Dropping the ‘break bomb’

Time goes by, and that daughter of ours who had just skipped off to university was all at once in her third year. I still felt that ache there where she wasn’t, but independence was good for her. So, like so many other parents, we swallowed hard and tried to keep our sense of loss to ourselves. As our elder daughter progressed from residence life to sharing a house with friends, we thought, My, my, she’s really growing up!

And then, just when we were starting to get used to that idea, the ‘break bomb’ hit. Perhaps some of you with grown-up kids don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe your almost-grown-up children actually kept their noses to the grindstone and sailed from high school straight on through to university or college, and then on to gainful employment.

It might just be, however, that many of you do know about the break bomb. It just pops up in a conversation some time, something like this: “Oh, yeah, by the way, I should mention, I’m thinking I might just take one or two courses next term. I could work!”

Good gracious, such alarm bells went off in my head, you’d think the earth had opened up. Would she be able to pay her bills? Would she go completely off the rails, and come home, destitute? Would she…gulp…not go back to school and finish her studies?

According to my now worldly wise elder daughter, I was worried for nothing. Well, I wish I’d listened. In the spring she worked as a short order cook (nothing like working in a kitchen to prepare you for the work world). Then she got herself a job as a camp counsellor (spending a great summer up in Algonquin Park). Finally, for the fall, she raised enough money to spend three months bicycling through British Columbia with  travelling performance troupe The Otesha Project. She starred in a play about sustainable living, staged in schools up and down the coast.

Wow. All of this was really quite a wonderful life experience, but that whole year, I worried. Not a major, badgering worry; more a recurring, nagging feeling: Would she go back?

She did. And somehow academic pursuits suit her more now. I read one of her essays last week, and it was good. Who knew that it was the break that I dreaded that would bring her the focus she needs for her final two years of school?

I showed my daughter this column so far, and she responded in an email: “School should be a good experience, you should want to go to class and be excited for the things you are learning. So instead of forcing myself through it, I decided to take a step back and let me see by myself if I would come back to it. And let me tell you, I’ve actually really enjoyed coming back. Being away made me aware of the community of friends that I had built up.”

So if your child wants a break I suppose I’d have to say not to worry so much – that is, if he or she has a plan to be involved in some worthwhile enterprise. If that break is going to be spent in your basement rec room watching soaps and playing video games, it might not be such a productive year. If it looks inevitable that your child will take a break, encourage some planning ahead of time: Volunteer work? A paying job? Katimavik? Canada World Youth? There are so many worthy organizations where young people can dedicate some time and effort, and gain real-world experience in the process. And surely it isn’t the end of the world if they graduate one year later into this economy, with so few jobs for youth anyway.

A caution: It may seem counterproductive, but I’d worry more if your child finds relatively high-paying – but not particularly edifying – employment, like waiting tables in a cocktail lounge. You might have a harder time encouraging the return to school. Once we get used to money, it’s difficult to go back to the relative poverty of student life.

On the other hand, if your child is disciplined, and uses the money to pay for student loans, or to save to finance the next year of school, it might actually work out really well. In this economy,  high-paying jobs for youth are hard to come by, so you may not be faced with this particular dilemma.

In another possible scenario, your child might luck into a job that is both high-paying and inspiring. Maybe, for your child, it’s a better pathway than higher education—and what a happy story that would be.

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