by Jana Grobbelaar, Moomie, South Africa
Regardless of whether your child is in secondary school or university, an international exchange program will be an enriching experience. There are many benefits for parents: your child will return with added maturity, a more serious approach to their studies, improved language fluency, and a greater comprehension of human nature and the experience of making new friends. Parents will discover that allowing their child to be an exchange student will be among the best experiences of the child’s entire life.
Of course, you will dearly miss your son or daughter. But the homecoming and the awareness that your child has grown up so much that they can become your friend, as well as be your child, is enough reward to consider this route, even with the challenges that your child will face and the difficulties it poses for parents. As parents, we strive to do anything and everything to enhance our children’s future, but this long distance arrangement doesn’t come without its share of parenting challenges.
Let’s face the facts: it’s not easy being a parent. We often battle with ourselves, questioning if we’re doing the best we can for our children. It’s a lot of pressure realizing that you only get a limited window of time to prepare them to develop into dependable, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults. When your child is away for six or ten months in a different country, there is the extra challenge of being geographically distant from them. But it’s not impossible to parent from halfway around the world. The key is laying the groundwork correctly, both with yourself and with your child.
Here are some suggestions on how to be a parent when your child is in an international student exchange program:
Communication is key
Probably the most valuable approach to ensure you have a secure connection with your kids is to do everything possible to keep communication lines open. This isn’t always easy, but it’s among the best strategies to keep up with what’s happening in your child’s life. Find out when a good time is to get in touch with them on weekends and set a particular time to contact them. Try not to bother them much during the week, as they will be at school and in a completely different time zone. You can connect with the host parents, as they might be aware of any challenges that your child could be having in school or at home. Your child might not want to burden you with their struggles or may not be keen to share any information that might lead to conflict. Speaking to the host parents might just put your mind at ease for a few days at least.
Technology is your friend
Nowadays it’s easier to stay connected over a distance. Besides telephones, there are many ways to connect that aren’t that expensive. If you have internet access at home, make use of text messages, email, instant messaging, and Skype, to mention a few — but not too often! Reserve time weekly to ‘visit’ for ten to fifteen minutes. Video calls make it possible to not only verbally correspond, but also to see each other occasionally. You may also want to follow your child’s social media posts as they will probably be sharing a lot of pictures on these platforms.
Send a care package
Children of all ages would love to receive some homemade cookies or other treats. A note or a card to tell them that you’re thinking of them and that you love them, carries much weight. But nothing says I love you like a thoughtful package from back home. Never follow up your packages with phone calls. These calls might make it look like you are fishing for a thank-you. Gifts are most efficient as relationship builders when there aren’t any strings attached.
Don’t forget to discipline
Parenting your child from a distance can make you feel as though you’re losing control over your everyday responsibilities as a mother. This doesn’t have to be the reality. Don’t stop disciplining your child because you feel guilty, you need things to be “nice and comfortable,” or because you are worried your child will rebel and push you away. Now, more than ever, your child must fully accept that distance doesn’t affect the “rules” at home. Being away from home is not a reason to break the rules and take advantage of the situation. You should continue being consistent about family morals, and loving your child does occasionally mean saying “No.” If your child is living with a host family, it’s also important for your son or daughter to understand that they have to follow the rules of the family they are living with. This can be hard for parents, especially if the rules are different — which is certainly common in a different country!
In the same way as discipline, your child needs to recognize that the host family takes care of them on your behalf. Thus they should respect them as if it were you.
Visit your child
Something that can be fun both for you and your child is if you get to visit them during their exchange period. This could give you a better understanding of their experience, and you might even get to partake in it. Talk to the host-family and find out if a visit will suit them. Don’t proposed a visit in the middle of the exchange, because you don’t want to interfere with your child’s experience. Wait until towards the end! If they have space and are comfortable with it, you might be able to stay with your child or in the alternative you can book a hotel nearby.
The world is getting smaller, faster and much more complex. Approaches to learning and teaching are shifting. To be successful in tomorrow’s world, young people need the skills essential for a consistently growing number of industries, and possible career paths. They need an understanding of different cultures, a chance to interact with people from various linguistic backgrounds, flexibility and tolerance, an appreciation for alternative perspectives and the maturity to make sensible choices and decisions. Never before has studying a second language been so crucial.
By allowing your child to travel on exchange, you are helping them discover a whole new world. Even though it’s hard to parent from far away, it’s possible to maintain a great relationship with your child and enjoy this experience with them.
Jana Grobbelaar is an entrepreneur, editor, and mother of three. She is the founder of Moomie, a popular online parenting forum in South Africa.