Why Everyone Should Consider Hosting an Exchange Student

At the beginning of this school year my daughter’s high school sent a school-wide email, asking families to volunteer to host an exchange student from Japan for one week in March. We thought this sounded like fun and signed up. In August, March seemed a long way off. Yet, it snuck upon us before we knew it. Our international exchange student arrived last week, and yesterday we sent her off in a cloud of hugs and tears.

Despite the language barriers, cultural differences and early-morning drop-offs I would encourage all families to consider hosting an exchange student. Here’s why:

1. Hosting a student will provide a great motivation to tidy up your house. Unlike visiting friends or family, an exchange student is a stranger who will be a part of your family for a short period of time. While you might tolerate some mess with close people around, you will probably feel a lot less comfortable doing so with a stranger.

A fellow host mother I met at school the night the students arrived told me she’s been scrubbing her house for two weeks straight. I didn’t go to such extremes, but I did clear all of my projects out of my sewing room, a week-long endeavor. My family and I returned the sewing room to its original manifestation as a guest room, and meticulously cleaned it up. I suddenly remembered how beautiful it could be. The kids, on their part, were amazed by how big it looked. And so, like in the story of the Rabbi and the Goat, we all felt as if we had more space in the house:

2. You will appreciate other people’s courage. When our exchange student arrived, I was impressed with how courageous she and her classmates were. These young teenagers left their homes and everything familiar, to travel to a faraway country, with a different language, different customs, and different foods. They did come as a group, true, with teacher escorts, but shortly upon arrival they were paired up with their host families, and driven off, each alone with a bunch of strangers, into the dark and the unknown… I’m sure they were all quite nervous at that point. I, too, traveled alone to faraway lands, but I was a lot older. My own experiences helped me respect my young guest’s bravery.

3. For a short period of time, you will gain one more child. I’ve always been curious as to what it feels like to have four children. This week gave me some idea 🙂 It was interesting to see how fast mothering instincts take over when you suddenly become responsible for a child. When our exchange student arrived, I immediately wanted to feed her, make sure she’s warm, and take care of her in other ways. Somehow, it seems, by caring for other people you make them your own.

4. Your children will learn that the basic fundamentals of humanity cross all cultural and linguistic barriers. My daughter and my Japanese daughter had some difficulty communicating, but they quickly found ways to connect despite their differences. The two girls traveled on school tours together and had a lot of fun. They attended classes together, and learned a little about how schools in their respective countries compared. The girls taught each other some basic words in their own languages. They bonded over a shared love for everything Harry Potter, and spent a few evenings watching the movies together. And they realized that their mutual passion for piano-playing and music erases all differences. Our Japanese child turned out to be a piano genius, and we all greatly enjoyed hearing her play.

5. You will get to see your surroundings with fresh eyes. Our entire family took pleasure in introducing our guest to our world. We soon realized how refreshing it was to see things through her eyes. When we took her to visit places we took for granted, these familiar spots suddenly seemed a lot more interesting and exciting. A nearby office building revealed itself to be a fun playground. Our downtown appeared as an exciting, opportunity-filled hub. Even our familiar neighborhood trail all of a sudden seemed amazing, covered as it was with spring blooms.

6. Mundane, everyday activities will become more appealing. Making dinner, for example, can often feel like a chore. But if you’re teaching someone from another country to make a dish that is new to them, it no longer feels this way. We taught our guest to make pizza from scratch, for example. Preparing the dough felt more special when done together, and putting toppings on personal pies became an activity that all the kids enjoyed.

7. Family dinners might become a bit more nutritious. It’s not always easy, with everyone’s busy schedules, to make room for daily dinner preparations. And although I really try to cook a fresh meal every day, and to make sure it’s as nutritious and healthy as could be, I sometimes find myself slacking. I also tend to get in a rut, repeating the same five or six dishes over and over again. But when our guest was here I found myself thinking about dinner more. Suddenly I wanted to make something different every night, so that she could taste a variety of new foods. I also made sure to include several dishes in every meal, to give her options in case something wasn’t appealing.

8. You will become more conscious of what you eat. We enjoyed introducing our Japanese child to different foods. By doing so we realized just how international our daily cuisine actually was! We had Italian food one day, Mediterranean goods the next, some European dishes another time, and then some Mexican cuisine. This is how it usually is, except we we haven’t paid attention before!

