How to have a highly motivated au pair

In an excerpt from her new book "Au Pairs with Ease", psychologist and experienced host mother Clarissa Mosley writes about a simple technique that can help host parents connect strongly with their au pairs and motivate them successfully.

A young woman with a balloon
, in Host families

Think back to your favourite teacher or boss. Were they cold or indifferent and only told you when you did something wrong? Or were they warm and friendly and someone who would openly compliment you on your good work?

Compliments and praise are the key to building a productive relationship with any individual – you, your kids, your partner, and especially your au pair. Most of us are much better at pointing out when someone has done something wrong, especially if they are our spouse or kids! When there is a new au pair in your home, you can help the relationship develop positively by remembering to let her know that she is doing a good job by using praise, positive comments, signs of appreciation, and simply saying “thank you” on a regular basis.

Hopefully, you have experienced being praised yourself and also regularly praise your kids. It is important to keep in mind that giving praise effectively involves more than simply saying “good job” or “well done, Kirsten.” Psychologists have studied praise and how it can improve performance in students and employees.

Effective praise consists of three main ingredients:

1. It incorporates the person’s name.

People love to be seen for who they are, so when you use your au pair’s name in your
appreciation to her, she knows you are talking to her and not one of the children...or
the cat.

2. It focuses on a behaviour, action, or effort, not on the person.

There is more motivational value in praise that focuses on what someone does and
how they do it. When you draw attention to a behaviour, it is less confronting and
sounds more sincere than a global throw-away statement like “good work.”

3. It is specific.

By being specific about what you appreciate, you show the person you are noticing
their efforts, and they are much more likely to do the same thing again, perhaps even
better next time.

How could this work in practice?

If the au pair has done a good job doing the dishes, for example, an opening bit of praise might involve saying something like:

Thanks for doing the dishes.

You can make that specific and personal like this:

The pots are so clean and shiny, Anne.

And you can focus on the au pair's effort and behaviour with a further remark:

You must have really spent some time on them.

So all together this brief conversational moment would be:

Thanks for doing the dishes. The pots are so clean and shiny, Anne. You must have really spent some time on them.  

Giving praise like this will put a smile on your au pair's face.

Another example

Or let's think about a situation where your au pair has engaged well with your toddler when he was refusing to eat his dinner. In a quiet moment you might say: 

Thanks for putting up with my son, Mary. You really handled it well when Jasper wouldn’t eat his dinner. You stayed calm and firm with him. I liked that.

  • You personalize the praise by using the au pair's name. 
  • You make it specific by showing that you noticed what the au pair was doing and what her positive behaviour involved.
  • You build the relationship by explicitly declaring your appreciation for what she did.

Of course, all praise doesn’t have to be scripted and formatted, but this is to show you how you can move from a general comment into a specific, behaviour-focused, sincere piece of appreciation – and in this way connect more effectively with your au pair.

Using appreciation as a motivation tool

You can also appreciate your au pair’s assistance in other ways. If you are out or at work most of the time, a little note of thanks with a smiley face will help your au pair know you care. From time to time, you can actually say to your au pair, “I really appreciate your being here; it makes my life so much easier.” The odd dash of positive reinforcement can go a long way also. For example: “Oh great, you sorted the mixing bowls into sizes, how helpful.” Or a simple acknowledgement, e.g.“Thanks for picking up those clothes I dropped there.”

Don’t worry if you feel stilted when you are appreciating your au pair, or even if you struggle at first to find something to appreciate. Just make sure you notice something once in a while and mention it out loud. Alternately, make a point each week as you give the pocket money to say something like “Thanks for all your help this week. You have really taken the weight off my shoulders being here.” This is also a good time to check in with how she is doing or if there is anything she needs to talk about regarding questions about the housekeeping or childcare or the cooperation in general.


Clarissa Mosley

About the author:
Clarissa Mosley is a psychologist and mother of five boys. Having hosted over 15 au pairs, Clarissa has now incorporated her psychological knowledge and experiences as a host mother to write a guide book for parents on how to successfully host au pairs. Her book Au pairs with Ease is available in Kindle format on Amazon.