"Hello, welcome to the family. No, don't sit down just yet, let me first finish vacuuming the couch, there's been an outbreak in our daughter's school and it appears we might all have lice."
Not a conversation I ever imagined having with our new au pair, or with anybody else for that matter, but there's a first time for everything...
Beyond that initial moment of mortification (yes, we all know lice love clean hair, clean homes, clean everything, but Oh my God, we might all have head lice!), the reason I'm mentioning this is to drive a point home... that the au pair-host family cooperation is unlike almost any other job or position in the world.
This is why – beyond any contracting issues, how much you've arranged to pay, what hours you've planned, etc. – there are a few things host families need to keep in mind in order to turn the experience into a real win-win for everyone involved.
And so I'd like to share my Top 5 Tips for Host Families:
#1: Choose your au pair wisely (to suit your style)
Don't make the newbie mistake of thinking that finding the right au pair is as simple as matching location and availability. Before you even set up and interview, you need to articulate your family’s requirements and wishes, to identify the setup that will work best for you. Be as granular as you can and think of the way your family really operates in their day-to-day activities.
- Children: number of children that the au pair will need to mind, activities they need to get to, how they will get there, etc.
- Location: where do you live and how will the au pair get around
- Languages: fluency in specific languages that you’re trying to foster
- Meals: traditional-sit-down-dinner-every-night vs. reliance on takeaway every other night
- Rules: clearly articulated and regimented vs. more laid-back
- Tidiness: OCD-worthy orderliness vs. messy
You want to try and define, in so far as possible, your Must List and Nice To Have List, so you can articulate your requirements during interviews. Help the au pairs know what they’re getting into, and expect the same transparency in return.
Whether you choose to go through a professional agency or do it yourself, make sure you have enough information to make your decision, ask lots of questions during the process, take advantage of the varied options for online interactions, and do not settle for something that doesn't feel totally right. I have seen au pair relationships go south after arrival, but I’ve yet to see one begin badly and end well.
Once you’re living together, try to put yourself in your au pair’s shoes every so often, to better understand what they’re really seeking from the relationship. Questions like these will help:
- Why is your au pair venturing into this?
- What kind of relationship do you think they are hoping to have with you?
- Is this his/her first time away from home?
- Might they be home-sick? Does he/she need more attention or, on the contrary, are they feeling stifled?
- Are you treating him/her like a valued family member, do they know their opinion matters?
In au pairing, as in life, one can’t have everything, so there is value in prioritising. I might be looking for an au pair who is able to engage and connect emotionally with my children when they come home from school (task #1), and who also loads the dishwasher in exactly the right way (task #2).
Two independent tasks, and one could potentially pursue both. But it’s smart to prioritise the most important one for my family (after all, who doesn’t want their dishwasher filled exactly to capacity every time, right??).
#4: Be specific about your expectations
You know what they say about assuming anything. To avoid that, be specific about your expectations, particularly when it comes to the important things: child-rearing philosophies, family rules, conflict management…
The au pair will have to take guidance from you on a lot of these issues (their role within the family is temporary, even if the relationship they build with the children doesn’t have to be), but you need to help them understand why certain rules are there, particularly when things might be different in their own family.
This works both ways, of course. One of our au pairs came from a host family where the parents were consistently late. It got to a point where she could not make plans because she never knew when she might need to cancel them, and the stress of this uncertainty damaged what was otherwise a good working relationship. She let it go on so long, she no longer felt she could speak up about it, and decided to change families instead.
To avoid this kind of thing, encourage your au pairs to be open and vocal about their own expectations and needs. Be as ready to listen and as non-judgemental as possible!
#5: Take care of each other
This does not necessarily mean picking lice out of each other’s hair (there are brilliant places that specialise in exactly this sort of thing and will leave you all lice-free in no time). It does, however, mean paying attention to what the other person needs, and being willing to put their needs before yours when the situation demands it.
For example, if your au pair’s family comes to town for a visit, make sure he/she has extra time to visit with them. If you see they’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to see how you might be able to help them get things back on track.
Different cultures experience things in different ways and externalize their emotions differently, but almost nobody is immune to a smile or a helping hand.
Having grown up bilingual and now part of a trilingual family, Paz blogs about ways of creating that ecosystem where the second and third language can develop and flourish. She is a firm believer in the tangible and intangible benefits that au pairing can bring to families. In her blog "Au Pair 4.0", she shares her experiences as a host parent, and strategies to drive the win-win of au pairing.