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Malia Obama and My Daughter Are Taking Gap Years, So Haters Back Off

Photograph by Marsha Takeda Morrison

My daughter has a lot of things in common with Malia Obama. No, my kid's dad isn’t the President of the United States, and her mom—while still a lady, ahem—isn’t the First Lady. But both teens are finishing their last year of high school and will turn 18 this coming July (they were born just two weeks apart.) Both have been buried in the college application and selection process for the past few months. They would both like to be filmmakers.

And now they’re both taking gap years.

I told an acquaintance recently that my daughter would be taking a year off after graduating in June, and she gave me a puzzled look and then said, “So she’s going to fool around for 12 months?” I told her that was a ridiculous and unfair assumption, that she’d only be fooling around for 11 months and for the final four weeks we’d insist she do something productive like raid recycling bins or write letters to lonely prisoners.

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I was being sarcastic, of course, but that woman’s response is pretty typical of the reaction I’ve gotten when I’ve mentioned that our daughter would be taking a year off before starting college.

Doesn’t everyone deserve a break after 12 straight years of school? That’s a lot of bad cafeteria food to get over.

Which is why Malia’s decision to take a gap year was such welcome news. Granted, my daughter didn’t make her announcement via a White House statement, but it suddenly made her decision not quite so unusual and familiarized people with the concept of taking a break after high school.

Gap years are common in Europe and Australia and are gaining in popularity in the U.S.; a recent report by the Associated Press says that 30,000 to 40,000 students each year are taking a year off before college, and that 2015 saw a 22 percent increase in the number of students taking gap years.

Many universities even encourage students to take a year off before enrolling. Admissions officers at Harvard—where Malia is headed in 2017—authored an article in 2000 that strongly suggested students defer college, saying a gap year is a “time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.”

My husband and I are completely supportive of our daughter’s decision. The idea of a gap year makes perfect sense; it offers some time to breathe and avoid the pressure and anxiety of immediately choosing the “right” college and the “right” career path. Doesn’t everyone deserve a break after 12 straight years of school? That’s a lot of bad cafeteria food to get over.

And, contrary to my friend’s assumption, instead of fooling around she’ll be taking workshops, doing internships and working on her own projects. She’ll have a year to discover what aspect of filmmaking she wants to pursue, or if she has an entirely different calling altogether. (Although fooling around is allowed, too, as is making Starbucks runs for your parents.)

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Amidst everyone sharing their college choice news, the announcement of a gap year might sound anticlimactic. But we trust our daughter and know it was a well thought out, conscientious decision and are looking forward to her upcoming journey. Even more encouraging, if you just made the same parenting decision for your kid as the President, chances are you did the right thing.

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