If you’re thinking about hiring an au pair, a live-in caretaker for your children, read this first. An au pair can be the perfect arrangement for some families, but it can also go very wrong. In my over ten years working with au pairs, I learned the stark truth that even the best au pair agencies don’t tell you how difficult it is to find the right au pair. The truth is, many au pairs are not qualified, nor are their priorities aligned with those of the family. Knowing what to ask can help you avoid becoming part of an au pair horror story.
Why is it so hard to find a good au pair?
In my experience, the majority of au pairs want to learn English in a fully immersive program—we used to get a lot of complaints that they weren’t learning English because they were with a toddler all day. They want to immerse themselves in a new culture, and that involves meeting new people.
The dissonance starts there.
Host families are looking for affordable childcare. When they turn to an au pair agency, they expect to find an au pair with a passion for children, an understanding of family life and the maturity of a grown-up.
If expectations on both sides are poorly managed, it can quickly lead to the horror stories we’ve all heard about.
As the host family, it’s up to you to make sure all of your requirements (and theirs) are understood. This starts with your interview. Be honest; it could mean multiple interviews, but it will be worth it. The following are six secrets to making an au pair arrangement work for you and your au pair.
Ask the Right Kind of Questions
By all means, go through the standard questions your au pair agency may have suggested; these will help guide the conversation. But keep in mind that hypothetical questions (of the ‘how would you’ type) will help you understand the au pair’s motivations and personality a lot better. For example, if your potential au pair ticked the culinary skills box, try asking her what her favorite meal is and how she would prepare it. Very quickly, you’ll learn how accurate her application responses are. It’s not that your au pair is ‘lying’, it’s just that she might believe making toast falls under the ‘cooking’ category. Another example: ask how she might entertain a two-year-old for three hours. Questions like these will help you assess the au pair’s ability to think on her feet, often in critical moments.
Check Your Au Pair’s Family Background
I used to place a huge emphasis on an au pair’s background. Whenever families said they had a successful or very successful au pair relationship, I always asked them what accounted for that success. There were usually many reasons, but one pattern that frequently emerged was linked to the au pair’s family background.
How many younger siblings he or she had was a great indicator of how well they’d cope with bottle-feeding or changing diapers or managing schedules. If an au pair had a younger brother or sister, she usually had the kind of initiative and instincts other au pairs didn’t always show.
We sometimes heard au pairs complain that the children were loud and boisterous and had no ‘manners’. If you asked them for specifics, they’d say that the older kid liked to fling the younger kid from one sofa to another or some other such explanation. Not ideal, but mostly just a case of kids being kids rather than poor manners!
Au pairs with siblings are less likely to be bothered or intimidated by horseplay, and may even jump in and participate. They’re used to the hustle-and-bustle of a busy household, and they understand the dynamics of a big family a lot better than someone raised with few or no other kids running around. For them, horseplay is a normal part of growing up.
Consider other work experiences too. We had a number of successful placements where the au pair’s background was peppered with summer jobs working on farms or for the family business. They had a great work ethic and understood the value of hard work, even if it meant traipsing through mud and mucking out a barn.
Compare Your Boundaries With Your Au Pair’s Personality
Think about this one carefully. Some families we helped insisted they wanted an au pair who was not only conscientious but more introverted than extroverted. Families assumed this meant a person who enjoyed reading and writing poetry. And whilst this is sometimes the case, keep in mind that au pairs have a range of personalities and interests. In my experience, families generally assumed that if their soon-to-be housemate was introverted, she would party less, be more reliable and speak better English. But down the road, they would complain that their au pair never left the house or spent a lot of time in her room. Moreover, after a long day at work, the hosts just wanted to relax at home but ended up spending more time helping their diligent au pair with English homework, or sharing the sofa with him or her when all they wanted to do was watch a movie with their partner. They were having very little family time.
Families also grumbled when an au pair came home late, got tired easily or was never available to help out more because she was too busy exploring her new city and meeting new friends.
Choosing an au pair based on personality is important, but articulating a set of rules and expectations is critical for keeping your priorities aligned. After all, there will be times when your au pair’s lifestyle and limitations don’t correspond perfectly to yours. How you negotiate that with your own family dynamic and boundaries will take careful planning.
Find Out About The Au Pair’s Relationships
Your au pair might volunteer some information about her current relationship status. If I had a dollar for every time an au pair left because of relationship drama…well, I’d have a lot of dollars. Seldom will an au pair be happy to leave a significant other behind, but bear in mind that some are more supportive than others. Do not underestimate these love affairs. Young love is powerful and important.
How about her family? Do her parents support her decision? More than once, parents would call and beg us to convince their Maria to come back. But Maria had no intention of coming home. She was having way too much fun. Make sure your au pair’s parents support her decision. Separation anxiety or an au pair’s homesickness can sometimes prove to be unmanageable.
Respect Your Au Pair’s Ability
Don’t try to replace a qualified nanny with an au pair. See your au pair as an older brother or sister to your kids, hopefully, one with a great sense of humor and a solid work ethic. You will be providing him or her with a weekly stipend that works out at a little under $4 an hour. Even taking bed and board costs into consideration, this is a far cry from what you’d pay a qualified caregiver. For the most part, au pairs have little or no formal childcare experience. Bear this in mind, particularly if you are considering an au pair for infant care. It is far safer to have an au pair work alongside a parent or caregiver as opposed to giving them sole responsibility for an infant.
Keep Your Au Pair’s Duties Within Reasonable Limits
Here’s the last and best advice I can give you: don’t ask your au pair to focus on anything other than playing with and looking after your kids. If you bombard her with housework and other duties outside of childcare, she will become overwhelmed and unmotivated very quickly. Ask yourself which you value more: that your au pair adores your children or can cook a three-course meal?
I want to share all of the tips and secrets and there are many more recommendations on topics like establishing house rules, setting a curfew or having guests or family stay over. But for the time being, let’s limit it to these fundamental points. This is truly one of the best cultural exchange programs out there. But for it to work, both sides need a better understanding of each other’s limitations and expectations.
Have more questions? Feel free to drop me a line in the comments!