Age Exception

Active parents, all you older GW readers with spawn of your own who haven’t yet defined themselves as adults, here’s some info for you.  Whether your kids are homeschooled, cyber schooled, or attend public or private brick and mortar programs with unschooling adventures on the side, this page offers good advice and an example of how to help kids without being overly intrusive in what should be their experiences, their development.

First, it is critical that you engage your kids in developmental adventures when they’re young.  Nothing is going to teach a kid to be comfortable with travel, except travel.  Airports are big, scary places, even for adults who enter them for the first time.  Chicago O’Hare, Miami, JFK, Philly….these places are human mazes, packed to overflowing, loaded with stressors and rewards, laced with pitfalls to be avoided, and each offers the potential for worthwhile escape, but only if you navigate the maze successfully.  By the time our boys were in their mid-teens, it was hard for us to wrangle them through airports because they were comfortable inside them, they had adapted to this sort of maze, and they wanted to scamper ahead.  When they were each sixteen, and legal to fly as adults rather than unaccompanied minors, we could ditch them at the door of Harrisburg International Airport and they were perfectly comfortable lugging in their gear and getting from here to Maine, here to the Rocky Mountains, here to the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Because we’d traveled internationally, they were aware of how to pass through security and what challenges Customs could impose.  If they needed to catch a cab or find a ferry dock and book a passage, the basic experience was nothing new – the only thing new was that they had to be the active adult in their own lives.

Travel really is the least of it though.  It’s even more important that your kids do things, extended, difficult things, when they’re at home and when they’re not.  You need to give them the chance to succeed doing things they love and it’s great when those things are slightly outside the norm.  Whether your kids realize it or not, you are – or should be – helping them to build their resume of experiences and documented accomplishments.  The former are necessary for personal development; the latter are great for opening doors.

Being able to legitimately say your child is a blackbelt, even if there are unmentioned caveats about it being a youth blackbelt as opposed to a fully realized adult blackbelt, says things about their grit.  Demonstrating that they mastered this or that skill, that they competed against their peers, and that they learned enough to win now and then something more than a participation award, that carries water.  To achieve a modicum of mastery your child will need to be internally driven – they must appreciate the challenge and part of the reward, at least in any multi-year process, must be the reward of engaging in the activity, be that martial arts, cross country running, honking a clarinet in the orchestra, anything which challenges them, improves them, and sets them up for future challenge and success.  Your child will also need a goad – you – when they get discouraged;  kids need to be forged under pressure if you expect them to emerge into adulthood well-tempered.  Also, you might need to let them give up something they truly don’t enjoy, but only if they replace that activity with an equal challenge that piques their interest.

While your kids are pursuing their interests, their challenging interests, harvest public mentions of them, in the press, on YouTube, in the orchestra program – wherever.   You don’t need many mentions.  Three or four can prove your point when you need to prove it to an outsider.  Sure, you get to play proud parent for a moment – show the grandparents an article or a link.  What really matters, though, isn’t a momentary flash of pride.  What matters is that documented achievements can prove a kids mettle, enough to open new doors.  This is all the more true if they’re mature, or experienced, relative to their age cohorts.  You can shout your kid’s virtues to the heavens, but only God will hear you.  Have a reporter, an outsider, mention an achievement and it bears a different sort of weight.  The gatekeepers – adults whose jobs often have the word “admission” appended to the plaque on their door – are simply not going to let a sixteen year old into a program designed for eighteen year olds in a world where even the legal young adults are largely immature and unprepared.  Programs, schools, adventure outfits – none of them need the trouble, even if you’re paying (unless they’re offering a program for the troubled, which is another matter).

The younger you start your kids, the easier this task is for you.  Get them accomplished.  Get them noticed.  This isn’t vanity you’re appeasing, it’s keys you’re gathering.  In a world with gatekeepers, you’ll need those keys.  One sort of key is the letter of recommendation, which can be written by anyone except a parent.  For kids who are entirely homeschooled, this can take a bit of work.  For a kid who has some brick and mortar experience, a teacher or two, or a coach, can provide the initial letter(s).  Once the kid is out there in the world, encourage them, badger them if needed, to accumulate at least one new letter each year, so there is always a fresh letter in the short stack they can bandy about when applying for admission to their next adventure.

Normally parents cannot craft a credible letter of recommendation, no matter how honorable their intent.  However, I have been asked to write about Drake on a few occasions and that’s different from an unsolicited endorsement.  When Drake was applying to NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, he did the initial work, but due to his age the NOLS representative he was haranguing on the phone eventually asked to speak with a parent.  The fellow on the phone heard me out in my argument that Drake, despite being sixteen, was ready for the challenge of a NOLS college level class.  He asked me to request, in writing, an age exemption for Drake from the lead admissions officer.  This is where Drake’s own accomplishments, documented, paid off.  They were his initial keys.  After the exemption was granted and he formally applied, his letters of recommendation, and his own admission essay, became further keys.

