This post was written by Michelle Kulas, a former and current AFS Host Parent.
Here it is, the day that my family has been looking forward to for months! Our Japanese exchange student, Sako, will arrive in just a few hours. I’m in full-on nesting mode: Scrubbing the bathroom, mopping the kitchen floor, cleaning out the refrigerator. Her room is ready (mostly; I decided to wash her blanket, which is now in the dryer), and so am I.
Sako will be our fifth academic year student and our tenth student overall. When people hear that our family hosts students, we tend to get a lot of the same questions. Here are a few of them, just in case any of these are holding you back from hosting a student of your own!
Why would you want to deal with someone else’s teenager for a year?
Most parents don’t look forward to facing the teenage years with their own children, so why would you volunteer to take on the challenges of someone else’s kid at this often-difficult time of life? Well, first of all, remember that these kids are generally responsible, mature and deemed ready by their own parents to live with strangers across the world for ten months (or three, depending on the program).
Pushing boundaries is part of being a teenager, and these experiences have given us a lot of practice before our own children became teenagers. Our son is a teen now and our daughter is not far behind, and we’ve actually flexed our parenting-a-teen muscles several times now.
For the most part, though, the teens we’ve hosted have been great kids. They do well in school, they make friends in the community, they volunteer, they help around the house, and they become members of the family. We hosted when our children were preschool-aged, we’re hosting now that our oldest is in high school, and we’ll probably continue to host once we have an otherwise empty nest.
“Dealing with other people’s teenagers” has turned out to be mostly a pleasure rather than a pain.
Isn’t it too hard to say goodbye at the end of the year?
Absolutely. Some years are harder than others, but yes, I have been that hysterical person sobbing in the airport more than once! If you have a good year, it’s excruciating to put a kid who you consider your own on an airplane to go back home to his or her natural family.
But when you say goodbye, that’s not the end! Our students continue to stay in touch. They come back to visit. We have visited one of our students in her home country. We’ve met their families and friends. We now have extended family members in other parts of the world, and it’s just amazing!
In the words of Winnie the Pooh, “how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” If you host an exchange student, you can be so lucky, too.
Isn’t our family too young/old/boring/busy to entertain a teenager for a year?
Maybe! The good thing, though, is that as a host parent, it is not your job to entertain a teenager for a year or semester.
The young ambassadors coming to the United States are not here to be guests in your home. You do not need to wait on them (in fact, AFS strongly advises that you don’t!) and you don’t need to play tour guide, dragging them all over the country.
Instead, you just need to provide for them what you would want another family to provide for your own teenager in the same situation. A bed and three meals per day are givens, but also emotional support, a shoulder to cry on, advice (even when they don’t want to hear it!), some transportation, and so on. Include them in your holiday celebrations and incorporate their country’s traditions, if you (and they) so choose.
We have learned so much about other parts of the world from our students. We’ve eaten spaetzle and tom ka gai, learned to make paella, celebrated St. Nicholas Day and Three Kings Day, and learned how birthdays are celebrated in other countries. We have gone to houses of worship unlike our own and struggled with pronouncing Streichholzschachtel (it means “little matchbox,” and it’s notoriously difficult for non-native Germans to say), much to the delight of our German students. We’ve also learned subtleties of other cultures, like how modesty is handled on other continents, and questioned our own cultural quirks (why do we say “how are you?” when we expect the answer to always be “fine”?).