For many American families, the focus has switched from the 60s view of family at home spending time together to now where we try to pack as much into our lives as possible. In the same manner, when we host a foreign exchange student, we want to give them every possible experience, opportunity, participation in activities, travel, etc. Where is the appropriate place to draw the line? That is a key question that you must consider when planning your year with your new exchange student!
Balance is key. America is about family, so time spent together eating meals or playing games is very important for the true “American” experience that these kids are seeking. Drawing the line of what you are doing, willing to do, want to do, are able to do is going to be different to every family, as lifestyles vary so much. The thing is that you should not expect to, or think that it is expected of you, to add extra travels, events, or time/financial burdens just because you are hosting a student from abroad! Live your life! The expectations in our agency for extracurricular activity travel provisions or extras of any kind are “reasonable”. You will quickly become burnt out if you try to overdo things to make your student’s experience the best time in their lives. It already is an amazing experience! Having you open your home and allow them the opportunity to live a dream, and having the freedom from parents and their normal lives. Being here is a privilege, and yes, I do more than is expected, but that is my choice and I am okay with that. These wonderful kids are supposed to be treated as a member of your family, not a special guest! Keep that in mind when face with the “can I” or “can you take me” questions. Consider how you would handle that situation with your own child.
Prior to arriving, and at the initial orientation with their area coordinator, they are told the host family responsibilities. It should be made crystal clear that while you are willing to support them in extracurricular activities, if travel requirements are excessive, they have to share the burden and find another option such as car pooling or finding rides with teammates. Grades are often a good way to balance activities as well. Foreign exchange students are expected to maintain a certain grade average in order to stay in their program. These are government standards, and are not taken lightly. If your student is struggling to maintain that GPA, consider cutting back or questioning their ability to handle the added burden of an activity.
Again, being here is a huge honor. This is American life, which is what they want to experience. You do not have to try to make it better or over the top to impress the exchange students. Our natural children do not have the freedom or liberties that many foreign children have for several reasons. We typically live in more suburban areas that do not have public transportation that many of these kids utilize as their main source of transportation. Also, we tend to be more cautious when parenting, while many other countries afford much more independence to their kids. Their schools operate completely differently than ours do, and this in and of itself can create issues. (Honestly, I like the schedules that the European students follow as well as their teaching methods.) The family dynamics are different as well. Always look into the cultural norms from the country in which you choose a student. Look at their application closely to get a glimpse or idea of what they are used to at home. Trying to match the student that lives a lifestyle more similar to yours may help make things easier.
I cannot say it enough. Balance, patience, and being yourself are the best things that you can do for your exchange student. Communicate what you are willing to do, and remind your student that when you have reached the limit you set, finding additional rides is their responsibility. Flexibility is key for everyone involved, but it is the adult’s responsibility to set the tone of the relationship, the boundaries of the home, and to enforce the rules. Teens, even more-so than toddlers are desperate for boundaries, no matter how hard they try to push or defy them. Boundaries and rules equal security and a sense of safety! Be firm, but loving, and take care of you during the process!