Potential host families have a number of initial reactions when approached about international youth exchange and the idea of hosting a student:
- We can’t afford to pay for an exchange student’s travel expenses, or his school fees, and think about how much teenagers spend on snack food, going to the movies, etc.! (Answer: host families are not responsible for students’ personal expenses.)
- We are planning a trip to California / Florida / Texas at the holidays, so we can’t host. What would we do with an exchange student? (Answer: Why not take her with you? Ask the student’s parents and in many cases they will pay for the trip to give their child more exposure and opportunity.)
- What if there are problems, such as the student not understanding our family’s rules about curfews, dating, or expectations about chores and homework? We can’t be expected to do that on our own all year. (Answer: that’s what the program is for and is expected to help with. Use the local coordinator and ask for help!)
But one of the most common ideas we hear when we talk to people about hosting a student is the assumption that the only good American host family is one with teenagers in the home. Here are some real quotes from our personal experience:
- “My kids are in middle school, they’re too young for this.”
- “We would love to have a student, but it’s too early. We need to wait until our daughter is in high school; we know that’s the best time to host.”
- “I think you must be mistaken in contacting us, our children are in elementary school. You should contact the high school parent-teacher association so you can find the right families. So sorry someone made a mistake!”
- “I would love to talk to you. Are you sure you want to talk to me, though? My children aren’t the right age. I’m sure you prefer families with teenagers?”
Our children were 9 and 11 when we first hosted a boy from Germany. If we had assumed that “our boys will learn more about a student’s culture if we wait until they’re teens,” and that “there’s no point in hosting a teen now when we don’t have teens,” we would have been just plain wrong.
- We would have missed the opportunity for our older son to learn what it means not to always be the oldest and the “first in line” for everything. There was a huge value in him sometimes being the “middle son.”
- Our younger son would have missed the opportunity to team up with the exchange student in ways that avoided lots of cases of sibling rivalry.
- 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 not have learned things about teens that came in handy later on: managing computer use and cell phones, how to handle a teen slinking in late with no good excuse, how to say “no, you can’t go” and not feel awful, and how to say “no” even when you do feel awful. Our own children complained as they grew older – “it’s not fair – now we can’t get away with anything!”
- We would not have learned so quickly that intelligent teens can make really dumb decisions, at least preparing us for the future with our own children.
The assumption that host families need to have teens of their own is simply mistaken. Certainly, for some families, depending on their particular circumstances, waiting to host an exchange student until your own children are in high school might make sense. Every family is different, with different lifestyles, work habits and schedules, outside interests, personal situations. But don’t make an automatic assumption that the only good host family is one with teens in the home — good candidates for host families come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t assume, without thinking it through, that the “right time” is when your 10-year-old turns 16; your 10-year-old may very well be more suited now for exposure to another culture than she will be in six years!
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 teenagers, middle-schoolers, or toddlers. The U.S. government and the dozens of authorized exchange programs in this country encourage — with good reason — all kinds of families to host. The point of the exchange is not so a teenager from another country can live with a teenager from this country. Rather, the point of international youth exchange is for a teenager from another country to learn what it is like to live as American teens live and for all members of the American family to learn a little bit about another culture.
So think about this idea that the “right time” is when your children are in high school. Truth be told, the exchange programs often end up with more challenges when exchange students are in families with other high school students. The teens in the home sometimes feel threatened, or there is unexpected jealousy or unconscious competition. Teenagers can be insecure, and often are less welcoming than younger children. Those younger children usually adore and look up to their exchange student, and may embrace change more easily than many teens do. They’ll also be better prepared to have exchange students in the house when they themselves are teens.
To be a host family for an exchange student, you just need to want to share your own experiences and life, and expand your family’s horizons.