A host father we know, who together with his wife has managed many successful au pair stays, has a favourite piece of advice about au pairing. He likes to say:
"A happy au pair is almost always a good au pair."
That makes a basic sort of sense, but what is it that he is really getting at? Why identify the au pair's happiness as the key factor for making an au pair stay work well?
A realistic understanding of your au pair's motivation
Families decide to have an au pair because they want to have help in managing childcare and performing household tasks. And every suitable au pair must be willing and able to help with these needs in the family and to find some pleasure in doing so.
But it would be naive and unrealistic for a family to believe that providing these services is the main reason for a young person to become an au pair. Au pairs can be seeking many different experiences. But you can be quite sure that feeding little Johnny breakfast and putting away his toys is a means to an end, not the end itself in the hearts and minds of almost every au pair.
That means that to develop a successful cooperation with your au pair, it's important to have clear information about two basic points:
- How ready is she/he really to do the work you'll be requiring from her (or him)?
- What is the more personal motivation she/he has in choosing to become an au pair and to spend time as part of your family?
What is your au pair's (personal) agenda
You want a competent and motivated young persons as part of your family team. And what does your au pair want?
Very often the au pair's wishes are summed up under the general heading of "wanting to learn a second language". This is certainly a great benefit of spending time in a foreign country and a key skill for a young person to acquire. But it tends to stand for a whole mix of related wishes.
Typically au pairs want to experience something new and different, to see the world, to get away from home, to have an adventure. Yes, an au pair stay opens the door to a new language, but also to a new whole world of adventure and discovery.
Talking about this personal agenda openly with au pair candidates during the selection process helps you to get to know them more fully. And when you know your au pair candidates better, you also have a better chance of choosing one who can integrate well into your family while also pursuing her personal wishes for self development and adventure.
Work-life balance is key
Because the au pair job is a "means to an end", the balance between au pair duties and the rest of the au pair's experience is a key factor in creating a situation where your au pair can be happy and do her job successfully.
Au pairs perform best with the daily tasks of family life and childcare when:
- They are not working too many hours per week (30 hours is recommended in many countries)
- They can look forward to doing things they really enjoy in their free time
These are basic considerations in making the win-win premise of shared benefits in the au pairing situation really work.
Family life: Part of a larger whole
Belonging to a family is not a full-time job. For all of us, it is part of what we do while we do other things as well. The same is true for an au pair who joins your family. The fact that your au pair is looking for more than just the childcare activities she'll be performing in your family is the most natural thing in the world.
We share things in a family and contribute productively to family life best when we also have other areas in which to express ourselves. Recognising this basic fact and structuring your au pair's experience around a healthy mix of family tasks and free time is the best way to have a happy au pair (and a great au pair experience).