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Should I take a gap year or go off to college during a pandemic? That’s the question for many students during COVID-19.

A recent survey found that 16% of high school seniors planned to take a gap year instead of heading off to college or taking classes online this fall. In a pandemic-free world, less than 3% of graduating seniors planned to take a gap year off.

Many parents may be experiencing mixed emotions at this moment. Some are relieved their teen decided to take some time off and are thankful that tuition isn’t due for the time being. Others have significant anxiety about what exactly will happen over the next 365 days. For some, it’s a little bit of both. It isn’t like normal job or volunteer opportunities students would typically do in a gap year are readily available. Plus, travel is certainly out of the question. 

It has been said that the best defense is a good offense. Taking a proactive approach to having your teen under your roof for an additional year (or just a semester) can help prevent unnecessary drama and tension in your home. You’ll definitely want to have clear discussions about boundaries and expectations if you want to avoid constant disagreements and resentment. Here are some thoughts to get you going.

Make time to talk about how they are doing.

A lot of young people are experiencing a ton of emotions about so many rites of passage not going as planned. Not going away to school is just one more thing to add to the list. Being supportive and allowing them to process their thoughts and feelings can help make space to move forward. Having those conversations can also help you see if they might be struggling. They may even need help managing anxiety or depression during this uncertain time.

Ask your son/daughter to come up with a plan for the year.

They should be able to clearly articulate their goals as well as how they plan to accomplish them. And, if their plan is going to require financial support or other resources from you, they need to be able to show you what those are.

The Edge Foundation encourages students taking a “COVID-constrained” gap year to consider incorporating some of the following suggestions from College Transitions and others into their plans:

Volunteer for a political cause or candidate.

2020 is an election year with many important national, state and local races. Students taking a gap year during the pandemic could make calls/assist with a candidate’s social media outreach from the safety of home. They could also volunteer to work the polls. Since so many older poll workers are needing to take a break due to COVID-19, the timing is perfect.

Get help from a mentor.

If students are unable to attend college in person, this could be a good time to tap into networks of those who can advise them about college and career goals. Global Citizen Year is one organization that helps students tap their parents’ networks or send emails asking leaders in fields of interest if they’re available for a 15-minute Zoom chat.

Take online, college-level courses.

There are plenty of good (and sometimes FREE) courses in virtually every area of study. These courses can help students explore and deepen their knowledge in their area of interest.

Do work for a community nonprofit.

Many local charities and nonprofits are facing staffing shortages to help serve community needs during this time of crisis. If this work involves working directly with people, students will need to follow public health guidelines about protecting themselves from exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Work locally for an essential business.

Over 60% of American families have already experienced a reduction in income. Working while following CDC guidelines can help students earn and save money to help with future college expenses. 

Learn a foreign language online.

Using an online platform like Duolingo can help your young adult sharpen their foreign language skills. Learning another language can be useful in college and beyond! Bilingual individuals enjoy a greater array of opportunities. Plus, they make more money, on average, than their monolingual peers.

Make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to rules and expectations.

It’s not helpful to leave it to their imagination what you expect of them during this time away from school. Be clear about what treating your home with respect and observing your rules looks like. Especially in light of COVID-19, discuss your thoughts on having friends over, socializing with others and then coming back home. You’ll also want to talk about helping with chores and laundry, helping themselves to food whenever, any limitations on nighttime hours or activities, etc.

Do you have expectations of them financially?

Will they pay rent? Do you expect them to do certain things in exchange for living under your roof? This is particularly important for the development of their sense of responsibility and independence. It is also practical, as household expenses will certainly climb.

While your teen may not have actually transitioned out of the house yet, he/she most likely believes that in a non-COVID-19 world they would be out on their own and functioning more like an adult. This is totally normal. Their expectations for living at home during a gap year or semester may be very different from what you have in mind, though. Since they are still progressing through their transition to adulthood they may not consider how their actions impact everybody else. As their parent, you have a unique opportunity to help them navigate all of these things while they find their way. 

