When "exchange program" means shuttling between houses
January 29, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Protocol for exchange students and families with joint custody?

My husband's 11-year-old daughter is campaigning to go to Germany in her middle school's exchange program, which would mean hosting a German student in return. We don't want her to do this for multiple reasons (e.g., she doesn't speak the language well, she's never even spent a week away with relatives let alone a month with strangers, we don't have the money and wouldn't spend it for a kid to go to Europe even if we did, etc.), but she keeps pushing it with us and her mother. Now the mother, who was against it from the start, seems to be wavering.

What it'll boil down to is that my stepdaughter needs to learn how to take "no," but it would be much easier on all of us if there was an external factor driving the "no," rather than just mean parents. What I think would be a primary driving force for that external "no" is the joint custody agreement, and I'm wondering if my suspicions are true.

My husband has joint legal custody of his daughters, and the mother has primary residential custody--in spite of the fact that in the court order, our time with them is actually slightly more than hers is. The ACTUAL time the girls are with us is even more than the court-ordered time, because their mother now works a third-shift job Monday through Friday, so they're sleeping at our house a minimum of five nights a week (six, with every other Saturday), on two of which I am actually responsible for them because my husband also works third shift on those nights. The mom is not a particularly responsible parent, either, but we didn't pursue residential custody (which we probably could have gotten) because we live just outside the girls' (wonderful) school district and we didn't want them to have to switch schools.

Does anyone have experience with a student exchange program and joint custody agreements? I suspect that since we don't live in the district, the school/district are not going to take on the legal responsibility for an exchange student who would have to sleep at our house during most of the week! (The mom is not going to be able to get off work for a month, and she really doesn't have any other resources for overnights). Would this actually be the case?

We will go to the school about this if we have to but we'd just as soon get it over with ASAP.
posted by dlugoczaj to Human Relations (30 answers total)
 
What it'll boil down to is that my stepdaughter needs to learn how to take "no," but it would be much easier on all of us if there was an external factor driving the "no," rather than just mean parents. What I think would be a primary driving force for that external "no" is the joint custody agreement, and I'm wondering if my suspicions are true.

Honestly, this sounds like a really weak justification for saying "no" to her, and a poor way to teach her a lesson about accepting the absolute authority of parents. All it's bound to make her do is feel cruddy about what already sounds like a complicated home life thanks to the divorce.

In fact, the only really good reason for saying no is the monetary one--otherwise, this sounds like a pretty amazing learning experience, and I don't blame your step-daughter for feeling excited about it. I think learning that money isn't infinite is a much better lesson to learn, here (though, if I were in your position, I might offer to let the kid try to earn the money herself doing something like a paper route, but it's up to you whether you want to give an 11-year-old that sort of option).

If it's really an issue of the custody agreement, why not just ask the mother what she plans on doing with the exchange student?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:02 AM on January 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


If you don't have the funds then you don't have the funds. That's not a case of parents being mean, and your step-daughter should be old enough to understand that.

Incidentally, being an exchange student was one of the best things I've ever done. I was 17, not 11. We hosted a student a year before I went abroad. My parents were divorced but on good speaking terms. The student we hosted went with me to my Dad's on weekends; it wasn't a problem.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:05 AM on January 29, 2010


Would she be able to participate in the program next year? If you can't afford it this year, perhaps she could use this year to save her own money and pay for part of the trip.

I'm not sure that trumping up another reason for your no is wise; I think it undermines your parental authority and your ability to say no. You guys are the parents, you know her best. If she isn't ready, she isn't ready. Or if you can't afford it, you can't afford it. I'm not sure it's a good idea to blame your no on an outside party.
posted by too bad you're not me at 11:35 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


PS Sorry I don't have any experience to actually answer your question about protocol!
posted by too bad you're not me at 11:36 AM on January 29, 2010


I might offer to let the kid try to earn the money herself doing something like a paper route

It's $1,300. Not bloody likely.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:38 AM on January 29, 2010


It's $1,300. Not bloody likely.

