August 28, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student Builds Empathy

Can you tolerate another enthusiastic post about hosting an exchange student? (re: I’m not quite done using this space to extol the benefits of said exchange). In a previous post I talked about the similarities I observed in my kids and my exchange student and how the experience allowed me to reconsider some of my perspectives as a parent. Building on that topic, one of the things I noticed about myself is that I was inherently more accepting of my exchange student’s preferences and opinions than of my own kids’. Not cool. 

Let me explain: I wanted to take “Pablo” to an exceptional water park just outside of Portland. I planned the outing with another family member with similarly aged kids. We were particularly enthusiastic because there was an outdoor concert scheduled on the water park lawn in the evening after the pool and slides closed, so we could make a full day of it. We planned our meet up, and I let the kids know about the plan. My daughter (who would live in water if we let her) was thrilled. My son was not nearly as enthusiastic. He’s not a water hound, and he’s more of a homebody.

My initial reaction was that my son needed to stretch outside of his comfort zone a bit. I asked him to “take one for the team” so we could share this fun experience with Pablo. He agreed. Reluctantly. Then I explained the activity plan to Pablo. He agreed. Reluctantly. And guess what? I did not give him the same “take one for the team” lecture. And guess who noticed? My son. And then me.

My first reaction when Pablo was not keen on the plan was to kick into “nurturing mother mode” and ask more about his perspective. Did he not like the water? Was he not in the mood for swimming? Was he tired? Here’s the real clincher. His reason for not wanting to go was that he’s been to water parks before and he finds them crowded and noisy and not his idea of a good time. Guess what? That’s pretty much the same reason my son is not keen on the place I had in mind. But here’s the difference. With my son, my initial reaction was to “parent him” by asking him to stretch out of his comfort zone to accommodate the rest of our family’s interest in going to this “attraction.” My initial reaction with Pablo was to try to understand his needs, and then I offered to accommodate those needs. And I wasn’t irritated with the prospect. I felt empathy for his discomfort. And my son noticed . . . And called me out on it. Ooooph. That’s a punch in the gut. But one I’ve learned from, and that’s the best kind.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think it’s appropriate to expose our children to experiences that are outside of their comfort zones and ask them to go along with group activities that appeal to other friends/family members. But the reality is that I wasn’t asking my son to stretch outside of his comfort zone; I was asking him to keep up with my comfort zone.  I like to be out and about. I love being “on the go.” My son needs more down time. If you check out my first post on this topic, there’s no doubt we were seeing and doing a lot of activities together. We were On. The. Go.

In the end, we didn’t end up going to the water park. When I touched bases with the other parent, it became clear that only one of her kids was very enthusiastic about idea. We decided that it was too far of a drive and too expensive of an outing to bring several people when only two of the kids really wanted to go to. I will bring my daughter another time. Solo (or more likely, with one of her friends).What did we do instead? We picnicked on the back patio instead of on the waterpark lawn. We played Pandora instead of listening to a live band. And later in the evening we spontaneously went to my son’s favorite arcade (while my daughter and her cousin happily hung out at the local yogurt shop). Despite the crowds and noise, my son (and incidentally, our exchange student) LOVES arcades. I can’t stand them. It was my turn to “take one for the team.”

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