Getting to know kids is usually a fun process, but it can be challenging if you’re not sure where to start. Even for me, who had a wealth of experience dealing with kids before becoming an au pair, I sometimes felt nervous and a little out of my depth when it came to establishing my role as a new participant in the context of my host family.
Au pairing is not the same as one-time babysitting jobs
Every childcare-related experience I’d previously had, was something that I was able to walk away from without lingering worries if a day had been particularly difficult. However, as an au pair I was living and working in the same place, and therefore had to understand that everything I said and did would play a role in how the rest of the experience would pan out, and therefore, how our relationship would develop. Even behind my bedroom door, I knew that the next day would follow on from the experiences we’d shared during the previous day, and I think it’s important for au pairs to understand this element of their role. Children get used to your responses quite quickly and if you let them get away with one thing, they’ll assume you’ll do the same in other situations.
In this new context, it definitely took time to find a mutually comfortable ground with Antonin, where we each understood how the other person operated, and knew where the boundaries were. To help ease these feelings of uncertainty during the ‘getting to know each other’ phase, I tried to be open with my host parents and pay attention to how they dealt with Antonin. I also gave Antonin lots of room to express himself, and took mental notes about how he responded to me in different scenarios. Over time, he could see that we were both learning every day, but this came as a result of going through ups and downs, talking about how we were feeling when we had the chance.
So, how do you build a foundation with your host kids?
When you first arrive it will, of course, take a little while to learn about your host kids’ personalities and see how they respond to you, and to different situations. A great way to get past any barriers between you and the kids in the early stages (such as language or physical interaction) is by getting them to show you what they like, and by being be super interested and excited by what they show you.
It’s important for kids to know that their interests matter to you because you’ll be spending a lot of time together! As you learn about their interests, you’ll get to know things about them and build up a bank of knowledge that you can draw on later. You can also use this time to introduce things that you might like to do or play with. Kids need to feel a sense of trust and comfort, so bonding through play is a great way to establish connections that make things easier for both of you.
Podcast: Excerpt from "The Big Sister Project":
Ellie's first days of building a relationship with her host brother Antonin
Don't be afraid to ask questions – or to make mistakes
One thing I found to be really important when getting to know my host brother was not being afraid to ask questions or to make mistakes. Looking back, if I could have changed anything, it would have been to be more vocal right from the beginning when I didn’t understand something, instead of waiting a few weeks and letting him have too much control over every situation.
The au pair-host kid relationship is one of the most dynamic relationships you’ll ever experience, purely because of the fact that it’s a constant balancing act. You’re on their side - you want to get up to mischief and be a fun older sibling (like when Antonin and I drew on our faces with my eyeliner before his parents came home, and almost got into trouble because they needed to go back out!), but at the same time you need to let your host kids know that you’re the ‘boss’ too. It can sometimes be a little bit difficult.
Setting the right tone in your au pair role
I remember how tricky it was, especially in the beginning, because when you’re in a new place, all you want to do is make things easy for yourself, and sometimes that involves letting misbehaviour slide (like letting them cheat in a game but not saying anything because you’re scared of not explaining yourself correctly). The advice I wish I’d had was that you need to be vocal when things go wrong, as soon as possible! Your words and actions set the tone, and it’s up to you to establish that you can have fun together, but there are boundaries that need to be respected.
To make this easier, when you first arrive, don’t be afraid to let the kids know if you sometimes need a bit of assistance when trying to explain things. Being honest with your host kids also gives them a sense of responsibility to take some care of you in a similar way you do for them, and they understand that your relationship is a two-way street. Create nicknames for each other, make jokes out of language problems, and keep things light-hearted.
A learning journey
Bonding with the kids builds trust in every aspect of your au pair life, but it takes time to find your feet and establish your role as both a friend and figure of authority. Take things as they come and remember that you are on a learning journey with your host kids!
About the author:
Ellie Bambury is English-born but also a Kiwi living in New Zealand. After studying filmmaking at university, Ellie became a videographer and photographer and is currently freelancing alongside teaching French and Drama. Her time as an au pair inspired her to publish a book about the experience, which she now hopes to use as a platform to engage with and guide other young people who may want to pursue au pairing. If you want to hear more about her book or get involved in her plans for 'The Big Sister Project', check out her website or find her on Instagram.