Simple Families is a blog, podcast, and community that helps parents thrive through simple living. Denaye has a Ph.D. in Child Development and has spent her career coaching families to more harmonious lives with young children. She is the author of Simple Happy Parenting.
As a parent, it’s never easy to trust your kids in the hands of another person. It took me many years to find a solution that fit my ever-changing work schedule and the needs of my growing children.
As life changes, our childcare needs do as well. Two years ago we moved from Texas to New York. In Texas, I had never heard of the au pair program. But quickly upon moving to New York and signing a contract to write a book, I realized this was exactly what we needed.
In a dream world, I could clone myself so that I could easily be writing, building a career, and simultaneously be home nurturing our children. Although that won’t happen in this lifetime, I do think I have found the next best thing: adding a family member through the au pair program. We have loved our experience. These are a few of the things by which we were pleasantly surprised.
A Natural Extension of Family
As a parenting expert, I tend to be a little particular about the way we run our house and raise our children. Okay, my husband might argue that I am very particular. But I’m also realistic—I know that the way I do things is going to be different than another caregiver.
But I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly our au pair assimilated into our family and adapted our parenting style. As I see it, this is the important difference between a nanny and an au pair: The nanny arrives when you leave for work, and she departs when you return home. There is very little overlap in time and opportunity for him or her to observe your family rhythms and habits. On the other hand, the au pair has an inside perspective about how you nurture and speak to your children as well as manage behavior.
Research shows us that humans learn better by observing and practicing as opposed to being told what to do. I had to do very little actual “teaching” and instead saw her seamlessly pick up the pieces by merely being included in regular family life with us.
Broader Cultural Awareness
I had zero expectation that my children would be speaking fluent Polish by the end of the year. They did pick up on some words and songs, but I found the more subtle pieces of cultural transmission were the most valuable. They have eaten new foods, fell asleep to new lullabies, and helped execute a mostly traditional Polish Christmas.
But more than this, I was pleasantly surprised to see my children tuning into the larger world around them. They now pay attention when they hear strangers speaking a foreign tongue. They want to read books about the way kids live in other parts of the world. I see their minds opening to new cultures, new mindsets, and new perspectives. I see the sparks of curiosity being lit.
The Beauty of the Short-Term Program
In the first months of her arrival, I was already scheming about ways that I could get her to extend her planned one-year stay. The standard program is one-year, but there are options to extend for 6, 9, or 12 months. However, if I’m being totally honest here, taking care of children is utterly exhausting. Even with my own kids, I can easily get worn down and burnt out.
So for many families and au pairs, one to two years may seem brief but it can also be a magic window of time. Both parties enter into the year with the sense of energy and excitement, and towards the end of the time, they have the opportunity to part ways on positive terms. I think any of us would be hard pressed to find a full-time child care provider that can bring substantial enthusiasm year-after-year to the same job. Humans grow and develop through change and new opportunities. I personally think there is something to be said about having a fresh start and new blood in the house.
We’ve had a fabulous first year and look forward to welcoming a new au pair this summer. And I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, just like when you add children to your family, your heart will grow with each new au pair.
Denaye, her husband and her two children live in New York. Her Polish au pair just returned home after a wonderful year with them, and they are excited to welcome their new au pair from Colombia in July!