9. You will realize that sharing a meal connects people. There is something very basic in eating together. Food bridges gaps and creates bonds.

10. Everyone will learn that giving unconditionally feels good. Giving gifts is an important part of Japanese culture. In the school’s parent orientation we were told to expect to receive gifts, as well as be prepared to give presents. But while it was really nice to get Japanese tea or origami paper, we all found that buying and gifting our own gifts felt even better. My kids excitedly thought of what things to buy our guest, and aimed at items she might really like and use. They enjoyed wrapping everything nicely, and derived great pleasure from handing them over. Making another human being happy was all the reward they needed.

11. A nice bonus: kids tend to fight less when a new person is around. I got one week or relatively-few quarrels. Priceless!

12. Everyone will have lasting memories. Experiences, not material things, are what happiness is based on, or so researchers say. By hosting a child from abroad for one week we created memories for everyone that will last a lifetime. We forever became a part of someone else’s life, and she became a part of ours.

Our week of hosting was over in a flash. As expected, it was hard to say goodbye. We are hoping to someday get a chance to see our exchange daughter again, but even if not, her stay with us has made the world a little bit smaller.

Our Thanksgiving Tradition: Visualizing Gratitude

There are many things to be grateful for, and many ways to express gratitude. And while we should all be continuously thankful for the little miracles of everyday life, it is truly wonderful that Thanksgiving comes once a year, to remind us to really stop, think, and be consciously appreciative.

Every family has its own Thanksgiving traditions. Some are decades old, others relatively new. Ours falls into the later category, and reflects our family’s evolution and growth. We started our tradition about a decade ago, when my kids were still little but could already draw.

Our tradition calls for the making of a “Thank You” poster a few weeks before Thanksgiving. In the weeks leading to the holiday, anyone who comes to our house has to write what they are grateful for on a note, and paste it onto the poster. This is our way to nudge everyone to think more deeply about the things we normally take for granted.

From the very beginning, the kids have been responsible for coming up with a poster theme. I wish I could say that the process has always been cooperative, friendly and peaceful. Sadly, this would be somewhat of an exaggeration. But always, after some arguing, fighting and the occasional shout, they have been able to come to an agreement. Over the years we’ve had Thank You trees, scenes involving native Americans and pioneers, pumpkins and corn, and last year–The Speedwell. This year the kids chose to paint a Thanksgiving turkey.

Our Thanksgiving Tradition: My kids' finished gratitude poster

Once the kids decide on a topic, they cooperate on planning the composition and on the actual painting. Each person gets to do what they are good at and capable of. Some draw, others paint, or cut, or paste. Every year they choose to use different materials. Some years they use crayons, on other years acrylic, or something else. The resulting work of art reflects their collaborative efforts.

Starting to work on our gratitude poster

Painting our Thanksgiving poster detail

Painting our Thanksgiving poster

Once the poster is finished we hang it on the wall in our dining room, right above the Thanksgiving table.

The kids then cut little pieces of paper in shapes matching the theme of the painting (leaves, corn kernels, sails and such), and put them in a small pile near the poster, together with a pen and tape.

Feathers and tape ready to use

Then people get to write what they are thankful for, and paste it onto the painting.

Starting to post gratitude feathers on our turkey

Thanksgiving poster detail

We leave the painting hanging even after the holiday is over, and make all our guest write on it. Appreciating life, after all, should be ongoing. We later keep the posters, which become time-capsules of sorts, and which reflect our lives at any given year.

Why I don’t Make Costumes for My Kids

Halloween came and went, and once again I felt the pang of guilt that washes over me every October. Another year had passed, you see, without me sewing unique costumes for my kids. This year I felt guiltier than ever, for over the past twelve months I’ve spent more time than ever hunched over my sewing machine. I sewed many items, but costumes weren’t amongst them.

When I was a kid, my parents set a very high bar. For years they made my siblings’ and my costumes, all ingenious and unique. One memorable year in preschool, for example, they turned me into a dwarf sitting on a mushroom. My upper body was the dwarf. Somehow my parents attached a doll’s arms to my shoulders, inserted my arms-turned-dwarf’s-legs into small doll’s pants, and shoved my hands into little shoes. My lower body became the mushroom, with a stiff skirt serving as the mushroom’s top. My own legs, clad in white tights, acted as the mushroom’s stem. I am quite sure the world has never seen such a feat. Another year they dressed my sister as a doll in a box. The pictures of these and other costumes were something we kids kept going back to.

