One solution more and more families are turning to is the inclusion of an au pair in their family constellation. This possibility, which got its start in Britain in the 1950s as the traditional upstairs-downstairs system of domestic help became outmoded, has gained a new relevance as young people have become more mobile, the importance of developing global skills from childhood on has become an essential part of good education, and middle class families very often have two working parents who are strapped for time.
It is, one might argue, a flip side of the globalised stress we all have to cope with. Demands on our time and our capacities are steadily increasing, but in certain respects we also have new resources and possibilities at our disposal.
An au pair is a young person who spends anywhere from a few months to a year or two in a foreign country providing childcare help to a host family, while at the same time acquiring intercultural skills and strengthening language abilities. Great Britain is a particularly attractive country for many au pairs from throughout Europe and around the world because of the possibility it offers to sharpen English skills and to become acquainted with one of the key cultures crucial to acquiring global competence.
The au pair-host family relationship is a classic win-win combination. Families get in-house child care that is highly flexible and perfectly customised to their individual needs. Au pairs get a chance to test their wings in a friendly family context, taking on new responsiblities while learning about another culture in a challenging (but not too challenging) environment.
The whole arrangement is facilitated through the use of the family model. Au pairs are not seen as employees. They are not nannies making a career out of childcare, but rather young people who take on the role of a big sister or brother in the host family for a defined period of time. They help out with diverse childcare tasks and lend a helping hand in the household (both of which are a godsend to many busy families), but do so as integrated part of the family unit. In return they receive room and board and a set amount of pocket money (usually 70 – 85 GBP per week).
Is flexible, at-home childcare a high priority? Would some assistance with light housework also be useful? Are you interested in cultural exchange for your children and the family as a whole? Would a big sister or brother for your kids (for a defined period of time) be something you and your partner and the children could enjoy? Do you have a free room in your home to accommodate an au pair? A string of “yes” answers here could mean that the au pair option is the right one for you.
This is where things have taken a truly interesting turn in recent years. In former times, a family would typically go to a traditional au pair agency that has a catalogue of young people who could serve as potential au pairs. On the basis of interviews with the host family and with the registered au pairs, the agency would propose possible matches charging a hefty sum for its services.
Now there is a different way to search for an au pair that gives families more control over the process and a far greater range of potential au pairs. Instead of giving this task to a third party middle man, young people and families now make use of well-developed specialty websites to profile themselves and to search for their counterparts. The use of these websites comes at a miniscule fraction of the price demanded by the traditional brick and mortar agencies. Making use of the resources provided by the best of them, families have better chances of getting a full impression of an au pair before the placement and thus finding an au pair that truly fits their family's needs.
One of the pioneer websites in this segment and one genuinely devoted to the au pair ideal of cultural exchange (as opposed to simple matchmaking for profit) is AuPairWorld. Founded by a host family father in Germany in 1999 and developed first as a hobby, next as a family business and in recent years as a successful small Internet start-up, AuPairWorld is exclusively devoted to the au pair segment (and not general care-giving matchmaking like many other sites). It combines a well-informed concern for the needs of au pairs and host families with a professional set of service offerings and backs up its Internet offerings with in-person telephone support from a dedicated staff of professionals.