Photo by Liam Anderson from Pexels

In his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Earley shares this quote by Mortimer J. Adler:

“Without communication, there can be no community. … That is why conversation, discussion, or talk is the most important form of speaking and listening.”

FRIENDSHIP MATTERS

In recent years, we are having fewer and fewer sit-down, face-to-face conversations. Those things seem to have been replaced by texting, emojis, messaging on Facebook and emails. All these things may have short-circuited our ability to know each other deeply.

News stories abound about the increase in anxiety and depression for all ages, we have seen the suicide rate triple for teens, and surveys indicate we as a culture are lonelier than we have ever been. In light of that, perhaps the new year should be designated as a year of intentional conversation with others.

“Everything in the universe has its roots in friendship,” says Earley. “That means that longing to be in right relationship with other people and things is at the heart of every molecule in existence – and most powerfully in our own hearts.”

Earley explains that conversation exposes us in two ways: face-to-face conversation brings risks and truth-telling happens.

HOW WE COMMUNICATE IMPACTS EVERYONE

Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle believes that replacing face-to-face communication with technology is depleting people’s capacity for empathy toward others. Research has shown that the way people are currently seeking to communicate through devices has threatened true friendship. Instead of things happening in real time right in front of us, people are planning and curating the versions of themselves that they want to bring to the discussion.

Removing tone of voice, facial expression and body language from communication leaves the conversation lacking in so many ways. How can we bring back real, honest conversation? It’s not as hard as you might think.

  • Make an effort to remove devices from the dinner table whether you are at home or at a restaurant.
  • Create space for regular conversation and fellowship with family and friends. Instead of the well-meaning, “Let’s get together soon!” pull up your calendar and set a date to get together to catch up on life.
  • For the sake of your emotional health, there should be a couple of people you connect with on a regular basis. These would be the people Earley is describing with whom risky conversations take place, truth-telling occurs and perfection is not expected.
  • When it comes to modeling the art of conversation with your children, create tech-free zones/times in your home where your family can come together for game night or other activities that invite the opportunity for conversations to occur.

CONVERSATION STARTERS

If you feel like you aren’t great at getting conversations going, here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What is something that is popular now that totally annoys you and why?
  • What is the best/worst thing about your work/school?
  • If you had intro music, what song would it be and why?
  • Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
  • If you had to change your name, what would it be and why?
  • How should success be measured, and by that measurement, who is the most successful person you know?
  • If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would the question be?
  • What was the best period of your life so far? What do you think will be the best period of your entire life?

People of all ages are actually dying from the lack of community that currently exists in our culture, but that trend does not have to continue. Every person can be intentional about having regular meaningful conversations with others. Imagine how different our culture could be if we all committed to working on this.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 28, 2019.

Image from Unsplash.com

Let’s be real, there aren’t too many people in this world that would choose to actually be lonely. We as human beings thrive off our interactions and connections with other people. We are usually our best selves when we have people who care about us in our lives.

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You’re in love with your total opposite. Is this your true love? Can your relationship last forever? Do you guys stand a chance? You’ve heard “opposites attract” and you’ve definitely felt that attraction, but you can’t deny how opposite you are either. (Your friends and family constantly remind you…)

Then, maybe in quiet moments, the nagging questions creep in…

How different is too different? Are we total opposites? Maybe opposites attract, but can opposites also drive each other crazy? Is there a point where you are so different that you are forced to concede that you aren’t compatible? Does it matter how different you are if both of you are willing to accept each other’s differences? Can there be a “balancing act” between the differences? He has this one t-shirt that he thinks is so cool and it’s all I can do to not burn it! THIS CAN NEVER WORK, CAN IT?

Calm down. Take a deep breath. These are (mostly) good questions to be asking! 

If we start with the idea that EVERYONE is already different from each other to some extent, then the next thing to understand is that the bigger the differences, the more you will have to work to function as one, to be unified, to be a team AND the more you’ll have to work to avoid conflict, arguments, and deal with disagreements. 

This is a key concept. Got it? Bigger differences equal more relationship work.

I’m using “bigger” here as in how important are the differences? (Personality and character, core values like religion or politics, issues like whether to have kids, parenting styles, or approaches to conflict, communication, sex and money.)

