It’s a small world

By Julie Kendrick
Minnesota Parent

“There are more cultures in the world than just ours, and more ways that people live than just our way.” That, succinctly, is what Lisa Foss says her children learned when their family hosted a teenaged exchange student. Foss and her husband, who live in Tonka Bay, hosted a 17-year-old girl from Parma, Italy last year, when their sons, Sawyer and Kristian, were five and seven years old.

Foss is just one of many local parents who think that perhaps the perfect time to add a teenager from another country to their family is while their kids are still young. “I’ve noticed that they asked her a lot of questions about what happens in her country, and for me that’s a good indicator that they’re interested in something more than themselves,” she says.

Finding a fit
Steve and Rebekah Adams hosted 12 consecutive exchange students in the Twin Cities, beginning when their children were seven and three years old. Says Steve, “We initially asked our kids, ‘How would you feel about a big brother or sister?’ and it just sort of went from there. We’d ask again every year and they always said they’d like to host another student. We looked for someone who indicated a preference for little kids, was comfortable with pets, and enjoyed sports, because we all do. We figured the rest was negotiable, and we were always open to boy or girl.” One family rule was never to host from the same country twice. “We figured it would help us avoid comparisons, and we got to learn more about the world that way,” he says.

Globe in the living room
Foss says that her family registered for an exchange student through American Field Service (AFS). One benefit of the program, she felt, was the participation of a liaison, a volunteer who conducts periodic checks on the progress of families. Sheila Todd, an AFS liaison who lives in Minnetonka, says her role is to be intermediary and safety net for hosting families and exchange students alike. “I’m the ‘American aunt’ for them,” she explains. It’s a role she’s been filling for about 10 years, since her son was small. While the Todds have never hosted a student themselves (“Our house is just too small,” she confesses), their family has been able to capitalize on the chance to travel vicariously. “We keep a globe in our living room, and whenever we hear about the home country of a kid we’ve known, our son, Will, races to the globe to check it out. He’s met people of all different cultures, ethnicities, and religions, and I think it’s helped him become a more compassionate person as a result,” she says.

Benefits on both sides
One benefit in hosting, says Steve Adams, is that the exchange students they hosted were often academically and competitively oriented, which, he said, “made them good role models for our younger ones.” And there are benefits that extend in the other direction, as well. A house with younger children can often provide a warmer atmosphere for a far-from-home exchange student. Jennifer Niemeier, an AFS Chapter Coordinator, was herself a teen exchange student. She touts the benefit of hosting when your own kids are young. “I think younger kids are generally more accepting, so you won’t hear snarky comments like ‘You’re wearing that?’ or ‘You talk funny.’ Younger kids have lives that are changing all the time, anyway, so they’re more likely to go with the flow,” she observes. Her own family hosted a French exchange student, and within weeks of the girl’s arrival, she reports, her small boys were drawing family pictures that included their “new big sister.”

Todd says, “It can be more comfortable to come home from school and chat with little kids, because then the students don’t need to keep up that ‘cool’ façade or feel that they’re competing with another teen. They can read books or play video games with those younger kids, and learn English while they’re having fun. Some of the best success stories I’ve seen have come from families with younger children. The exchange students will tell me, ‘I came here to make teenage friends, and I feel so lucky that I got an American family, too.’”

Parenting practice run
Todd also notes that having a small child and a reason to connect with teens in her neighborhood has provided benefits for her own parenting, too. “It’s what I call ‘a selfish silver lining,’” she says. “It’s good to meet parents whose kids are a little older than your own, because it can really expand your network.” Foss agrees, saying, “I never would have had a reason to go into our local high school if we hadn’t hosted a student, but now I’ve seen it in action and I’ve been impressed.” She adds, “I’ve been able to tap into a network of parents with older kids, and I’ve learned how parents talk about issues and keep in touch these days.” Steve Adams also praised the “practice run” aspect of hosting a teen. “Any issue we had with our exchange kids, our younger kids saw us work through it, so they realized that problems can be dealt with and resolved. We all learned that no matter what country they were from, teens everywhere shared ups and downs.”

Drive time downside
Of course, there can be challenges to accepting a new person into your home, and teenagers are, after all, teenagers. Most exchange programs offer orientation sessions and frequent networking opportunities, so you’ll have an idea how to set expectations and work through any difficulties.

When asked about the biggest draw-back to hosting a teenage exchange student, the answer came through loud and clear from many families: more driving. Most programs prohibit students from driving in the U.S., so host families find that their drive time can increase significantly, especially with a busy teenager. But families have found solutions, including starting up their own carpools with other parents for after-school events and activities, or by insisting that teens arrange their own transportation for outings. Steve Adams, the 12-time host dad, says, “We always taught them how to start making calls to friends and figuring out rides right away.”

But transportation difficulties aside, he insists that it’s all been worth it. “The biggest advantage has been that our kids learned a great deal of patience with people who are different. They looked at the world in a different way, and they were a lot nicer with everyone they met,” he says.

Read the original article here.