When you think about it, WWOOFing is a weird and wonderful concept that contradicts what we’re taught as children regarding ‘stranger danger’. Yet here we are, WWOOF hosts, welcoming perfect strangers into our homes on a regular basis – and generally it works pretty well. However, a common question often asked is “how will having WWOOFers affect our children?”
Of course every family and every WWOOFer is different so we can’t answer with absolute certainty, but in the interest of science I conducted a very unscientific survey of folks I know who have or have had WWOOFers in their home when they were kids. My interviewees ranged in age from 5-40 years and I also spoke to their parents to get a broader understanding of the question.
Not surprisingly the results of my survey were on the whole positive. Advantages most noticed by host children were the learning opportunities – new languages, foods, religions, traditions, music, song, dance, crafts, cooking, skin colours and faces, hair styles, clothing, games, attitudes, ideas and general approaches to life. Kids are always learning with WWOOFers in the home.
As a homeschooling family I value the contribution WWOOFers make to my children’s education. Most importantly it helps my children understand that there is a great big world out there to be explored. Spain is not some vague “other country” for my kid. To my kids Spain is where Raymond and Julio come from, where they eat paella and chorizo, and say ‘hola’ for hello. Another homeschooling host commented on the fact that WWOOFers often share skills and can help her children grow from guitar or language lessons to juggling, chess, theatre and more.
The other positive aspect of having WWOOFers is how it can teach young people the important life skill of tolerance and understanding for others. Six year old Melita was fascinated by some Jewish WWOOFers who had to clean out her Mum’s stove from top to bottom before they could cook in it (as it had been used to cook foods that were not Kosher). Great for Mum who had a meticulously clean stove and the beginning of many interesting conversations with Melita about the different religions people practise.
Carmen (38yrs) spoke of how it taught her “to live with other people and their strange habits” which she found very helpful as she moved out of home and flatted with relative strangers at university and beyond. Host children grow up sharing their bathrooms and family area with folk who don’t always work in the same way their family does. Maybe a WWOOFer is vegetarian in a family of meat eaters, very quiet in a family of noise, likes to take showers in the morning in a family of evening bathers, uses running water to wash dishes rather than a plugged sink, eats cold meat and cheese for breakfast and finds cereal a rather odd concept. The ‘strange habits’ of other people are a wonderful way for kids to learn that difference isn’t wrong, it’s just different.
Of course it’s not all roses, because life never is. Many parents worry about how their kids will cope with making and losing new friends on a regular basis. In response to this concern one of our hosts wrote that her daughter “learnt that there was a new one (WWOOFer) not far away, and the positive aspects outweigh the negative ones by far”.
WWOOFers can be great companions for children. I grew up with WWOOFers in our family home and I have many fond memories of the ones who were able to stay around for a while. American WWOOFers Bill and Annette stayed with us for four months and cared for us while our Mum was taking care of our ailing Grandma. They took my sisters and me to our first movie in a picture theatre and brought us our first experience of thanksgiving. Petra from Stuttgart taught me my first German words. David from Paris taught me backgammon. Although it was hard to say goodbye it was wonderful re-connecting with them as an adult when I was able to visit with them in their home countries.
Sometimes it can be tricky having WWOOFers in your home as kids struggle with sharing their space, and their parents, with somebody else. The general response was that most parents would pick up on this and remedy the situation as smoothly as possible. One interviewee who was a teenager when her parents began taking in WWOOFers spoke of the need for her family to have family time alone. It was usually just taking a walk together or giving the WWOOFer the car keys, or mountain bike, for the day and telling them to go and explore.
There is also the inevitable question of whether it is safe to have WWOOFers in your home. All I can say is that in the nearly 30 years that Jane and Andrew Strange have run WWOOF New Zealand they have never had a complaint from a host in regards to a WWOOFer’s behaviour towards their children. Of course there are times when a WWOOFer just does not fit right with a family. In these instances hosts only need to have a quiet word with the WWOOFer and tell them it’s time they moved on. If done with respect for everyone’s feelings these situations can reach a smooth and amicable ending.
On the whole, the results of my very unscientific survey showed that the majority of host children enjoy having WWOOFers to stay. As host child Shannon said “when WWOOFers were staying there was always someone to play with, someone to take us swimming in the river, someone to tease and jump on. WWOOFers are one of my fondest childhood memories.”
I couldn’t have summed it up better myself.