If this is something she's really interested in doing, too bad you're not me's suggestion isn't entirely a bad one. If the trip could be put off a year, and you could figure out a reasonable amount for all of the parents' involved to contribute, and a reasonable amount for the step-daughter to contribute (and, perhaps, ask her to forgo, say, birthday or Christmas presents to help with the cost), it could become a lesson about budgeting for experiences you really want to have. Just a suggestion.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:47 AM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


I lived in Germany as a child, and later I hosted a couple of foreign exchange students. I agree that going abroad is an excellent learning tool, but I think 11 is way, way too young. I don't think an eleven year old has the social or emotional skills to deal with a different culture without her parents and with no grasp of the language. A fifteen year old: maybe, sixteen year old: probably, and a seventeen year old: definitely. Eleven: NO WAY! I was a responsible, mature eleven year old who had a grasp of the German language and culture, but my parents would have to be stupid to let me go to Germany without them. It just wouldn't be safe or smart. What if she were to get her period for the first time while she's there? Will she have the presence of mind to talk to her host mom about it? My little sister got her period at camp when she was twelve and instead of talking to an adult (all of which she knew well) or me about it, she just used paper towels until we got home! My sister is and was a bright girl, she just felt too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. That is just one example, there are a lot more things that could happen that are far worse that an eleven year old is not prepared to cope with.

I think you need to tell her no. Tell her that you don't have the money, tell her that you don't think it's safe, tell her that she doesn't have enough experience away from home; give her all the reasons, but stick by your no. She is going to argue, she is going to pitch a fit, and she is going to pout. All these things are more reason why she should not be allowed to go.

It's going to be tough, especially if her mom says it's okay. You will be seen as the bad guys, and it might make relations with her worse. This is a big deal though, and it's a good time for her to start learning "no".

I think a good alternative would be for her to start saving her money now and continue with German in High School, then when her school has an exchange program (when she's older) she can go with your blessing. Even if her High School doesn't have an exchange program, she could go with one of the private programs (if she has enough money.) She will probably still be disappointed about this trip, but if she is serious about the learning experience then she can start preparing for later.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:51 AM on January 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


There are four issues here:
1. do you think that the exchange program would be an awesome learning opportunity and overall experience and/or whether you are willing to support her enthusiasm even if you do not agree with her.

2. custody issues

3. money issues

4. power issues relating to you wanting her to accept your 'no' as the authority.

You are deliberately trying to leverage one against the other. This will not end well. Do not mix these issues. Your job is to figure out where you stand on each of these 4 issues separately. Then your job is to talk with her. She is 11. Four separate issues are not too complex for an 11 year old. This may sound harsh, but I think it's disrespectful for you to try to pull this over on her by mixing the messages. Life is already complex. At least you can help her work on her skills on managing the complexity.

That is, unless you just want to be right, say no, and power trip her into accepting your decision. I don't really think this is a smart thing to do, and even you doubt its effectiveness. If that is the only thing that is important, and you want her to learn that, then all you need to do is say No, because I said so. If you muddy the waters with other issues you are defeating the point. But really, don't do this.
posted by kch at 11:53 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


There seem to be a lot of good reasons to say no. 11 is really young for this kind of thing, you don't have the money, and you don't WANT to have another kid staying at your house. If your step-daughter's mom wants to take on responsibility for the kid, and pay the money, then she can be more serious about doing it.

Also, I have never done an exchange thing, but if you host a Kid, I'd be willing to bet they will want the kid staying at someone's house seven nights a week, not split up.
posted by ishotjr at 11:54 AM on January 29, 2010


Well, yet another factor is that we really don't have the housing resources for this. The 11yo shares a bedroom (and bed) with her younger sister, and there's no WAY the younger sister will be willing the share the room with someone she doesn't know, even if we thought that was an option. My husband works 60 hours a week and goes to school, I work full-time an hour away, and the schlepping back and forth is a nightmare. I really don't think we'd be an appropriate family for an exchange student, given all of this!

The mom lives in a small condo (again, with the kids sharing a room) and really doesn't have the housing resources for it either, but she seems to believe we do and is starting to push it with us. My husband has said no to her, in no uncertain terms, for all these reasons, but it's totally within her character to weaken, say OK, and sign my stepdaughter up at the school without our permission, and then expect us to take the student every night anyway.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:55 AM on January 29, 2010


It occurs to me that you aren't one of the child's parents. You don't get a say.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:57 AM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


P.S. Are you sure that the eleven year old students are allowed to go? I've heard of clubs in Junior High School that let kids go, but only the Ninth graders (14 years old) the younger kids could still host a student, but they wouldn't be allowed to go until they were in the Ninth grade. It seems fishy to me that any school would be responsible for a kid that young in a foreign country. You might want to call the school just to get all the facts.

