This post’s advice comes from Julie Dye, a local childcare consultant (LCC) and host mom in Boulder, Colorado. As a former exchange student and active traveler, Julie is super passionate about the cultural exchange experience and has enjoyed opening her family’s home and lives to 6 au pairs, the last of whom arrived from Switzerland this past January. Julie is well-known and respected for her sage advice in the Cultural Care community, and was happy to share her thoughts on what host families can do if they would like their au pairs to be taking more initiative when on-duty.
When I speak with host families, one frustration I sometimes hear is that their au pair does not take initiative. Sometimes even when host parents have repeatedly given their au pair the feedback “We want you to take initiative” they feel their au pair has not made any changes. As I see in nearly every situation, clear and realistic expectations and communication can improve the outcome. The following are some things families can do to help their au pairs be successful at taking more initiative.
1. Communicate exactly what “taking the initiative” means and give specific examples
Explain to your au pair that taking initiative means to take action without being asked. Be specific: “By initiative we mean that instead of us asking you to bring out the art supplies and do crafts with the kids this morning, you would think of those projects yourself and do them without us having to tell you.” Clarify that initiative can show not only in how she interacts with your children, but also what she does around the house with child-related tasks. You might not have asked her to organize the bookshelf, but explain how much you appreciate it when she recognizes it needs to be done and does it on her own. Remember that no au pair, no matter how great she is, can read your mind. Recognize the difference between what you want and what you’re communicating. If you need more from her, you need to ask for it.
2. Ask your au pair what initiative she thinks she is already taking
Find out what your au pair thinks she is doing that is above and beyond what you ask of her. In many cases, the au pair is doing tasks that you have not noticed. (If this is true, make sure to acknowledge her efforts.) If she can’t think of any examples of taking initiative, it will help her realize there is room for improvement.
3. Understand the cultural differences the affect initiative
It’s common in many cultures for an employee to fear criticism from an employer for making a mistake, so rather than take initiative and do something wrong, an au pair might stick to what host parents have told her to do. For example, in parts of the world, it can be considered extremely rude for a younger woman in a household to cook without being asked—though most of us would LOVE if our au pairs took that initiative, wouldn’t we? You can better understand these differences by having a discussion with your au pair about what is normal in her family and country.
4. Role model your values—and ask the au pair to do the same
The best leaders don’t just give orders, they inspire—and you can do the same to help your au pair take more initiative. For example, after a meal, you can show your au pair how easy and helpful it is to not only clean up your own dishes, but also help with general dinner clean up. As you are getting the children ready in the morning or for bed show her how taking a couple of minutes to pick up pajamas or clothes before you go helps save time later on. I recommend having your au pair shadow you as you do some of these tasks yourself and talk through your logic out loud. It also helps if you enlist your au pair to serve as a role model for the children—“Please clean up after each activity with the children because we want them to understand what they should do.”
5. Create a structure for initiative
For those au pairs who feel more comfortable with structure, try setting up a calendar to encourage initiative-taking. For example, each Monday your au pair can search Pinterest for a craft to do with the kids; on Tuesdays she can clean or organize a different spot in the children’s room or play area; on Wednesdays, ask her to take the kids on different walk through the neighborhood; on Thursdays, she can try preparing a different food for the children to try; and every Friday ask your au pair to teach your kids a new word in her language.
6. Let your au pair make mistakes
Try to look at mistakes as learning opportunities. When your au pairs know that mistakes won’t lead to retribution, but are instead viewed as a basis for learning for everyone, she will be more willing to take initiative and offer additional suggestions and ideas.
7. Provide clear and continued feedback
Getting your au pair to take more initiative will require meaningful feedback. Sometimes I have seen host parents try to be so gentle with an au pair in delivering negative feedback, the au pair will walk away feeling praise. It’s important to offer feedback, support and encouragement on an ongoing basis, recognizing both your au pair’s strengths and the opportunities for improvement.
8. Keep your expectations realistic
Being an au pair is often a very busy and demanding job. Most host parents realize the level of engagement caring for children requires, but sometimes we ask more of our au pairs than even we are capable. When I occasionally come home to a messy house, I have to remind myself that I also have trouble keeping the house clean when watching the kids all day and I shouldn’t expect more of my au pair than I can do. Many au pairs, especially those who work close to the 45 hour a week maximum, find it very difficult to go above and beyond when the expectations for what they do on duty are already very high. I’ve heard from host families that their au pair “does exactly what is asked of her; nothing more.” While this can be intended as a criticism, this can also be a sign of a great au pair! It means that she is listening to you and following your rules.
Host families, do you have any other advice for parents struggling with this issue? What has worked for you in the past? We look forward to hearing any additional feedback.