What was critical for Drake was that I was both willing to help – gladly! – and equally willing to see him off, to let him leave home at sixteen, travel across the country, and jump into a three month dose of experiential education.  You help them walk to the door, you turn one of the several keys needed to unbolt the door, then you walk away and watch from a distance.

With all of the above guiding your perception of what I did for Drake with this letter, here’s an actual example of the sort of thing he needed to help him move forward at his pace.  The letter below is complete, except for the elision of private data.


November 8, 2017

Kristen Brown

Senior Admissions Officer



Re: Age Exemption Request


Dear Kristen,

I’m writing on behalf of my son, Drake Gooding, who is interested in taking a NOLS semester course in early 2018.

First, let me mention that Drake knows about NOLS because I’m a NOLS grad.  It was decades ago, but I did a Spring Semester in the Rockies in the early 90’s.  Mark Roy led our group through Yellowstone, the Utah Canyonlands, and up into the Dakotas for climbing & caving.  That semester turned out to be the best few months of my undergrad and grad school experiences and I’ve been telling my boys about it ever since they were old enough to listen.

Drake’s ‘problem’ has always been his age.  He’s a driven kid and he’s made a strong start at knocking down age barriers.  I’ve been his advocate as needed, but in the end he always has to do the work.  He would like to participate in a US-based NOLS semester class, but to do so I need to request an age exemption because he’s only 16.  …

Drake was cyber-schooled (home schooled, but using on-line programs acceptable to the State of PA) through most of his elementary and middle school years.  While he didn’t skip grades, he progressed through the required on-line course work at a rapid pace, allowing him to enter our local district’s brick and mortar high school when he was 12.  Drake took extra classes, including weekend coursework at a local university, and avoided study halls, which allowed him to shave another year off the typical 4-year high school program and he graduated this past June as a fifteen year old.  During Drake’s final year of high school, his gifted teacher helped him to get involved with the TED Talk folks and, shortly after graduating, Drake was one of the kids to give a TEDxYouth speech at a local university.  I want to emphasize, while I had to push the school district a bit to allow Drake to progress at a speed he was comfortable with, he fulfilled every requirement.  He’s a worker, but he’s not an academic-only sort of fellow.  Among other achievements while in high school, he worked his way up through the FFA program, eventually winning the top spot in PA for ‘talent’ and going on to compete at the FFA national event (which he didn’t win).  In the end, Drake’s goal in graduating early was to open doors to explore opportunities which aren’t open to kids who putter through the K-12 experience.  He’s about three years ahead of his age-cohorts and he’s ready to tackle the world away from home.

I recognize that a NOLS course presents a tremendous physical challenge to participants.  … Drake has the stamina needed.  He’s been involved in martial arts since he was six, has earned a black belt in Kung Fu, and competes regularly and successfully on a national and international level – mostly within the continental US, although I did take him to St. Lucia in the Caribbean for one event.  He’s an active kid outside the studio, too…biking, skateboarding, hiking, backpacking, snorkeling, and so forth.  Physically, he’s a rock and I’m confident he can handle any challenge NOLS sets in front of him.  When Drake was eleven and his brother was twelve, they hiked Pennsylvania’s Black Forest Trail with me, each boy carrying all his gear and covering the toughest 40+ mile trail in our home state in only four days.  Our family travels regularly, so Drake is comfortable with domestic and international travel – airports, hotels, and all the rest.

A NOLS course would benefit Drake in several ways.  While he’s a self-motivated individual, he has not yet been in a position to learn leadership in the way that NOLS can teach him how to manage a range of personalities under the sometimes stressful circumstances of, for example, wilderness navigation.  Leadership experience & skills development will help him no matter what he does in life.  Second, he has been exposed to backpacking, canoeing and other outdoor activities, but the immersion he’ll receive at NOLS will, as it did for me, set him up for a lifetime of safe travels and give him the foundation he’ll need to pass these skills along to his children.  Thirdly, there is also the distinct possibility that a NOLS semester will be the first major stepping stone for him toward one potential career path that stands before him….his grandfather is affiliated with National Geographic and has been nudging Drake toward the idea of earning the degrees and the experiences necessary to eventually be a NG trip leader with their international Expeditions program.

Take everything I write, or say if we speak, with any grain of salt you need to.  Once you start interacting with Drake, you’ll discover that he is more mature than most sixteen year olds and he’s entirely ready for NOLS, mentally, physically, and socially.

Right now there are three North American courses Drake is interested in (along with a host of distant ones, which I understand he cannot apply for until he’s eighteen):

  • Spring Semester in the Southwest
  • Spring Semester in the Rockies
  • Spring Semester in Baja

If you’ll grant him the age exception, he’ll move forward with the application process.  I’ll be glad to do anything you need from my end (sign waivers, that sort of thing), but after you read this long-winded note, it would be best if you move forward directly with Drake.  You can reach him by phone at … or by email at … .

Thanks very much for your consideration.  It means a lot for him, and I sincerely appreciate your time.

Kind regards,



John R. “Russ” Gooding


PS – here are some pertinent links if you want to see Drake in action.

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