Some people get hung up on the little differences and don’t even consider the BIG ones. The little differences are the spice of life. Different taste in music or food. City or country upbringing. Cake or pie? (Pie of course!) Those kinds of differences keep things interesting. But there are Big Differences that can make things difficult down the road. Have you thought about those?

In theory, you’d think it doesn’t matter how many differences or how big they are if each of you is willing to do the required work. (“But we love each other!”) That sounds so nice.

In practice, people have limits, get worn out, or have certain things where their partner just has to be on the same page. Worse, sometimes you can’t predict the impact of the differences down the line. Listen, the rest of your life is a long time.

Give some serious thought to these next little pieces of wisdom:

First, marriage tends to magnify your differences, NOT minimize them. It certainly won’t make them go away. Oh, and you or marriage aren’t gonna “fix” him or her. If it’s a “thing” while dating, it will really be a “thing” when you get married.

Secondly, in general, while they are dating, people tend to greatly underestimate the impact of these differences, while, at the same time, overestimating their ability to look past them. (Read that last sentence a couple of times. I’ll wait.)

Why can’t they see straight? They have these big blindspots called “Attraction,” “Being In Love,” “Infatuation” or “But He’s/She’s So Hot! Then at some point, a few years into the rest of their life, they are like, “Wow, this is really, really hard!” (If children come into the picture, multiply the difficulty level by a factor of at least five.)

Here’s the thing, nobody is going to be able to tell you definitively, “You guys are just too different.” There is something there or you wouldn’t be dating, right? But here is some help seeing around those blind spots…

Are the differences in core values, non-negotiables, or just preferences?

I’ll use my 25-year marriage (That’s twenty-five years. A quarter-century!) as an  example. We. Could. Not. Be. More Different…

Her idea of a fun Saturday morning is re-organizing the kitchen cabinets so she can check that off her List of Things to Do. (That’s an illness, right?) Then she wants to proceed to the next things on her list, all equally as exciting to me. My perfect Saturday is watching some (pretentious) art-house movie, then analyzing and endlessly discussing the cinematography and the significance of the director’s color palette while listening to some obscure Icelandic band.

She is a grounded, list-making Doer. I am a list-averse, head in the clouds.

She is concrete. I’m abstract. She’s about accomplishments, I’m about … not.

All these are real differences, BUT we pretty much completely agree right down the line when it comes to religion, spirituality, and politics. We have the same non-negotiables of honesty and loyalty. We both wanted kids and wanted the same things for them. (But, man, if my life depended on buying a dress for her that she would actually wear, I’m a dead man.)

Do the differences complement or compete?

She is more of an extrovert who loves people and parties. I’m an introvert who is good at faking being extroverted. She loves the crowds on Black Friday. I hate them. But, if she has to return something and has lost the receipt, I will be called upon to talk our way out of that with the manager. I’m just good at that sort of thing.

See, when encountering differences, people often make a judgment as to who is better and who is worse. If you can avoid that kind of thinking and be more like, “Where does THIS come in handy? Where does THAT?” now you are complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Boom.

Are the differences an obstacle or an opportunity?

Religious differences are unique. Now, you can say that in this arena you’ll just agree to disagree. That’s sounds grown-up. Might work for you two. But It will be a thing with the in-laws. In fact, it will be THE thing. If you have children, you will have to pick which traditions they will be raised under. That can cause some serious tension! I’ve seen it. Just sayin’…

Speaking of children, it can be really good for them to have parents who are significantly different but model how to make that work and play to their strengths. Maybe the kids end up being balanced and learn valuable life-skills. Or maybe they grow up seeing their parents arguing all the time because they are so, so different. Are you guys arguing a lot now?

Are the differences a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?

Some differences might get smoothed out a bit over time so they don’t rub each other so sharply. but they will always be there. These differences aren’t something you solve, they are something you learn to live with the rest of your life. You cool with that? 

I don’t have a wife who enjoys talking about philosophy, movies, music, books, art, or the beauty of the word “oblivion.” She indulges me and works at it and is a really good sport about it. I try not to wear her out and corner her with lengthy conversations about Southern Gothic authors.

