The exchange experience: letting Ana or Jose know what to expect
Host families for foreign exchange students have traditionally been families with teen-age children. But foreign teens can live in homes of Americans with young children, too - to the delight of all.
As a host family for three years, we've found that one of the keys to a mutually beneficial experience is a clear understanding of needs and expectations on both sides.
When our children were in kindergarten and second grade, we hosted Aida from Guatemala for 10 months. Having lived for a total of two years in Mexico, I was impressed with parent-child relationships in that country and wanted to know the secrets of such success. What better way than to have a live-in teacher?
I expected Aida to help me with my Spanish classes as a conversationalist. In addition, she was to be a friend and companion with whom I could practice Spanish for one hour each day.
A tall order, and it would hardly have been just had I not informed her in advance. As it was, she decided the responsibilities would be pleasant, and we became fast friends. How different would have been her experience in this country had she lived with teen-agers - it was only fair to let her know so she could make a choice.
The next year Mexico sent us Ana, a beautiful charmer of great intelligence. Although we had written to her family and described our situation, it became apparent after two months that she craved teen-age friendships. We were strictly family oriented - our hikes and concerts, picnics and excursions seemed too tame for her.
This was perfectly normal on her part and ours, so we found Ana a home that met her needs for the rest of that year. We remained good friends, and our whole family stayed at her house in Hermosillo one summer for a few days.
Just because one family's ways don't fit with the exchanger is no reason to lament. But if goals are at odds, we found that it's best to make a change.
Hosting a foreign student can open a whole new world for your family and benefit all involved - if careful groundwork is laid. In our years as a host family, we've picked up the following guidelines from our own and our friends' experiences:
Motive. Think about why your family would like an exchange student. What behavior is expected? What are your family's habits and special requirements?
Communication. Write the above in a letter to your invited guest and his or her family. Let the student know so he can decide whether your style of life will fit his hopes for his year in America.
Send photos. Before and after your teen's arrival, photos let his family know where their child will be living and will begin to form a bond between you. Pictures of the family in typical activities together are reassuring.
State the rules. Clearly explain to your exchange student your rules.
Let him know what he must eat, who pays for food purchased away from home, and so on. Don't become a caterer to a fussy eater. Everything will be new and strange anyway. The student is here to act as a family member, so watch nutrition and be considerate, but don't stand on your head, Mom.
Tell him he must clean his own room, and show him how. Explain what duties will be his - clearing the table, putting away clean clothes, whatever you expect your own children to do.
Inform the student of your plans and scheduled activities. Write these dates on a visible calendar and show him how to plan his own projects so that times and dates coordinate.
Establish in writing who pays for phone calls, restaurant meals, movies, school activities, school supplies, and new clothes.
Find out how much money he has and when and how more will arrive. Put most money in a bank and help him budget. Those dollars promised by Papa sometimes don't arrive because of government upsets, so monitor spending carefully.
Find out what your school desires, and explain to your foreign teen what will be required of him. He is here to learn, but the American school also expects the exchange student to teach about his country, enrich the language courses offered, contribute to world culture study, and so on.
Phone the school adviser whenever necessary for translating help. Most problems are misunderstandings.
Finally, show and express your appreciation for all the good this child is bringing to your lives. Be specific and offer lots of praise.