps in maturity and self-confidence those travels afforded them both. Our youngest teen, their little sister, still traipsing through high school at the moment. Will we feel differently letting her travel alone? Possibly. Can’t help it. But I’m heartened by reading posts like this one from Gabby at Packs Light, “Dear Parents, Let Your Daughters Travel.”

Her travels at a young age will undoubtedly shape her life for the better no matter what happens. Whether the trip goes absolutely haywire or is picture-perfect, she will be a stronger person for her experience.

Gabby Beckford – Packs Light

Maybe it was our experiences living in Europe that opened our hearts to allowing our kids these kinds of opportunities. But I strongly believe American kids can and should take on the challenge and reap the benefits of an independent Gap Year. I’d love to know your thoughts. Would you let your kids do it? Have you let your kids do it? What scares you most about the idea? Please comment below. Any questions? Throw those in too. Up next – my own personal Gap Year. Ha! I wish! Wish I’d known it was an option. Cheers from here.

2 thoughts on “The Intangible Benefits of Letting Teens Travel by Themselves

  1. Martha

    Things have changed a lot in thirty years. This is a world society much more now than then. In college, an exchange program was often the answer. I took one to France and had so hoped you could too. You certainly grasp its essence

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.