Wednesday, September 17, 2014

All the Things I Thought About – Three Weeks with a 17 year-old Exchange Student

Our exchange student. Let's give him his own pseudonym: George. He came to stay with us via a rather unconventionally manner. George's mother knew Fritz's mother in Germany. (Fritz's mother lives in Germany.) George wanted to participate in an exchange program to the USA. George's mother felt that that these programs were either not safe enough or too expensive. Asking Fritz's mother if George could simply come stay with us seemed like a better idea to her. Fritz and I hemmed and hawed. This is not the first time we've been asked. We have a request like this every year.

In George's case, he hoped coming to the USA would improve his English and position him better to transfer between schools in Germany. Beginning around age 10, kids are tracked into one of three school tiers in Germany. The various tiers are a big step in determining what kind of job or profession a kid will have as an adult. The system is highly criticized for its lack of flexibility; George might be a good example of someone who was tracked into a tier that didn't fit what he'd like to do with his life. Now he's trying to change tiers (Realschule to Gymnasium). It's a big deal.

The intricacies of the German school system matter less for this post: the important thing to take away is that George was portrayed to us as The Underdog. He was someone trying to better himself and do something difficult against the cultural (and even familial) grain. And that is precisely the point that swayed us in favor of having him as an exchange student.

Fritz, Fritz's mother, and, apparently, me are – were –  all suckers for The Underdog.


One of the problems with sending your child to the home of an acquaintance, instead of putting him or her in a proper exchange program, is that the onerous for entertaining and educating that child all fall upon the host family. Most exchange programs have some sort of cultural awareness courses prior to the actual exchange. They have daily or weekly activities for their participants (so that the host isn't ALWAYS on point). They have contacts with other exchange students so that they can share the experience of America. George had only us. I think that Fritz and I are both very aware of cultural differences, etc. After all, we've lived in both countries, we've done exchange programs ourselves, and we have family and friends both here and there. But it turned out to be a LOT of effort.  George also seemed to be NOT very motivated and enthusiastic. From my perspective, it was like pulling teeth to get him out of the guest room and off his smartphone.

Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe that's just the way 17 year-old boys behave. With three little kids, I certainly didn't have time to spend micromanaging George. Also, I don't really think that was my responsibility as a host. I left him alone when he hid out in his room. But the constant hiding from opportunities, responsibilities, and the lack of initiative: these things wore on me. Such a waste of time and money and effort. I hate waste. I can't be sure a proper exchange program would have been better, but odds are good I wouldn't have felt quite as disappointed if the successes and failures of the exchange had fallen less squarely on our shoulders.


George, for the record, told his family that he was having a GREAT time. We were shocked he thought it was going so well.

"Maybe that's just what 17 year-old boys say to their mothers," my own mother said.


Before George arrived, we skyped with his family. I asked what George likes to eat.

"Oh, don't worry about it!" His mother said. "Just the normal stuff."

"Oh, good, " said Fritz. "Our kids eat terribly. Everything they eat is white: pasta, bread, cheese, bananas..."

Normal and terrible are all relative, of course. Over the course of 3 weeks, George's normal turned out to be: white bread with salami. And white bread with salami. And more white bread with salami. No fruit. No veggies. No meat unless it was processed. I'm not one to force food on people. I spent years as a vegetarian, so I can respect differences in eating. But this was more than I could take. His eating habits were worse than our kids' "terrible" eating. I started to notice just how often our kids actually do eat colorful food. I would like them to eat MORE healthy (colorful) food...but they were great compared to George!

I felt slightly desperate about all the bread and salami he was eating. What were his parents going to think? One day, I peeked into his bedroom and noticed a pile of Pringles containers and soda bottles next to his bed. That made me feel better. Not.

At dinner, I pulled out my iPad and gave a lecture to Noah and Mattias on The Healthy Eating Plate. Really, it was a lecture for George.

We don't usually eat out, but we took George out several times. Maybe the problem was my cooking. I'm not a great chef. I hoped I could find something else that he would like. I turned into a sales person, a role I don't often assume: Indian? Look! The Naan is white and fried!  No.  Burritos? Chipotle has the yummiest, freshest food, GMO free!  No.  BBQ? It's very typical American! Check out these biscuits!  No.  Bison burgers? They're a specialty of Colorado!  No.  Pizza?  No.  Hamburgers? Okay....

I'm sure George hated me by the end of his stay.

Since George left, I've thought a lot about how I want my kids to eat broadly and try new things. Fritz seems to think that there's something age appropriate about being seventeen and indulging in your ability to eat whatever food you want, whenever you want.

I don't know.... I became a vegetarian at age seventeen; the decision (at that time) seemed to involve a fair number of portuguese bread rolls. So maybe Fritz is right.


Fritz was better at motivating George. Because he is German too? Because he's a guy? Because he felt more responsibility for making sure George had a good time? Because they spoke German all the time? (It happens when you stick two native speakers in the same room.) Motivating George was its own kind of burden. Fritz ended up spending more time with George than he normally does with houseguests. Fritz was shocked by the intensity of it. As I have mentioned before, I usually see it as my job to buffer Fritz from the chaos around the house. That would include most of the hosting activities that go along with houseguests. This time, however, more hosting responsibilities fell at Fritz's feet, unbuffered. There were bike trips and baseball games, city tours, campus tours, a trip to the county fair, museum visits, shopping for designer athletic shoes, and visiting Hard Rock Cafe for paraphernalia. ("Hard Rock Cafe?" I asked George, "Are you sure? That was popular when I was a kid....")