I still think that you need to stick by your guns and tell her that eleven is just too young. That is not something that she can fix or argue away. In fact, the more she throws a fit and pouts the more she is underlining your argument.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:59 AM on January 29, 2010


It occurs to me that you aren't one of the child's parents. You don't get a say.

My husband and I are in total agreement about this, so I'm speaking for both of us here.

And given that it's my house too, and I am responsible for the kids and would be responsible for the student two or three nights out of the five or six s/he would be spending at our house, I darn well do get a say.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:07 PM on January 29, 2010


Are you sure that the eleven year old students are allowed to go?

It would be next school year, when she's 12 (still too young in our opinion). And yes, I'm sure. I saw the form, and this middle school has had foreign exchange programs for years. Don't know how often they've done Germany, but they have a sister-school program with China, and they've done exchanges with China.

Your comments are definitely the most useful here, though. They're what my better self would (will) say--at this point, I admit I'm just pissed about us getting the silent treatment and coming off as the bad guy. You're spot on about the pouting and huffing as another sign that she's not mature enough to do it, and I'm sure that'll get said.

We MAY even be willing to revisit this if she wants to do it during high school, IF we're in more suitable housing and have more resources (not bloody likely with America being what it is!).
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:16 PM on January 29, 2010


You don't get a say.

Her house, her family. She absolutely gets a say. Any responsible program should interview everyone involved before they place any children anywhere. The whole family has to be on board to be hosts; anything else and it can be a horrible experience for the guest. In this case it includes the biological mother, if she's going to be hosting in any way.

I didn't know there were exchange programs for 11-year-olds either. If your daughter really wants to do this, I'd suggest finding out more about this program. Can you talk to other parents? I went with AFS and I've heard good things about Rotary, but I think they're both only for high school students.

Your concerns about her language skills should be discussed with the program, as they're going be structured differently. Some will expect language competency, some will expect none. When I went I didn't speak any Italian; I came home fluent.

One more idea: The family I stayed with didn't have a teenager to sent away. They were hosting me on behalf of their friends, whose daughter was in the States. Maybe you know a family who would be thrilled to host.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Exchanges are a great experience for a child to understand that there's a whole world out there to learn about. I did a German exchange at 15 and had a great time; ended up working there for a few years after Uni.
Given that, I'm in agreement that 11-12 yrs of age is too young to get anything worthwhile from it. I'm with the group that says to wait a year or so if possible. She can take a part in saving for the experience and maybe work with you on the housing solution. Good lesson in delayed gratification and also she can use the time to learn some of the language.
For my 2c: you're part of the family, you get a say in what happens.
posted by arcticseal at 12:26 PM on January 29, 2010


The real problem is here is the fear that the parents may split on this. Your husband should tell his ex very clearly that he can not support this trip this year - aside from the feeling that she is still too young, it is not practical for logistic and financial reasons. Since this is not something that the mother can support by herself (logistically and financially), it is not going to happen. You would like to be effective co-parents and stand together on this but even if she gives in, you simply cannot help out with money or housing.

If the mother does go ahead and sign the form then your husband should speak to the school coordinator about the problems.

He should sit his daughter down and explain that it is not going to happen this year. If is possible, he can propose that she start saving money and continue to study German and he will try to help make it work when she is 15 or 16.

If both mother and father are firm and clear then your stepdaughter will probably accept it. If she thinks persistance and/or whining might get her what she wants then she will keep trying.
posted by metahawk at 12:28 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


As parents, your first No was plenty. Stop. Don't add to the list; doing so will just be interpreted as "Even we think the reasons we first gave you were pretty flimsy, so here's some other stuff we're throwing in to bolster a weak argument..."

If she's determined to do this someday, then the group of parents/guardians have the option to sit down and figure out what minimal conditions would need to be met in order for that to be possible. For instance, X amount of money needs to be squirreled away, a spare bedroom must be somehow made available, she must demonstrate sufficient coping skills and maturing by doing Y, she must be able to speak and write German at Z level of fluency, etc. It's still a No, but it's a No that she has been empowered to turn into a Yes if she's committed enough -- not through whining, but through practice of mature life skills like saving, studies, compromise, patience, etc.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:29 PM on January 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


From a bit of googling, it seems like the adults involved in hosting an exchange student have to go through a criminal background check. I suspect that there's no way for the mother to do this without your consent? From a bit of googling, too, it doesn't seem like there's any obligation on the parents' of the child going abroad to host another child, either, but perhaps it's different from different programs.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:30 PM on January 29, 2010


It sounds as if this boils down to...

