In yesterday’s post I provided a list of ten questions. Well, I broke the questions into ten parts but there were far more than ten. Excessive? Amazingly, no. Just to give you a sense of the kinds of things the questions bring to light I am providing our own answers and ask that rather than judge us based on differences you consider just how much goes into what makes a family and a home. We were amazed by the types of discussions the initial process brought to light.
1. Is your family religious? How would you feel about hosting a student with a different religion? No religion? Can you commit to transporting a religious child to services if they are a regular attendee? Can you provide a quiet, distraction-free place for prayer if this is needed? If you are a non-religious family these questions are just as important!
Nope. Not at all. We haven’t set foot into a religious institution since Nancy’s great aunt died and that had to have been at least eight years ago. Despite our own lack of religion, we are both interested in learning about others’ religious beliefs and experiences and have a significant knowledge about religion from our schooling (including Nancy’s painful Catholic school years). Nancy graduated with a enough credits for a minor in world religions. So while we are not religious we have an understanding and appreciation for faith and the faithful. That said, we wouldn’t mind hosting a religious child no matter what their religion and would enjoy learning about another faith. The truth around this, though, comes with the next question. While we could sort of commit to transporting a child to services we know this would never be a major priority for us and that while we were traveling chances are the child would miss services. Our intentions would be good but we generally travel on weekends and since most religions’ sabbaths fall between Friday-Sunday it could be tough. A quiet, distraction-free place to pray? Absolutely.
So far we have not had to deal with it but because religion is such a huge thing to some people, no matter what your personal stance it’s important to explore how this could impact you and the student.
2. Is your family active? Do you want a student who will be open to being active?
Yes! We are definitely active. We walk our dogs, love to hike, and are generally doing lots of stuff. Except for on Sundays when we’re home and indulging in lazy Sundays. We knew from the start that we didn’t want an exchange student who wouldn’t enjoy our active lifestyle and pay close attention to applications to find students who fit. N said in hers that she liked hiking with her dog and being active, T shared his love of nature. With N we regularly went to the gym, did some pretty big bike rides on trips, and had lots of outdoor playtime with the dogs. We’ll continue this with T. Along with lazy Sundays. We love those.
3. Are you financially ready to provide three meals and snacks? Can you pay for school activities or will the student? How will you handle expenses? Will you work with the natural parents ahead of time to decide on the student’s allowance? Will the student give you cash? Or will you have them pay for an equivalent dollar amount of things?
We are fortunate to both have good, fulfilling, full time jobs with employers who believe in valuing their employees and paying them well. While we’d love to be able not to work, we don’t come from those types of backgrounds and so we work hard in order to play hard. In the US, federal guidelines require the host family to provide three meals a day and snacks. If the student wants to buy lunch, it’s on his own dime. N made her lunch daily and brought it to school. This enabled her to save pocket money for the things she wanted to do with friends… Shopping, movies, going to dinner. We paid for most school-related stuff. The way we saw it was that if we had a child we would pay for that child. Also, exchange students cannot hold jobs while here. We have the student pay for their own cell phone ($50/month), any activities they take part in when out with friends, clothes shopping and all that other teen stuff. We handled food, toiletries, travel. We traveled extensively with N and loved every minute but at the end of her year we had more credit card debt than we’ve ever carried and so we decided that this year, for any plane or train tickets, we will have T pay. An option we have since come up with is having the student pay for an equivalent amount of stuff, so if we book a flight and it’s $300/person, the student can pay the first $300 in meals and activities while traveling. This helps avoid ATM fees.
4. What are your family’s unspoken rules? Being aware of these is imperative – an exchange student will not simply intuit them.
We are a very close family. We spend time together, cook together, and share the burden of responsibilities around the house equally. I don’t need to be asked to empty the dishwasher or washing machine when it’s done. I don’t have to tell Kris to take the dogs out first when I have a crazy morning at work. We just have a rhythm. When N came into our home we had a list of all these things and discussed them with her so that she felt like she was a part of things. We didn’t want t get to a point where we said, “You should be doing this,” – that wouldn’t be fair if she had no way of knowing. We also wanted her to feel like a part of things from day one. Nancy needs a little space in the morning as she mentally prepares for the day. Kris gets loud during football. We have strong norms around cell phone usage and manners… All of these should be brought out in the open.
