Hosting an exchange student: “We need to wait until our kids are older” — or do you?

I’ve been thinking about this recently, since we’ve been looking for host families for students arriving in January and are beginning to look for families for the 2013-2014 academic year.  I get the question a lot when I talk to people about hosting a student.  “My kids are too young,” or “I need to wait until my son/daughter is in high school.”

I’d like to challenge that assumption, at least for some families.  In some cases, sure — waiting might be the right thing to do for your family situation.  But don’t wait just because you don’t have a teen. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16.

We’ve hosted about a dozen teens in the past 10 years, not including the ones who we’ve had for a few days or a few weeks as a result of our work as local coordinators/supervisors. Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany.  If we had decided that “our boys will learn more when they’re teens,” we would have missed so much.  We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means NOT to be the older son (it means a lot, and very much to the benefit of the younger son!).  We would have missed the change in family dynamic when you have three instead of two, and the opportunity for there always to be someone with whom to kick a soccer ball, watch an action movie, or play video games.  We would have missed the fun of playing Age of Empires (which our exchange student introduced us to) on several computers simultaneously with three boys and Dad all trying to take over the world.

By hosting when our kids were younger, we learned things about teens that came in incredibly handy later on when our own children reached that age.  We learned about managing computer use and cell phones.  We learned how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse.  We learned how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and we learned how to say “no” even when you do feel awful.  We learned that intelligent teens can make dumb decisions.  We learned, even as adults who have been abroad, that living with someone from another culture teaches you things that books and popular media cannot.

Yes, it’s a different family makeup when the exchange student is older (or for that matter, younger) than other children in the family.  Our sons’ relationship with Niklas, who was their 17-year-old Age of Empires companion when they were 9 and 11, was different from their relationship with Sven and Jorge, who joined our family when our children were 12 and 14, or with Alex, who became our German son when he and my younger son were both 16.

Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004

Marshall, Stefano (Italy), Marcus, and Marc (Germany), Christmas 2004

Let’s face it, American families come in all sizes and shapes.  A host family is just that – a family.  A family can have one or two parents.  A family can have children living in the home or no children living in the home – or no children at all.  A family can have children away at college, teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the 75 or so authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host.

Foreign cultural exchange is intended to show the variety of culture within a country, and part of that is showing the variety of families.  Families share one important characteristic, though: they are families.  To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share that experience and expand your own family’s horizons.

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