She doesn’t have a husband who will ever be organized, be good about budgeting, will jump up to tackle some project around the house, will ever want to go jogging, or organize my day around a list of things to do. I know that stuff is important to her, so I work at it. We both have accepted these thingsWe had to grow into it… It was hard for a long time until we figured it out.

Are the differences equally valued?

This is important. For us, this has taken some time and been tough. When it comes to our differences, she likes to claim, “Hey, at least I get stuff done.” Then I say, “Yeah, but you miss out on so much beauty and wonder and will likely die from a stress-induced heart attack.” (Point, mine. Check THAT off your list…)

We have learned to play to our strengths. Who do you think makes sure that bills get paid on time? Who do you think helps our kid with his Shakespeare project?

Spending the rest of your life with someone doesn’t require uniformity – that would be boring. It does require unity. Whatever the differences, you will need to be able to stand unified. Unified against challenges, problems, hardships, the test of time, and even sometimes things like in-laws and often your own children. It’s gonna be you two against the world. Is there enough common ground for you to stand together?

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

For more resources, see our Dating and Engaged or Marriage pages.

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Have you ever had a friend who completely began to ignore you when they started dating someone? Or a friend who began acting differently once they were in a relationship? How did that make you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated? However it made you feel, we all say that will never be us until… it is.

Dating can be hard, especially in today’s digital age. You can’t open Instagram without feeling bad that you are single. When it comes to dating (or not) there are some things we have to be aware of. There’s not a right or wrong way to date, but there are unhealthy and healthy ways!

How can we make sure we are staying true to ourselves while also being in a relationship? Here are some dos and don’ts of dating…

Dos:

  • DO take your time. Good things come to those who wait. Anything worth having is worth waiting for.
  • DO stay true to who you are. Never forget where you came from. Be who you are because losing yourself is not worth it.
  • DO know what you stand for! You don’t have to compromise what you believe for others. Be strong and stand for your values. If they don’t like it, it is possible they’re not supposed to be in your life anyway.

Don’ts

  • DON’T block out your loved ones! Closing out the people who have always had your back is the last thing you should do. There is such a thing as having a family life and a social life while in a close dating relationship, trust me!
  • DON’T let your relationship status determine your worth. No, you’re not a loser because you’re the only one in your friend group that is single. Go live your best life. Being single can be lit! You don’t have to worry about someone eating your food, Valentine’s Day isn’t a huge deal for you, and no one gets upset with you for not calling them.
  • DON’T get in a relationship just because everyone else is in one. It’s completely fine if you’re single…

Listen, you don’t have to date right now. It’s okay to date yourself for a little bit. It’s okay to live in the moment by yourself. It’s okay to take yourself on dates. It’s okay to learn about who you are. It’s okay to tell yourself you’re beautiful or handsome. It’s okay to reassure yourself that you’re not alone- you have people in your corner! Don’t rush for the status. The heartbreak isn’t worth it.

For more resources, see our Dating and Engaged page here.

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When children leave the nest, it can be a very traumatic time for parents. You may second-guess how well you have prepared them to be out on their own. You might even be thinking about how things will be different at home with all the new time you have on your hands. This is what you’ve been working toward all these years, but there’s just something about letting go. 

There is no question your role as parent shifts as your young adult grows even more independent. While your child is becoming his/her own person and pursuing their dreams, some parents really mourn this milestone – and there is nothing wrong with that. It is for sure a shift. Now, you get to watch them spread their wings while you take a background role of being supportive and encouraging as well as providing a safe place for them to come for rest. 

If you are just beginning this adventure, it might be helpful to know a few things. Not everybody deals with this transition the same way. One parent may be experiencing tremendous grief while the other is excited not just for their college student, but also for the transition at home. Be careful not to judge. Instead, check in with each other to see how each of you is navigating through the change.

Talk about ways you can encourage your student while also caring for your own needs. Since you won’t be seeing your son or daughter every day, it might be helpful to write them weekly letters. Students say there is nothing better than going to their mailbox and actually having real mail. Periodic phone calls are great for staying connected, but letters are something they can keep and read over and over again.

