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Being an au pair is certainly an experience that I will never forget. I couldn’t forget the fun and cute times with the kids and the nice bonding I’ve had with my host parents. I’ll always remember this whole experience as a collection of sweet and lovely moments. But fact is, there were frustrating ones too.
There is no perfect au pair experience and it’s indeed a learning one that helps you become a better person. Mine was a combination between feeling greatly welcomed and appreciated and being an outsider. I was not only the temporary “family member” but at the end just an employee. It’s an understandibly tricky balance to mantain.
But looking back, I’m very grateful to have found the family I did and glad to have chosen this experience. I developed a kind and friendly relationship with the family with whom I remain in very good contact.
Sadly, not all cases have happy endings.
Being an au pair can vary from being the most beautiful experience to the most dreadful one. The type of horror stories I’ve learned about both awful au pairs and abusing families are overwhelming. Some families have been used by au pairs to enter the country with a visa without any interest in bonding with them or doing any actual au pair task. On the other hand, there have been au pairs that have been treated like cheap labor and assigned more tasks than what its legally allowed. Those are just the most typical examples.
The whole point of being/having an au pair is going through an intercultural experience in which both parties benefit from each other. This is a program that offers the chance for cultural integration and the learning of a new language to young foreigners interested in spending a significant amount of time in the host country, while simultaneously giving local families a great opportunity for counting on flexible care for their kids out of a rich intercultural experience.
You just have to follow the rules… and there lies a problem for many.
How Things Go Great & Wrong: Do’s and Don’t’s.
Great But False First Impressions. First impressions are indeed very important, but they can also be far from reality. Both au pairs and host families can easily present themselves very well. Besides, it’s not hard to know what the other party wants to hear, neither is it to make up past experiences and positive stories. An additional problematic factor is the poor communication between each other due to the language barriers. So all this makes completely relying on first impressions from Skype interviews a terrible idea – however, there’s hardly a better way.
What to do:
- If possible, try to meet in person. But as it’s usually not that way, try to set as much Skype appointments as possible and connect on a more personal level with each other.
- If you both speak fluent English or another language, please use it at this stage.
- Consider reference letters as proof of experience.
- Future au pairs: talk to previous au pairs, if there is one.
Different Intentions & Expectations. People around the world interpret the concept of this experience in different ways. It’s important to understand what the intentions and prospects of each party are and how the cultural differences have an influence on them. Many au pairs are looking for an affordable way of immigrating into another country, some for romantic reasons, others for a chance to travel low-cost, etc. Families just want a big sibling with a flexible schedule to help them with their little ones and some light household tasks, some also look at it as an opportunity for their kids to learn a new language (or improve it).
What to do:
- Be clear, straight, and specific with your expectations. Say what you want and what you don’t out of the experience. Tell the au pair you want her/him to bond with the kids and not be absent and partying the whole time. Tell the family you don’t want to be treated as cheap labor and you are well aware of what you legally are obliged to. I’d assume you’ll be well informed.
- Be honest with your intentions. Say you want to travel and have fun. Tell the au pair what kind of help you really need from them (which should be limited to what the law states), just don’t sugar coat their tasks.
- Don’t be afraid to share your fears and impressions of other bad experiences with each other.
- Au pairs, you can have fun and your independence while being respectful. You can party but be aware of the limits. It’s possible to enjoy your time in that country, but don’t act as a rebel immature teenager who are just using a family for your benefits without giving back. That’s just low.
Cultural Differences vs. Irresponsibility. Without any doubt, cultural shock will happen. If not for the family, definitely for the au pair. But that’s not news flash. However, not all behaviors are justified by cultural differences. The way each person treats each other has also a lot to do with respect and sensibility, which to a point is a universal knowledge. This is something both parts can fail to understand.
What to do:
- Be sensitive and considerate. Families, try to constantly remember that being an au pair is not easy. Sure, you are giving them all they need, but au pairs are going through a bigger cultural shock than you probably are. It’s not nice being away from home and living with people culturally different from you while adapting to a strange environment. Sometimes au pairs need their space or also the opposite: more bonding.
- Be responsible with your contract and make sure both are equally aware of what “light household tasks” really means. This can be glady misinterpreted to benefit both sides. Au pairs, you signed a contract and you have to follow it, just as in any work relationship. When you sign one, it is assumed you read and understood the conditions. Please make sure they are in line with what the law states and agree since the beginning what you and the family understand under “light household tasks.”
- Don’t forget your impact on the kids’ development. Children are an absorbing sponge, they learn quick and follow your behaviours. So be careful with your actions, set a good example and most importantly, bond with them. Commiting to be an au pair is to be constantly aware of how you can affect the kids, who have no fault of whatever situation there is.
Many underestimate the importance this experience plays for both sides. Of course, everyone wants a good and succesful one, but many lack the compromise, patience, and empathy to go through it as one should.
This is not for everyone.
At the end, both sides shouldn’t forget they are dealing with human beings who have feelings and are looking to lead an enjoyable life. Communication from start to end is the key to everything. Once you have that, finding a balance between maintaining a personal and professional relationship will get much easier.
If you’d like to have any advice, share your experience or add something to the conversation, please let me know on the comment section below! 🙂