We’re living sometime in the distant future, and intergalactic travel has become possible. A new world, light years away, has been discovered to have intelligent life. What’s more, the beings there have invited you to come for a sort of exchange program. You’ll be assigned a host family to live with while you explore this foreign world. You eagerly make the trip and arrive in a place that is totally, utterly new. Nothing works the way you expect; the laws of physics don’t apply here. Your own body has undergone drastic changes in order to survive here, and has become unpredictable. The language is incomprehensible. You have no idea how to meet your own physical needs, how to navigate the outside world, or how to communicate your needs and questions to the native population.You’re in a highly vulnerable state, and totally reliant on the good will of those who invited you here.
Now imagine this little scene between two “exchange students” who have been assigned two very different hosts….
“How’s it going, Jill?”
“Pretty well, Jack! I’m still struggling with the language, but my host is very patient with me. He spends so much time talking with me that I’m really beginning to get it. I know I still get a lot wrong, but he listens so carefully that he can usually tell what I’m getting at. Most of the time, I’m not too frustrated – and it’s such a thrill when I say something and he understands me right away!”
“Wow, that must be nice. My host usually seems pretty distracted. I get the feeling she’s only half listening. I have to repeat myself a lot, and if she doesn’t understand me, she just kind of gives up. It’s really frustrating!”
“Oh, that’s too bad, Jack! Have you gotten a chance to tour the area? My host has taken me lots of places. We explore everything. He lets me lead, and he follows along pointing things out and explaining them to me. It’s been so much fun! Sometimes we just have a quiet day at home, but even then, he’s always available to show me things, explain how something works, or just spend time with me. ”
“Well, my host is really busy. We haven’t gone to many of the tourist attractions. She lets me come along on errands, but she’s always in such a rush that we don’t spend too much time in any one place. Mostly, I stay home and try to amuse myself. It gets kind of lonely, but I can hardly complain. I know she’s busy taking care of my guest quarters and preparing my meals. At least, that’s what she tells me when I ask her to spend some time with me. I hate to say it, but, well, I don’t think she really enjoys being my host. It seems like having me here is a burden.”
“That must make you feel bad, Jack. Sometimes being in such a strange place is hard for me, too. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that a couple of times I’ve really lost it.”
“Me, too. The last time I had a melt down I actually threw some of my stuff on the floor. I just didn’t know what else to do, or how to feel better. But I won’t make that mistake again!”
“Mistake? What do you mean?”
“My host told me it’s terribly wrong to throw things, and then she made me sit on a tiny rug in the corner of the room. It was embarrassing, and unpleasant. Next time I’m upset, I’ll remember not to let it show around her.”
“That doesn’t seem right….that’s not at all how my host reacts when I’m upset. Once, I even broke something, I was so over the edge. My host was really understanding, though. He said he could see how frustrated I was, and asked how he could help. I didn’t really know what to say, so he just sat quietly with me, rubbing my back until I felt better. Later, we fixed up what I’d broken. I felt bad about it, but my host didn’t seem too mad. He said he’s done the same things himself from time to time, and while there are less destructive ways to express frustration, he knew where I was coming from. Knowing he understood made me feel good; like I’ve really got someone on my side around here.”
So which of those hosts would you want?
Sometimes it helps me to view my kids through this “alien” perspective. So much is foreign to them. It is understandable that they will experience both great joy at discovering their new world, and also intense frustration as they struggle to master their physical surroundings, communicate effectively, and learn social conventions. They are greatly in need of guides to help them make the most of their experiences….guides who show some empathy and understanding. After all, we’re the ones who invited them here. Isn’t it the least we can do?