1) For a variety of legitimate reasons (age, money, inconvenience), you simply don't want to do this.

2) You feel guilty, or someone is trying to make you feel guilty for not supporting this.

3) To deflect guilt, you'd like to depersonalize your decision by blaming something outside your control. You want this so badly that even not-so-solid reasons seem attractive.

I don't think you need to deflect the guilt. I think you need to reject it. You are entitled to make this choice as you see fit. You don't need to rationalize your authority; you just need to use it.
posted by jon1270 at 12:40 PM on January 29, 2010


If the money's not there, then the money's not there. If she's not mature enough, then she's not mature enough. Either of those things is reason enough for her not to do the trip until conditions permit, and you guys just need to tell her that.

So the question I have to ask, is, why is it that when you already have good and sufficient reasons to say no, you're fishing around for another reason. When I see all of the hostile comments about her biological mother, and the fact that the reason you're asking us to validate involves your joint custody agreement with her, this sets some alarm bells off for me. Especially since it sounds like you're afraid that her mother may approve the trip, putting you and your husband in the "bad guy" role - now you're looking for a way to push the locus of blame on your step-daughter not being able to go back towards her.

Seriously - don't do this. Being a child of divorce trying to navigate two blended families is hard enough without the two families playing political games about who's the better parent that the child should love more. Even if the mother is trying to play those games, which it sounds like she may, you have to be bigger than that.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 12:46 PM on January 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


My younger sister did a study abroad program for several months when she was about that age. Granted, it was to a boarding school, but she credits that experience as a fundamental part of her growing up and being interested in the world. She left as a painfully shy and timid kid, and came back quietly self-assured and adventurous.

Sure, your daughter won't have the exact same kind of experience as if she were 17, but 11 is certainly old enough to live in a foreign country, with another family, for a month.

If you can't host the other kid, ask around at the school to see if someone is willing to host for you. We hosted exchange students all the time, even if we weren't going back to their location.

What I'm saying is this: you might not want her to go for various reasons. But make sure that they're the right ones. I'm not entirely convinced that an American kid spending one month in a foreign country is really all that bad of a scenario. Yes, there's the money. Maybe you can all be in agreement that if you can figure out the return hosting situation, this might be a financial goal for everyone to work towards for next year or two. Anything is possible. But don't shut down this idea just to get back at the mom, to teach the daughter "no" or work through other anxieties. It might be worth considering: "is there some way we can make this work, even if it's in the future" rather than immediately jumping to "no." That's a valuable lesson for a kid too.

Good luck. It seems like there's a lot more to this question than the legal precedent of "can joint-custody parents decline to host an exchange student?" Because likely both parents will need to agree to the program in the first place, or you could call the school and say that the joint-custody parent doesn't agree to it.
posted by barnone at 1:26 PM on January 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


What I'm saying is this: you might not want her to go for various reasons. But make sure that they're the right ones. I'm not entirely convinced that an American kid spending one month in a foreign country is really all that bad of a scenario. Yes, there's the money. Maybe you can all be in agreement that if you can figure out the return hosting situation, this might be a financial goal for everyone to work towards for next year or two. Anything is possible. But don't shut down this idea just to get back at the mom, to teach the daughter "no" or work through other anxieties. It might be worth considering: "is there some way we can make this work, even if it's in the future" rather than immediately jumping to "no." That's a valuable lesson for a kid too.

cosigning this super strongly. eleven is a bit young, especially if this is a kid who's never traveled before and doesn't speak the language. i was pretty independent and well-traveled at eleven and germans speak enough english that even though i don't speak any german i would've gotten by fine if you dropped me in germany for a month at that age. make it a future goal for everyone to work at! $1300 isn't an impossibly large sum of money for a kid to raise in two years, it's easier to pick up languages when you are young and zomg i can't begin to tell you how amazing and life-changing traveling by yourself and living somewhere else can be.
posted by lia at 2:21 PM on January 29, 2010


What if she were to get her period for the first time while she's there? Will she have the presence of mind to talk to her host mom about it? My little sister got her period at camp when she was twelve and instead of talking to an adult (all of which she knew well) or me about it, she just used paper towels until we got home! My sister is and was a bright girl, she just felt too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. That is just one example, there are a lot more things that could happen that are far worse that an eleven year old is not prepared to cope with.