So when I had kids of my own, it only seemed natural to me that I should make their costumes, too. On their first Halloween we even attempted a family costume: my husband, myself and our toddler daughter were black cats, while my second daughter, still a infant, was dressed as a cute white mouse. I assembled the clothes and hand-sewed all our ears and tails. Shopping for the fabrics and accessories, measuring, figuring it all out and stitching took hours. We wore these costumes one evening. For most of that time we wore coats over the costumes, for it was a rainy Halloween, as many Halloweens tend to be. Then they were tossed aside.

A week later, on a visit to Target, my toddler spotted made-in-China rabbit ears that cost less than a dollar. She forced me to buy a pair. She and her sister ended up playing with them for years, until they fell apart.  I learned my lesson right there and then: The kids couldn’t distinguish between handmade costumes that took hours to make, and the cheap, store-bought stuff. They couldn’t care less how much planning or time went into preparing their garb. They were just as happy, if not a little more so, with the flimsy, sparkly Chinese stuff.

To make things worse, it turned out that the main attraction of the holiday wasn’t the costumes at all. What my kids really cared about (and later remembered) were the piles of candy, and the excitement of collecting them. I realized then that my life was plenty busy as it was. That was the end of my costume-making attempts.

Since then my kids have been responsible for putting together their own outfits. They have been deciding what they wanted to be, and have been in charge of making sure they have everything they needed. Sometimes they used things we already had around the house, or costumes from years past. Sometimes they asked me to buy something new. At other times they made the costumes themselves, often together with friends. Every now and then it was a combination of the above. And yes, when necessary I did help make a prop or two, or helped a kid attach one thing to the other. This year, for example, I got away with cutting a simple, Pikachu tail out of yellow felt.

Over the years I noticed how much the kids actually liked being in charge of their own dress-up. They loved planning their own costumes. Making them themselves brought out their best creative energies. Working together with friends on a combined outfit encouraged cooperation, strengthened friendships and sharpened negotiation skills. I realized that leaving this responsibility to the kids was actually good for them.

But while my brain knows that it’s perfectly OK–and even advisable–for me not to interfere with Halloween preparations, my heart still feels guilty. And I still greatly admire super-moms like my sister, who, despite being extremely busy, still find the time (and energy!) to come up with family-themed costumes, and then make them all from scratch. I just realize this doesn’t quite work for me.

Despite being Halloween veterans, my kids are still mostly interested in the loot. They collect mountains and mountains of colorful, cavity-causing sugars, and enjoy sorting, arranging, comparing and exchanging them.

My kids' Halloween loot

 

When Buying Art Can Change the World

A few weeks ago my eldest daughter, a couple of friends and I were walking back home from a crafts fair in our neighborhood. That day I went to the fair twice. The first time, in the morning, was with my second daughter. She happily spent the Fair Budget I gave her on a nice pair of earrings. I returned again in the afternoon with our friends and my eldest child. I wanted to to give her, too, a chance to find something. We enjoyed the walk, the browsing, the inspiration brought about by exploding creativity. We likewise enjoyed the festive atmosphere and the crowds. But my daughter couldn’t find anything she really wanted, and so we left the fair and started walking back home empty-handed.

A couple of blocks from our house I noticed from the corner of my eye a little booth in one of the front yards. A homemade sign announced “Nail Art” in big, lopsided letters. A child-sized table stood diagonally, and behind it sat a young boy, about nine or ten years old. Deeply engaged  in conversation, I didn’t pay the booth much attention. I kept walking, wishing to get home and share a cup of coffee with our friends.

We walked another half block when my daughter suddenly stopped. “We should go back to that booth,” she said. “That boy looked so sad. We really should buy something from him.” I hesitated. We already spent a lot of time at the fair. I was looking forward to my coffee, and our friends, an elderly couple, looked like they had had enough walking for the day. But my daughter, kindness incarnate, insisted. “Remember how I felt when I had a booth?” she asked, referring to a time, only a couple of short years earlier but feeling oh-so-long-ago, when she, on exactly such a fair weekend, set a similar booth in our own front yard. I did remember.