If you are in the midst of making this transition, here are some suggestions for getting through the initial shock: 

Plan ahead. Don’t wait until the last minute to think about how you will deal with the extra time on your hands. Have some projects planned that you can focus on. Be intentional about planning things you can do on the weekend.

Set limits for yourself. As your child settles into a new routine, there will be lots of demands on their time. Instead of calling every day, let your child make the first phone call and try to limit yourself to checking in once a week. Email is also a great way to stay in touch and be supportive without being intrusive.

Be there when your child needs you. The first few months may also be hard for your child. Encourage them to hang in there. Send care packages and cards. Make your home a refuge they will want to come back to. Avoid making major changes to your child’s room.

Consider the next thing. As your parenting role changes yet again, you will want to consider what’s next. Keep your eyes and heart open to where you need to go in life and what you want your life to be about. 

Letting go can be especially hard, but it would be a shame to be so wrapped up in your loss that you miss what your child needs from you in this season of their life. Different seasons call for changes and adjustments, and although this particular season is new to you, remember that you’ve dealt with changes and challenges since you brought them home. All those moments have led you to this place.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on August 23, 2019.

There is pretty much nothing more exciting and scary than thinking about crossing the threshold into your freshman year of college. Your parents won’t be telling you what time to get up or that you need to study. You can stay out as late as you like with whomever you like. Don’t feel like going to class? No problemo. The professor isn’t going to report you and your parents will never know. FREEDOM!

We asked some recent college grads what most surprised them about their freshman year, and here are some things they wished they had known:

ROOMMATES

95% of college freshmen have never shared a room with anybody, so you have to figure out how to communicate, handle conflict, respect each other’s differences and create clear boundaries. This is easier said than done, but worth the discussion for sure.

ABOUT YOUR PARENTS…

They may only be a phone call away, but they shouldn’t be coming onto campus to do your laundry, making sure you get to class, nagging you to study or setting up a party so you can get to know people. This is truly your chance to take advantage of what you’ve learned and put it into practice.

BE PREPARED TO:

  • Know how to do your laundry.
  • Live on a budget.
  • Manage your time. Don’t let the freedom go to your head.
  • Go to class.
  • Get involved in a few organizations to help you meet people.
  • Avoid the temptation to go home every weekend. 

ALCOHOL, DRUGS… AND SEX

No matter where you go to school, you might be shocked at the drug and alcohol scene. You may choose to stay away from it, but your roommate might not. (And it can definitely impact your relationship…) If you do choose to participate, don’t underestimate the kinds of things that can happen when you are under the influence. Chances are great that you will participate in behavior you otherwise would not get involved in.

Use your head. If you go to a party, get your own drink. Before you go somewhere alone, tell someone where you are going or even better – take somebody with you.

You should familiarize yourself with your college’s sexual misconduct policy and definition of consent and know what a healthy relationship looks like. Think about your boundaries ahead of time. 

Maybe you want to do some things differently at college, or perhaps there are some friendships you know you need to leave behind. Freshman year is an opportunity for a fresh start and greater independence. Take this time to become who you really want to be and surround yourself with people who will help you reach your goals. The next four years are laying a foundation for your future, and how you spend your college years really does matter.

Sometimes, truth be told, the whole thing is super overwhelming, but nobody wants to admit that’s the case. If you ever feel like you’re in over your head, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are plenty of free resources on campus to help you adjust to campus life.

This article was originally published
in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on August 16, 2019.

There might be The One, but then there’s also the one you actually marry.

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Have you heard that question, “What are you going to do with your life?” Probably a million times. I was lucky enough to grow up knowing my great-grandparents and though I can’t recall many words of wisdom they gave me, I do remember that in my senior year of high school my great-grandfather used to ask me, “What are you going to do with your life?” Back then I would tell him “I want to be a nurse and help people.” Well, It’s been three years and he has since passed, but his voice still plays in my head as people ask me what I’m going to do when I graduate from college.

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