Several years ago our new Venezuelan exchange student arrived at our home. It was August, when students usually arrive for the exchange year. As many host families do, we had plans for activities as well as for introducing him to our family over the next few weeks before school started. On the way home from the airport, he told us his parents were also in the U.S. and that they would be in Portland in a few days. We talked to our exchange program coordinator, who had someone talk to the parents and explain that a visit at this time was not advised. We thought they understood.
Or so we thought. Three days later, without warning and literally as we were about to walk out the door for a day trip, we heard a knock on our door and found his family outside. They said they were there to pick their son up to go shopping. After some discussion, they left. But in conversations over the next day or two between the program and the student’s family, the student’s father said that he was the father, and he would drop by whenever he chose. In fact, he announced, the family had plans to also visit at Christmas and probably at Easter.
To make a long story short, the student was released to the custody of his parents and left the country. It was a pity; in the short time we had with the student, it had become clear that one reason he wanted to undertake a high school exchange year was to assert some independence from his family. His parents had denied him this opportunity – not intentionally, as they no doubt considered their actions reasonable from their point of view. He was their son. And they were his family.
Most exchange students and their parents reading this story will react with a “that’s outrageous, we would never do anything like that.” But there’s a fine line between the extremes shown in this story and what may seem like more reasonable situations that play out every year as parents announce they plan to visit at one point or another during the exchange year, or as a student announces that he or she plans to take a trip at Christmas or some other time to visit parents, family, or friends elsewhere in the U.S.
The bottom line is that exchange students are coming to spend a year in the home of a host family. It is not a hotel. It is a family. It is a relationship that requires work to achieve the desired bonding. It is a two-way street, requiring work from both sides. When parents or students announce their plans to visit or travel, it can throw a wrench into that family bonding process. It can needlessly undercut relationships, even if that is not the intent of anyone involved
Communication isn’t always intentional
When you add the twist of cultural differences, typical behavior patterns seen in exchange students, normal teenage expectations, excitement about the travel part of the exchange year, and ordinary parent worries and anxieties – well, you get a whole kettle full of mixed messages and potential downsides. Here are some possibilities of what the people involved might think the ‘true’ message is regarding a request to visit family or have family visit:
What students and their parents “hear”:
* School doesn’t start until September and the program has me scheduled to arrive the beginning of August. That’s a whole month. Why not go visit my aunt or cousin and come back a few days before school starts?
* It’s my family. Of course I can see them when I want, it’s my family! (or the reverse: It’s my son/daughter, of course I can come see him/her whenever it works best for our family.)
* I love my parents. I can’t spend 10 months without seeing them. (or the reverse: How can you expect me to go 10 months without seeing my child?)
* Seeing my family won’t make me homesick. I don’t get homesick.
What the host family “hears”:
* Who cares about spending a few weeks during the summer with people I don’t know in a town I don’t know?
* Why does it matter that my host family has already made plans to meet me at the airport, and taken time off work for the first few days or week after I arrive? Can’t you just change that?
* I don’t really want to go camping / visit extended host family so you can introduce me/ spend holidays with people I don’ t know.
* I didn’t hear what the program orientation said and the information my exchange program has given me about how important it is to get to know my host family and my host community. And if I’m not paying attention to that, I’m probably not paying attention to other important things, too.
What’s the real message?
Clearly, students and their families are not trying to say they don’t care or that they don’t want to get to know their host families. They have the best intentions; from their point of view, it makes sense. Summer time, winter break, Easter – that’s when you spend time with family, right? Why would it be any different than any other summer or winter break? On the other side of the coin, when exchange programs limit permission for family visits, there clearly is a reason; it’s not intended to cause rifts or prevent family relationships.
Part of the miscommunication may be lack of understanding as to what being a host family is all about, which – no matter how much a student may have read or heard — may not be 100% clear until a student has landed into that host family and is actually experiencing a new family life. It’s not uncommon for students to be surprised, for example, that host families don’t get paid (even if their program told them this ahead of time). It’s common for them to be surprised that yes, their host family really does want to include them in activities and introduce them to other members of the family.
No doubt, part of the miscommunication is simply because teens look at the world differently from adults. Moreover, parents have different motivations for sending their child abroad than the motivations of the host family taking the student into their home. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s important is that parents understand that they need to set aside some of their own goals so that their student can have a successful exchange with a host family that has opened up their home (quite often with inconvenience and cost) to their son or daughter.
