10 Steps To Being A Great Host Parent

adapted from The Host Family Survival Kit, by Nancy King and Ken Huff

Here are some tips to be the best host parent that you can be! Below are some suggestions to help you through the initial period of adjustment and, we hope, ease any communication glitches you encounter along the way.

1. Avoid idealizing your student     Before your student arrived, it was probably tempting to piece together an image of what you hoped he/she would be like.  As your student begins to settle in, it’s very natural to consistently give him/her the benefit of the doubt when language barriers and cultural differences make communication difficult.  However, as one host mother notes, "I think families eventually have to accept that hosting is not going to be a wish fulfillment. Exchange students are not perfect and angelic like Hummel figurines. They're normal, ordinary kids who make mistakes, break things, hurt your feelings, get upset and say things in funny ways - just like your own kids."

2. Take time to notice your family’s routines and rituals     Much of the way your household runs is probably due to habits that are nearly second nature to you as a parent.  Becoming aware of these routines and helping your students adjust to them, is the first step to integrating your student as a happy and well-adjusted member of the family.  As one host father observed, "You have to stop yourself in mid-step, to consciously pay attention to the everyday things you do and to think about how your student is reacting to what you do. None of this is easy, but it's essential. One thing's for sure, you can't expect to explain your family's ways or expect your student to adjust to your ways until you yourself first realize all the little things that you are doing and that you are expecting from other family members."

3. Remember that a broken rule is not necessarily an insult     Your student will undoubtedly make mistakes and may even exhibit behavior that offends you. Obvious negligence aside, as one father warns, most of the time, “an insult is not an insult.  It is a simple mistake.  It only becomes an insult if we make it one.”

4. Find ways to remind your student how much he/she is appreciated     It’s the small gestures that count the most.  Try to find ways to remind your student that he/she has a special place in your heart. (Remember that initially, presenting an elaborate meal full of new foods may not be the best way to do this!)

5. Be specific in your requests     You may find it uncomfortable to discuss the details of bathroom etiquette and personal hygiene, but an honest discussion almost always reduces the risk of a student’s later embarrassment.  Your subtle hints may be lost on a student still looking to find his/her bearings in a new home.

6. …and open-ended in your questions     When discussing cultural differences with your student, remember that even the most innocent questions can be interpreted as unfriendly judgment.  King and Huff recommend beginning your queries with the words what, when, how, why, or where, all of which can spark more meaningful conversation with your student than a simple yes or no question.  (Note the difference in tone between “What kind of food do you usually eat for dinner?” and “Do you eat broccoli?”).  Open-ended questions carry no implied assumption or judgment and may help your student feel more at ease when trying to communicate with you.

7. Talk about feelings of indebtedness    At this point in time, some students may become increasingly uncomfortable with the knowledge that their family is not getting reimbursed for hosting.  They may try to compensate by withholding complaints and questions, and putting on a happy face at all times.  In their Host Family Survival Kit, authors King and Huff warn that this kind of behavior can lead to “smoldering resentment” on the part of the student.  In order to keep communication flowing, you may find it helpful to remind your student that he/she is free to respectfully express his/her own opinions, say “no” when needed, and to make mistakes.

8. Address small problems before they create tension    You’d be surprised to see how fast seemingly trivial issues can snowball into full-blown arguments.  Remember that every time you come together to solve a disagreement with your student--no matter how unpleasant it may be--you are paving a pathway for better communication in the future.

9. Listen empathetically    Take a second to slow down and try to see the world from your student’s point of view.  King and Huff recommend getting in the habit of saying, “Perhaps I don’t understand this from your perspective.  Can you tell me more about what you mean?”

10.  Try to keep an open mind    The more you are aware of the ways in which your own cultural conditioning manifests in every aspect of your life, the better you will be able to cope with the challenges and joys of hosting a foreign exchange student.