So all four of us turned around and returned to the booth. I asked the boy how much his paintings cost, expecting him to announce a small sum, similar to what my daughter asked for her creations two years before. When he came up with what amounted to ten times that, I was taken aback. Our friends were aghast. But my angel-of-a-daughter wasn’t deterred. “Oh, come on mom, buy one,” she said. “Use the money you promised me for the fair.” And so I did. My daughter chose a painting of a rainbow-colored heart and I handed the money.

A boy's cheerful art

The boy stared at the bills in disbelief. It was obvious that he did not expect to get what he asked for. We were probably his first customers, too. After a second, an expression of pure joy washed over his face. His mother, quietly protecting him from the porch, rushed out to thank us.

Now my daughter has a rainbow-heart painting hanging in her room. Whenever I pass by it I can’t help but simile. I probably read into the piece more than the artist had intended, but what I see is cheerfulness, hope, innocence, love and  inclusiveness–all elements we badly need in these times of ugliness and divisiveness.

Whenever I see the painting I think of that boy and of his mother. I hope that by buying it we made a difference. Perhaps we taught the boy that expressing creativity is worthwhile; that overcoming hesitation, nervousness and fear pays off. Maybe we showed him that taking risks is OK, that aiming high might lead to unexpected results, and that he should never sell himself short. Hopefully we helped him realize that working hard pays and that earning one’s own money based on hard work feels good. Perhaps the experience will help him grow up into an adult who isn’t afraid to work hard, take risks, and later contribute back to society.

Hopefully our gesture also demonstrated to his mother, as I was reaffirmed two years before, that community is indeed important; that it really does take a village to raise a child; and that even as strangers we are all connected in an unseen web of humanity, and are willing to support each other just because.

Equally important, the money I spent that day bought my daughter and me a lot more than just a small, pretty painting made of wood, nails and paint. It bought us the satisfaction of seeing otherwise-discarded materials turned into something beautiful. The money bought us the great delight that comes with supporting the efforts of another human being. It gave us the enormous bonus of seeing joy and happiness on other people’s faces, hence allowing us to feel the same way ourselves–the expressions on the faces of both the boy and his mother were truly priceless!

That money also bought us the contentment that comes with investing in the future: the future of one boy, his community, and perhaps the world. For who knows what investing in one child, any child, might bring? Somehow, it might change the world one day, in big ways or small. It might even contribute something to making our society kind again. I call that money well spent.

Why Cleaning Up is Good for Kids (And Why you Should Do It, Too!)

What We Did This Week

As I mentioned last week, the first big project my kids and I embarked on this summer was The Big Cleanup, by now an annual tradition. Over the last couple of weeks we all worked together. We went room to room, starting with the kids’ rooms, moving to the master bedroom, and ending with the common areas. Depending on the amount of work needed, we dedicated a day or two to each room. We took everything out of every closet, drawer, shelf or cubby. Every surface we cleaned with a soapy wet cloth, vacuumed every cranny, and sorted through every item.

We put together pieces of games that got scattered over the previous year. The kids sorted mixed-up crayons, markers or pencils and put them into separate boxes. We recycled lots of paper, and discarded expired food items and medicines. We put outgrown toys, books and clothes into separate piles, and gave them away. Some we passed on to friends with younger kids, others to beloved old preschools, yet others we donated to Goodwill. We tossed broken things. Overall, this year we gave away a car-load and a half of toys, games and books; two large trash bags and a huge card box full of clothes; and a large box with miscellaneous things. We cleared up a couple of cubbies, lots of closet space and some shelf space.

Here, for example, is what one of the drawers in the kids’ bathroom originally looked like:

Messy drawer

We took everything out:

poouring it all out

Then vacuumed the drawer and wiped it clean:

Vaccuming

And then we put everything back in again, the way it’s supposed to be:

Summer cleaning

It will hopefully look like this for at least a couple of months or so…

Why I Think It’s Important

Now, no one really likes cleaning up, myself included. One could argue that making children organize their room over the summer vacation (instead of, say, sending them to camp or letting them play in the sand) is a malicious form of kid-torture. But I find this experience to be beneficial on many different levels. Here are some (but by no means all) of the benefits I see:

  1. Cleaning up teaches kids basic life skills that will be useful later on. Younger kids learn to sort, match (game parts, socks), vacuum, clean. Older kids learn to fix things, fold clothes properly, hang things in the closet, check food for expiration dates.

  2. Cleaning makes kids take responsibility for their own space, which in turn makes them more independent and proud of their achievements.

