“When it works well, it’s amazing,” said LuAnn, our Cultural Care Local Childcare Consultant (LCC), as we wrapped up our first year of the au pair program. The LCC is the representative that lives within the local community and is a resource/mentor for both the host families and au pairs.
We were in our exit review preparing to say goodbye to our au pair, who at this point had truly become a member of our family and a partner with us in raising our children.
We have had an amazing experience with the au pair program. While some of that may have been ‘luck’, we also approached the process with care and intention. Although the au pair can often take on a big-sister/big-brother type role, this person is still responsible for the well-being and care of your children. As a host parent, you have expectations and responsibilities for this person.
Your responsibility is to be sure that you are communicating those expectations in a supportive, empathic, and effective manner. When you do so, you will find your au pair will not only be a family member and a friend, but also your partner in child-rearing. These five tips will help you and your au pair become a successful team.
Keep it Real
Don’t: Tell your au pair that this is going to be a “cake-walk”.
Do: Be honest about the challenges you face as a parent.
During the matching process I don’t sugarcoat anything. The position of a full-time childcare provider is not an easy job. It’s physically and mentally demanding. As a former stay-at-home-mother I know this reality first hand and communicate this to all au pair candidates. I speak honestly about the challenges I face as a parent. We don’t expect our au pairs to be perfect, but we do expect them to be eager to learn and do their best.
Get Your Own Business in Order
Don’t: Expect your au pair to read your mind.
Do: Set detailed, written expectations of the au pair’s duties.
In parenthood, it’s easy to get into our own rhythm and routines that are necessary to get the job done. Many of these routines exist only in our minds. In order to successfully transition the au pair into a role as childcare provider, you need to be able to take these duties and expectations out of your mind and put them clearly onto paper.
Writing these things down helps us to successfully communicate what we need from our au pair. Personally, we present our au pair with a concise list of childcare duties in a family meeting after the first week—giving her a few days to acclimate to some of the basics in our home. In that meeting, we talk through each task slowly and invite her to ask questions and give input.
Give the Au Pair time to Shadow You
Don’t: Expect the au pair to hit the ground running full speed.
Do: Give the au pair time and space to learn.
This person may be brand new to America—so if they look a little overwhelmed don’t be surprised. In the first days, try not to bombard your au pair with too much critical information all at once (see #2, put the important stuff in writing and sit down to talk when you have your au pair’s undivided attention).
When it comes to raising children, it is far more effective to show than it is to tell. Give the au pair time to shadow you with the kids. Invest the time in showing her how you manage the home and handle challenges with the children. Be clear that you expect her to be watching, paying attention, and asking questions during this shadowing time.
In the beginning, consider taking some time off work or working a few shorter days for this shadowing to take place. If this isn’t possible, have consistent family meetings. Ask your au pair to take notes on challenging interactions and dilemmas that come up throughout the day and troubleshoot them with you. Tell her that you want her to come to the meetings with written questions for discussion.
Check for Understanding
Don’t: Bark out orders and demands.
Do: Speak with kindness and check for understanding.
You have to speak so that your au pair will listen. In the early days you will be building an important emotional connection. Ask them how they are doing, give hugs, and share emotional experiences and life changes of your own that may connect with your au pair. Also encourage your au pair to set goals for his/her year with you, including helping to make plans for traveling, brainstorming ideas for classes, and teaching about the nuances of American culture.
Once you have this personal connection, it will be easier to talk about important and challenging topics that come with family life.
Remember that English probably isn’t your au pair’s first language. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself and paraphrase when you are communicating something important. This will help to ensure understanding—because occasionally things can get lost in translation with even the best English-speakers.
Praise. Praise. Critique. Praise.
Don’t: Point out all the things the au pair is doing wrong.
Do: Tell him/her how pleased you are with the things they are doing right.
Sandwich the critiques between the praise. Find lots of positive things for which to praise your au pair. Let them know when they are doing things right. Maybe you tell the au pair that you see the kids light up when he/she is around. Or perhaps that they fold laundry better than anyone else in the family. When you give them with praise, it will become easier for them to take feedback on things they need to improve.
If you take the time to invest in the relationship with your au pair, you will reap the rewards. Because “when it works well, it’s amazing”.