How did Fritz cope with the extra work? He did the same thing I do: he called his own mother and complained. Fritz took a whole week of vacation, and not because he was spending it with his family, but because he was spending it with George. That was kind of a bummer for the rest of us; but  sometimes there was just not a good way to combine the types of activities we thought George would enjoy with the types of activities the rest of the family would enjoy.

The upside in all this is that maybe, just maybe, Fritz has gained a better understanding of how houseguests are not "big help" but rather "extra work." I've been trying to make that point to him for a while now.


The smartphone. When we had our first exchange student four years ago, having a smartphone and international plan was too prohibitively expensive. Times have changed.

I can understand wanting to stay close to family and friends and girlfriends, but I must say, George's smartphone was very problematic. On the last day, George brought his smartphone to the dinner table at dinner time and clicked around on it, presumably checking into his flight the next day. At that point I became acutely aware of just how much time George had spent playing with his phone, and I wished I had noticed sooner and taken action.

I wonder if official exchange programs have policies on this? I would make a no-smartphone policy, if I were running an exchange program.


Several people thought that George would be quite helpful around the house. Someone thought he could take care of the kids. (Really? I asked. Does he have experience? I'm not sure I trust him with the kids...) Someone thought he could do some yard work for us. Someone thought he might help Noah "train" for a triathlon. Maybe he could take the boys to the pool for an hour? Maybe he could help with dishes? Maybe he could sweep the floor under the table? Maybe we could all go hiking and he'd be an extra set of legs to help carry little ones? Maybe, at least, we could have some good conversations to help him improve his English. The ideas about what George could do while he visited rolled freely until we met him.

Here is what George was willing to do:

1) Minimize answers to questions to a single word. And the answer was, "great" whenever possible.

"How did you like the museum?"
"What did you like the best?"
"They're great."

2) Carry his own dishes from the dinning table to the kitchen island.

It's a distance of 5 feet, at most.

One night, I asked him to wipe off the table after dinner. He pushed all the crumbs (we have a lot of those) into the center of the table and then asked me what he should do with them.


You know what? I blame parents on this one. I'm sorry. I do.

Noah's 7 years old. I don't find it impressive when HE carries his plate to the dishwasher. Why would I think that's a sufficient contribution for a 17 year-old?

The whole lack of involvement made me think about how learning to do one specific chore is not the same as learning to be a generally helpful and thoughtful human being.

Learning to participate willingly is way more important than learning a specific task.

I'm not sure that willingness is the type of thing you can teach your kids. But maybe you can instill in them an attitude of willingness?


The biggest silver lining in this three week cloud is what I take away as a parent: thinking about the qualities I would like to see from my kids at age seventeen. Thinking about HOW we will get there. Thinking about the bad habits we have already developed in this house, and how those bad habits could play out a decade from now in our own teenage children.

I'll never forget our earliest days of being a childless couple, when Fritz and I would watch our friends with children, and think: that will NOT be us. We won't have children like that! There's a bit of that sentiment in this post. We won't have non-communicative, unhelpful teenage boys!

But we could.

The best is to keep our goals in mind, keep questioning, and keep evaluating the choices we're making as parents. We might not be able to change our children, but I do believe we can nudge them in certain directions if we stay aware. And we should be aware. If nothing else, George was a very good reminder of that responsibility.


Pregnantly Plump said...

So, not sure if this makes you feel better, but a friend of mine had a very similar experience last year with an exchange student going through the exchange student program. The behavior sounds very similar. I think he was 16.
As for behavior, I'm struggling with that. Little Elvis is absolutely not helpful. He has to be reminded at every meal (every day) to put up his dishes. He has to be told twice a day to put up his toothbrush. I am trying, but this child is so difficult. I hope he doesn't turn out like that at 17, but it shocks me that he behaves the way he does at 7.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Ann.
Is it worse than I thought after you made a little note about it a while ago? Almost. And it makes me sooo mad to read how these people exploited your family's resources of vacation time and energy in order to safe money. There certainly is a good reason why exchange programs cost a bit more than just the flight...
But then, on the other hand, I can easily picture him and don't find it too surprising what you wrote. It must be that age when kids or young adults are totally unaware of their surroundings, when they can be extremely self-centered and have to be told the most simple things. Our Au Pair girls had phases like that, and I still have to tell my younger brother what I expect from him when he comes to visit (he is much younger than me).
And I understand that the urge to make a guest help with certain tasks is much smaller when they only stay for a short period - versus maybe half a year. Maybe we mothers also don't want to be seen as a shrew, we want our guests to feel welcome and sometimes fear the confrontation. At least that's how I feel when I have yound adults in my house.
I wonder how my boys would behave. With my girls, I am pretty certain they'd be the perfect guests - at least for a while. I say that because I try to parent my kids so they take responsibility, help around the house (which uses a LOT of my energy - hopefully well invested) - but I am not sure what t will happen when they are teenagers and go through a difficult stage. At what point is a young adult responsible for his or her behaviour, how much can you blame the parents?
So much can be written about this topic...

Katie said...

Your last paragraph. Yes!