  3. It teaches kids that they are a part of the family, and therefore have a responsibility towards the family. My children use the entire house and therefore need to tidy common areas as well as their own room.

  4. Cleaning together encourages cooperation and teamwork. It also requires negotiation and conflict resolution, all important skills.

  5. Cleaning teaches compassion and social responsibility. We all had trouble parting with some things, be it a favorite stuffed animal or a beloved-yet-outgrown book. Saying goodbye to these items was hard. But we knew that by passing them on someone else would enjoy them, be it a person we care about or a stranger. Putting a toy in a pile directed to “kids who have no toys” made my kids feel good about parting with toys they no longer needed.

  6. Getting rid of things teaches kids that material items are not important, and that stuff is replaceable.

My children actually like the Big Cleanup. This year they wanted to start organizing the house even before the school year ended, and I had to convince them to take a couple of days off to relax first. When I asked what they like about it, my seven-year-old told me he always looks forward to finding lost toys or lost pieces of games. My twelve-year-old said that she likes the way a tidy room (and house) feels. My fourteen-year-old, it turns out, enjoys going over my clothes and seeing what she could pilfer.

It took a bit over two weeks, but our Big Cleanup of the year is finally over. To celebrate our accomplishment we went to the movies. “Finding Dory” was fun, as was eating a huge bucket of popcorn.

Cleanup reward

Material things are disposable. Shared experiences are forever!

No Time to Sew: The Big Cleanup

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the end of the school year marks the end of my sewing season. It doesn’t mark the end of work, though. In fact, I find summer to be a great time to catch up on many otherwise-neglected projects.

My creative work process seems to require a mess. Despite my many efforts to rearrange and clean up my studio, I just can’t seem to keep my work space tidy. It takes hours (days!) to put everything away. However, when I start new projects, items just naturally find their way out all over again… Different-colored thread spools start accumulating near my machine. Fabrics in different stages of cutting and sewing sort themselves into different piles on the bed or carpet, each waiting for the next stage. Metal hardware boxes lie open, waiting to be incorporated into bags. And on it goes. Here, for example, is a recent photo of my sewing table:

The truth is, that in order to feel at peace, I actually need my surroundings to be reasonably tidy. By “my surroundings” I mean my house, an almost impossible goal with three kids as roommates.

Hence, a few years ago we started a new summer-vacation tradition: “The Big Cleanup.” The Big Cleanup is just what it sounds like. It’s a thorough cleaning/organizing/rearranging of every single room in the house.

This is how it works: after the last day of school the kids and I give ourselves a couple of days to unwind and relax. We make no plans and set no rules. Everyone has time to do whatever they want to do, be it stay in pajamas all day, read on the sofa uninterrupted, or disappear behind a screen.

Then we start working. We work every day for about two weeks. Every couple of hours we take breaks for snacks, meals and the occasional rest. We set reasonable daily goals, and bribe ourselves with fun things to do in the afternoons (if we finish everything on time). The actual work is long and tedious. We get cranky, we have difficulty parting with some things. We fight, we grumble. But when the day’s work is done everyone feels great (or at least I do). The room we just worked on looks nice. The drawers and cabinets are all clean and tidy. We feel like we really earned that relaxed stroll downtown, or that tasty ice cream, or the coffee-house visit with its drinks and cakes:

And when the Big Cleanup is all over we celebrate by doing something fun together. This makes us forget the ordeal we endured over the last couple of weeks.

A Heart-warming Moment

I mentioned earlier that my kids weren’t initially happy with my newly-awakened sewing compulsion. For over a decade I made them my primary focus. I conditioned them to expect me to be there for them at all times. However, when I started spending a lot of time sewing and creating earlier in the school year, things changed. In order to free some time for my art-making, I now need to limit the time I spend on other tasks. That definitely affects the kids’ lives. Over the last few months we had to negotiate quite a bit. Everyone in the family had to make a lot of adjustments. Even now, when the school year is nearing its end, this is still very much a work in progress.

Every now and then, however, there are little moments that show me the kids are accepting my renewed connection to art. The other day, for example, I experienced one such heart-warming moment. My son, a first-grader, came home from school very excited. “You won’t believe this, mom,” he said. “I have this boy in my class, poor fellow. His mom can’t even sew!”.

The beauty of children's art

(I just love this beautiful collaborative piece my son made with other classmates).