5. What are your expectations for school? Chores? Technology? Dating? Social stuff?Curfew?
While EF requires student to maintain a C average, we have a household expectation that grades will be the best possible, and nothing lower than a B when at all possible. N had a teacher who was completely disorganized and so we let a B- through. Since we both value education it’s important that students in our house do, too. And since our local high school allows students to do retakes of everything, it’s easy to maintain. N rarely had to do this – Dutch students are bright and driven. Besides grades we also expect that the student will ride the bus provided by the school district or ride in with a friend (more on this later). If the friend can’t get to school on time that’s no excuse. Luckily, we never had a problem with this. N made a neighborhood friend right after arriving and they drove in together nearly every day. We do require meeting any student who will drive or exchange student, after all we have to keep the student safe! School rules are to be followed and we refuse to allow cell phone usage during the school day even though some teachers allow it. Dutch students are used to this from their own schools so it’s nothing for them to deal with.
For chores N was responsible for bringing the mail in each day when arriving home; taking the dogs out, helping with feeding and walking and trips outside with the dogs except in the morning; keeping her room and bathroom in a reasonable state; bringing her laundry down on laundry day; placing her linens in the hamper before the day we wash towels/sheets; and helping out around the house as needed. We run a casual home and believe in picking up as we go so that things stay nice and we don’t have to spend an excessive amount of time cleaning. Because the local high school dosn’t give much homework, we realize now that N could have walked the dogs upon returning home from school and will add this to T’s chores.
Technology is a messy one. N didn’t come with a computer but bought one once here. In the future we will tell students not to bother. The wireless slowed down considerably between too many computers being on it along with phones, iPods, the iPad and since Kris works from home this was frustrating because it would crash. In the beginning N had a full month before school started and spent massive amounts of time each day on Skype until we had a talk about it. It made sense because she was bored and we were working. But it couldn’t continue. We do not allow more than one hour of time online continuously and no more than two hours total on weekdays. There are far too many things to do in real life and the point of being here is to have those experiences. Cell phones are a privilege and not a distraction. We do not allow phones during meals or while doing something as a family. Hanging around watching tv or just chilling? Fine. But we had designated family time that was phone free for everyone and man, have I missed it these last six weeks. Communication with home is tricky. Once school tarted N Skyped with each parent for one hour a week. In January she alternated so we were down to an hour a week. It was still a bit too much. We will be following the guidelines EF has this year and only use Skype for special occasions or when necessary. We do not allow technology in bedrooms as they are places to sleep and we have alarm clocks. Strict? Maybe, but we value face time.
N didn’t date while here and T has a girlfriend back home so we probably will have another year of not having to worry about drama, sex and love. Fine with us. As typical prudish Americans we have a hard time with these things. We do have rules about not being home alone with a significant other and not being in the bedroom with the door closed. EF prohibits sex although how that can be enforced is behind me. Kris and I were in high school once. ‘Nuff said.
We encouraged N to have a social life and she did. We need to meet people our exchange students drive with and meet the parents of people whose houses they may sleep over. We require a promise that we will be called if the student’s ride drinks – no questions asked, just be safe. N wasn’t a fan of alcohol but it’s very important to discuss with your student because for many Europeans it is perfectly legal for them to drink. Our personal philosophy is to be open and honest about these things to encourage healthy dialogue. We included N’s friends in what we could as far as weekend activities including bringing one friend on one of the larger trips (cross country by train) we took and another two friends for a weekend in New York City. It was always fun for her to include people and we were happy to have them there, for many reasons. There were also times when we let her know in advance that we had plans just for the three of us. Our fundamental rule for social life stuff is that we must know AHEAD of time: where they will be, how they are getting there and back, who they’ll be with, what they are doing and when they will be home. Many times this is tough because their plans are so fluid. It’s still an excellent expectation.
Curfew is kind of a weird thing since Dutch kids are used to going out late and then they get here and there’s nothing to do late at night. We had an 11 pm school night curfew that N never came even close to an 1 a.m. on the weekends. Usually she was home early or if she was out late she was at the neighbor’s watching a movie. The expectation is that if the student is going to be late he calls ahead of time.
