My family has had an au pair since last February. The first one was from New Zealand and the second, who has been with us for a month, is German. The parents are enjoying the flexibility of the childcare and the ability to go out on date nights more than twice a year. The children are enjoying the company of a younger adult who is happy to make and bake and hang out in the playground rather than trying to get household chores done. And our au pairs have been enjoying London. I have learnt a few valuable lessons over the last 9 months though and I thought I would share them here.
- Be very sure what you want your au pair to do and make it clear to them before they start. For example, we don’t need our au pair to do any cleaning, and she is only asked to cook for the children on nights when she is babysitting, which is once or maybe twice a week maximum. However, we do need flexibility and no two weeks look exactly the same. I have heard about several unhappy au pairs who feel they were misled, whereas it seems to have been a bit of a miscommunication that could have been prevented by everyone knowing in advance what was expected.
- Start as you mean to go on and make sure everyone is aware of the ground rules up front. I learnt from experience that we should have specified that when an au pair is looking after children, she shouldn’t be on her phone or laptop. I took this as a given, and it led to problems down the line when I discovered that our au pair was spending a lot of time on a screen. This time, we brought it up at the beginning, and there have been no issues. The same goes for having friends over. While we have never had a problem with this I am aware of families who have had 5 or 6 au pairs in their sitting room 6 evenings a week. Au pairs should be able to invite people round, as it is their home after all, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t impact too much on the rest of the family. It is worth thinking about putting a limit on the number of people or the number of nights a week you are happy with this. It is particularly important for things you may feel strongly about such as what your children should be eating or how much television they should be watching.
- Allow a bit of time for settling in if you possibly can. We try to make sure one of us is around for the first few days so we can go through the routine before they are left to do it alone. We also made a sort of family handbook that included all sorts of things like instructions for using the heating and washing machine and included a section on how we managed our children. We tried hard not to be too prescriptive, but it did mean we didn’t have to bombard them with too much information in the beginning, but let them read it in their own time.
- Busy au pairs are happier. This is not to say they should be busy being an unpaid housekeeper or cook, but our first au pair, who didn’t need to attend language classes, found it very hard to fill her time during the day. We had wondered if this might be an issue and brought it up before she arrived. She seemed to have a clear plan, but in the end, found it hard to motivate herself and was, I think, quite bored. Our current au pair, who attends a language class 3 days a week, is much happier
- Introducing your au pair to other au pairs will pay dividends. It’s a similar point to the one above, but an au pair with friends (and a language course helps with this) will have a busy social life and will be happier.
- At least in the beginning, it is hugely important to make an effort to include your au pair in things. We made a bit of a mistake with our first au pair, as we were so keen to respect her privacy, that if she didn’t appear we left her to her own devices. This meant that she never felt 100% part of the family. I think there was fault on both sides here but it was our responsibility to make her feel welcome and part of the family, and I don’t think we ever fully got there, despite coming on family holidays and eating with us most days. We have tried much harder this time, and our second au pair is much happier to spend time with us if we are going on a family outing or having a cup of tea after dinner, and it’s made for a much more relaxed feeling in the house. If there are any au pairs reading, I really recommend hanging out with the family lots in the beginning. It makes the awkward stage last less long, and once you have established your spot in the household, you can do less of it if you wish.
- If problems arise deal with them quickly. If you don’t, small problems quickly become bigger ones and it can make for awkward discussions. It’s much easier to have a casual word early on than waiting till something is really bothering you. Also it fosters a sense of openness. Your au pair should feel they can come to you with problems they might be having with the children, or mention a dinner they really don’t like without it turning into a major diplomatic incident. Again this is easier if they spend time with you as a family.
- Be kind. A lot of au pairs are very young and very inexperienced, and while it’s frustrating when instructions aren’t followed or things go wrong, try to remember that you probably would have made similar mistakes at their age. I would have been a terrible au pair. It is a hugely brave thing to leave home and cast yourself on the mercy of a family you’ve never met, especially given some of the horror stories I’ve heard. I think the rule is to try and treat them as you’d want your child treated in similar circumstances.
- Enjoy the experience. It can be incredibly rewarding for all concerned if the relationship goes well. I know lots of people who went on to attend their own au pair’s weddings or made lasting family friendships