Exchange program guidelines regarding “no family visits” are not barriers to your family relationship; rather, they are bridges to your child’s new relationships
Programs are not trying to create an artificial barrier between you and your child when they say “don’t visit until the end of the exchange year (if then).” There’s considerable evidence that family visits during an exchange semester/year cause behavioral issues and increases in homesickness after the visit is over. It’s not helpful to say that you know your child and he/she won’t cause problems, or that your child doesn’t get homesick. Your child has never been through an experience like this before. You yourself as a parent have never been through this before. On the other hand, we program coordinators have been through it before.
The reaction of some parents and students is to make logical arguments for when a visit would be a good idea, such as the student who thought it made sense at the beginning before school started, or the families who want to visit during Christmas break thinking it’s a holiday, so no school, and they naturally want to share the holiday with their child. The arguments make sense on the surface; of course, it seems that before school starts or during a holiday would be logical. At least, it makes sense if you look at it purely from the perspective of a family making plans for their son or daughter. But an exchange program isn’t just a family making plans for their child.
What’s really wrong with family visits?
What the arguments are missing is the experience of what is involved in cultural immersion. Why not visit at the beginning of the year before school starts? Because it’s a key relationship-building period, at a time when the anxieties and time-consuming activities of school do not interfere. Going camping, going to the beach, attending a country music festival or the county fair – even just hanging out with your host siblings at the host family home, going to the mall, watching TV, or playing basketball in the street — these are part of summer in this country. Additionally, the school system is different in different countries; in the U.S., for example, you can’t just look at the date classes start. You need to look at when sports practices start and registration for classes, both of which tend to be a couple of weeks before the first day of class. There may be family welcome BBQs offered by the parent-teacher association, or sports team introductory dinners.
Is summer break boring at times? Sure. Is every single day going to be a fun fest and whirlwind of activity? Not likely. But sharing these experiences with your host family at a time when you can enjoy it helps set the stage for the entire year. Moreover, the student learns what daily life is like, figures out where the host family home is in connection with the town or city, and learns how to get around. The whole point of international cultural exchange is to foster relationships, which take time to build. Sharing experiences is part of what makes these strong relationships. If family comes to visit, the student continues to focus on his or her “regular” family, not his host family. If the student goes to visit family, he/she is not spending time beginning to develop relationships.
Alright then, why not visit in the Fall after my child has had a chance to learn some of these things? Because we know, from experience, that the first few months of the school year are the most difficult for the students. They feel stressed from the difficulties of being in a new school in a foreign country, and their brains are working over-time trying to speak and think in a foreign language 24/7. A visit from family can make it more difficult for a teen to struggle through; rather than forcing them to make their way through the difficult times and learn how to resolve problems on their own, it makes them want to return to the familiar territory of home and family. That’s a normal human reaction to a difficult time. And so the result of a visit is tears and sadness, rather than the happiness parents and student expected. No matter how we try to explain this, the parents who visit (or who have their children visit family in the U.S.) seem completely surprised when it happens.
Why not visit during the winter break and Christmas holidays? Because the students do need to experience the holidays and traditions of their host country. It can be a time when the relationships begin to “click,” when they share this family time and have more of those sharing experiences. It’s often the turning point between the first few difficult “why am I here” months and the rest of the year which becomes “I have a second home.” But in order to have a second home, you need to spend time in the home and with the people in the home.
What’s the answer?
Some exchange programs prohibit visits of any kind, and follow up with disciplinary action and warnings if a family or student fail to follow this rule. That’s one solution, and those programs feel it’s the best way to keep teenaged students focused on their exchange immersion experience. It certainly can make it easier for coordinators and host families, since it prevents debate and avoids the need to have awkward conversations.
Some programs are more cautious about issuing such absolute rules. Your program may use words like “strongly discourage visits during the exchange period” and “highly recommend that you wait until the end of the year.” As someone who has been working with students and whose own child went abroad, I ask my readers to listen and as difficult as it might be, to accept these guidelines. Do you know your child? Of course you do . . . or you did, until the moment he or she got on that plane. Listen to the reasons why we suggest waiting until the end of the exchange year. Accept, if you can, that the rules and guidelines serve a purpose.
Here’s the message to parents. Your child will always be your son or daughter. And we generally welcome your visits at the end of the year. It is a pleasure to meet the parents of the teens who have been in our charge for the past 9 or 10 months. Indeed, it’s an honor that you trusted your child to us. Sometimes we get to meet other members of the student’s family as well. But wait until the end of the exchange year. Let your child develop this new life on his or her own.