6. If you have other children in the house how do they feel about hosting?
The dogs don’t get a say but we imagine that anyone with kids should have a very open, spread out over a few months conversation about hosting, and about what it means. Host siblings are exactly that and if you have siblings you know all the joy that comes with it. Be prepared for a few scraps!
7. Do you have pets? Have you honestly assessed their behavior? Have you shared any pertinent information about them with your student? What are the pet-related expectations for your student?
We have to smallish dogs and a cat. It’s 70 pounds of love. And quirkiness. While they are fairly well behaved each has their own behaviors that need to be explained. Our dogs regularly hump our cat. Our cat runs around the house like a crazy freak every night. One of the dogs is terrified of other dogs and has violent meltdowns if he so much as hears one. Our other dog is beautifully behaved but a prima Donna. One dog has health issues that require certain precautions. You may think your animals are wonderful and your exchange student probably will, too, but be fair and share all the things about them you can. And make sure your student is part of taking care of them (although we will never have a student do anything with the litter box). Also, be clear about expectations for guests in the house and their treatment of animals. For example, we have zero tolerance for people who do not respect our animals.
8. How long will your student be with you before school starts? How will you handle the downtime?
If students can attend a language/culture camp like EF offers they might arrive very early. N arrived on 8/4 and didn’t start school until 9/4. That’s a long stretch. Be sure to start routines immediately and if possible make some plans for the student. We’ve scheduled a few activities with another host student and Nancy will have some flexibility around work. Also, reach out to kids in your neighborhood, create a list of activities nearby and set limits on Internet time to help start the year off right.
9. Do you have any dietary restrictions? Does the student? Is everyone comfortable with this?
Nancy has a pretty bad seafood allergy so we have to be careful about sharing pots and pans and serving utensils if a fish dish is offered. Other than that we are fine, which makes hosting easier. We are hosting a vegetarian this year who is okay living with omnivores but we intend, on the nights we cook (4-5 nights/week) to keep everything veg friendly. Family dinners are a big thing for us. Out to eat and nights we eat on our own are a different story.
10. What are your expectations around travel? Holidays? Family time?
It can be a very strange thing to travel with someone you don’t know. Depending on the makeup of your family, it’s important to think about how you will handle sleeping and bathroom arrangements. Most of us cannot afford separate rooms for our exchange students. It’s important to think about your student’s emotional comfort before trips. We had what we thought would be weird situation: a married couple in their mid-thirties plus a seventeen year old girl. How would that work? Perfectly in our case. Every trip was like a sleepover party. For our first trip we had a king bed and a cot and ended up talking late each night. Other times we had suites with two bedrooms (I remember N lucking out in Cleveland with her own bedroom AND bathroom) or a living room with a pullout couch. In California we had a regular room and an extra exchange student – they shared the pull out. Kids are usually pretty open to sleeping arrangements (rather than get a cot N shared a bed at The Detroit Marriott with my mom when we spent a night there for the marathon). In NYC at one point we had all the girls (4 of us) in my brother’s old room… It was some of the most fun times we had. Of course a younger student or one from a more conservative/religious background might not be comfortable.
Holidays can be tricky, too. We worried that N would be incredibly homesick since holidays are a family time but instead she wasn’t. She wasn’t homesick once during her year, actually. Make sure to consider the student’s cultural norms for holidays and include them. We went to Holland, MI for their Sinterklaas celebration so that she could have a bit of home. We also listened to Dutch holiday music. Be sure to get gifts for your student and try to make these equal to those you get for your own children (at least in the number) so that your student’s place in the family is reinforced.
If you’re serious about adding a member to the family through a foreign exchange, be sure to have family time. It can be as simple as having a night when you play a board game, watch a show or have movie night or another scheduled activity. For us dinner is family time and on the nights Nancy is home we prep, set up, cook, eat and cleanup together. We also watched a show together on Tuesday nights which was a tech-free hour of oooohing and aaaaahing over the disaster that is ABCFamily’s Pretty Little Liars. Having a scheduled time to do something together is a fun way to spend time together.