But your sister did cope with it. She figured out her own way of dealing with it in the moment. And there are many ways to prevent situations like that: discussion beforehand, checking in as best as possible over email/skype, and learning that you can't prevent every possible stressful or difficult scenario. In your example, a parent could have discussed this possibility with her, and sent her off with supplies, instead of waiting for it to happen. Learning how to problem solve, and trust yourself, are great skills to have.

Perhaps your stepdaughter wants this opportunity to go figure things out for herself for a few weeks. It sounds like between sharing a bed/room with her sister, getting shuttled back and forth between possibly acrimonious custodial parents, and it sounds like some anxiety around money, responsibility, "lessons to be learned" and who knows what else -- she might actually do well to sort things out for a few weeks. Yeah, it could be difficult for her. But so is living in a world in which adults don't seem to listen to you (which feels very heightened at 11-13ish).

Again, I wish you luck. But in navigating this - and future - decisions, try to take a step back, and think, "what if I did say yes? How would that need to play out now for everyone to be satisfied to a reasonable degree? How would this opportunity help my daughter now and many years in the future? What's the worst that can happen? What is the best? How can we tip the scales in her favour?" Trying to find outside laws/rules/regulations/random reasons to structure your decisions isn't the most creative position or open you might be. Though I totally empathize that you have 800000 things on your plate and you just can't visit this possibility right now -- in which case, shelve it for another year.
posted by barnone at 2:29 PM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


She's way too young, you can't afford it, you don't have the space, and the custody agreement is already under stress. No, no, no, no. You're not crazy, you're not being mean or unreasonable. Revisit the idea of an exchange or trip abroad when she's 15.
posted by desuetude at 6:39 PM on January 29, 2010


I'd love for you to find a way to make this work, but it would almost certainly have to be you hosting the incoming student full time.

A reputable exchange program would be looking for a much more stable homestay situation for the incoming student than switching back and forth. Not necessarily a 2.2 kids nuclear family model, but treating an exchange student as a child of divorce who needs to switch from home to home on a daily basis is not something I've ever heard of being done.

I would be very, very surprised if they let you host under those circumstances. I would go so far as to say that if they would let you host under those circumstances, they are not sufficiently reputable to send your daughter overseas with them.

Call them and talk to them -- perhaps they can be the bad guy you're looking for.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:13 PM on January 29, 2010


Perhaps as a compromise and to practice being independent you could try to find a sleep-over camp for her to go to in the summer? She'll learn some useful skills and get a chance to get away from her slightly complicated home life. There should be some *relatively* inexpensive ones and she could help contribute towards it. As a bonus when she gets older she might be able to find work as a camp counselor.

Exchanges are an amazing experience but she might get more out of it in high school. And it sounds like there are a bunch of perfectly legitimate reasons why it is impractical for your family at this time. You (as an overstretched family unit) simply don't have the resources to host at this time.
posted by captaincrouton at 7:29 PM on January 29, 2010


I would be very, very surprised if they let you host under those circumstances. I would go so far as to say that if they would let you host under those circumstances, they are not sufficiently reputable to send your daughter overseas with them.

Seconding this. There's no reason why the exchange student would usually adhere to the custody arrangement for the child belonging to the parents.

And not having a bed for the exchange student to sleep in must invalidate the application. (And why on earth would the mother think it appropriate for an exchange student to share a bed with her younger child? Not because I think that they're going to give you an 11-year-old aspiring child molester, but because it's crossing the borders of normal intimacy for both kids. You share your bed with family or best friend, not a unacquainted guest.)
posted by desuetude at 9:30 PM on January 29, 2010


As parents, your first No was plenty. Stop. Don't add to the list; doing so will just be interpreted as "Even we think the reasons we first gave you were pretty flimsy, so here's some other stuff we're throwing in to bolster a weak argument...".

Yup. This. You're coming across as pretty unclear and arbitrary here, and I can only imagine that's how you're coming across to her. Don't tell her she's being "huffy" and is thus not mature enough to go if you're creating a situation that would cause frustration in an adult, let alone a child.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:31 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not saying that she should go or shouldn't (not really my stake in this) but the endless listing of different reasons "AND we don't have money. AND if we had money we wouldn't spend it on this. AND she's not mature. AND custody AND blahblahblah" always reads as suspicious, even if every reason is valid and reasonable. It gives the impression that you're hell-bent on NO no matter what.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:37 PM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


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