Advice wanted… best medium & process for communicating expectations?

by cv harquail on April 5, 2009

Calif Mom needs some ideas for upgrading her communication system with her au pair.

homemade_snare_gbg.jpg My AP joined us last summer and is going to extend (yay!). I have been wanting to fine tune some expectations ahead of signing those papers, and have been taking notes on specific things I would like her to start doing more consistently. Our handbook is pretty good, but things like schedule and kids’ needs have changed.

She and I do not have much overlap time (she is not a morning person, and retreats to her room when I come home, which is fine, but makes it difficult to provide feedback in a casual sort of way.)

During her spring break vacation, I spent a lot of time thinking abt how to launch our new “performance management system”, and a key element was going to be email (thanks to that whole discussion about extending the so-so au pair). If we don’t get some of these things to go more smoothly, I’m pretty sure I won’t be thrilled that I chose to extend with her, if you know what I mean.   dog in bed w computer.jpg

Well, now it seems her laptop migrated to a friend when she was on break. She has plans to save money and buy another one but that will be a long time from now. So email will no longer work.

Here’s my plan, please help me fill gaps:
– email (defunct for now)
– Monday night meeting to go over schedule for week ahead
– establishing a system of checklists for each day

I am contemplating whether having a “yes, we want to extend, but here’s what we need to improve” conversation with her, or if that would backfire.

One other factor — her first week back from vacation was a bit of a mess, with late kid pick-ups, forgetting important items, etc. caused by disruption in routine and perhaps lingering distraction of her trip. She feels terrible about the problems, and while I don’t want to hit her while she’s down, I do want to take advantage of the opportunity to ask for some improvements.

As I read it, there are three things Calif Mom needs some ideas around:
1. Which system should she try next for communicating with her au pair? What will replace email effectively?
2. Should she initiate a conversation where a condition of extending is that the ua pair change some of her routines, behaviors, etc.?
3. Should she initiate this conversation right now, while her au pair is aware that she hasn’t been quite up to par this week right after vacation?

rabbit pair in teacups.jpg I’ll jump in with some thoughts about #2

— I think that before you sign the extension papers, you and your au pair need to “reset your expectations” and re-commit to your relationship, if you will.

To frame the conversation, you might suggest that :

(1) One advantage of the conventional year-long stay has been that you would get a new au pair, with new expectations, to fit your needs as the kids grow and life changes.

When you extend with your same au pair, you still need to reassess old systems and create new ones. Only this time, you have to get some one to change her behaviors, not just learn from scratch how to do the au pair job in your particular household.

(2) Another thing is that, you and she are making a legal commitment. Any time she makes a commitment or “enters into a contract” she should always be as clear as possible about what is expected of her and what she expects (of you in this case). That’s just being a smart adult.

SO, she needs to be a smart adult and you need to be a smart adult. You both need to have a clear “reset” conversation about how things will change “now that the kids are older, their routines are changing, and everyone’s needs are changing.”

Other ideas:

You might try using language like “revise” or “change” or “upgrade” or “switch” rather than improve, if you don’t want to lean too heavily on disapproval as a ‘motivator’.

Be ready with some things to offer her… Has she earned any new privileges? Are you able to give her more of something non-monetary? Are you able/willing to change anything about your systems that might help her get something she’d prefer (within reason of course)? She will be getting more of a stipend in recognition of both her experience and the amortization over time of the agency expenses…. but I’m not sure whether your agency gives you any break on the agency fees for the extended months. If they do, you might consider offering this to her as a raise, or telling her you’ll save it up for something like a completion bonus…

Consider, too, if there is anything that you can ask your children to do differently– maybe do a few more chores with supervision, rather than having the au pair do for them, or promising to help your au pair polish her English pronunciation or spelling.

Finally, don’t be too nervous about having the conversation– if she wants to stay she should be willing to revise how things get done. If she’s not willing to make some changes, then really you might be better off with a new au pair…. The important thing is, don’t tempt yourself to think that you can avoid conflicts by just not talking about them. We all know that doesn’t work, even if we fervently wish it did.

I don’t know why the bunnies. They ARE cute, no?

Moms, chime in with ideas!


Deb Schwarz April 5, 2009 at 8:27 am

Hello all,

I was contemplating extending with our “just OK” au pair a few months ago and all my local coordinator friends (the top dogs at Cultural Care) took my aside at an offsite and advised me “NO WAY”. I listened, and didn’t extend – and am soooo thankful – and in fact, didn’t even last the last two months of our year. As my husband always says “there are more where that one came from”. (I think that’s easy for hubbies to say as they do little to “break in the new one” – but there is something to be said for rolling the dice). This post hit a hot button with me because our last one (the one that we didn’t extend with) communicated almost exclusively via text and email. Our new au pair is such a breath of fresh air! – she sits down and has dinner with us, communicates verbally – and we realize what we had missed over the last year. Wow! What a change.

So – I pass along the same advice that I got: If your current au pair is not a a 9 out of 10 (OK – maybe an “8” out of “10”), roll the dice and go for gold! You (and your kids) deserve it!

Franzi April 5, 2009 at 4:48 pm

# 1 i would always prefer direct communication over email or IM. and i would have “that talk” before you are really sure about extending. and i would use that talk to ask her what would work best for her and you in communicating with each other. maybe a set conversation every monday after the kids are in bed (does that work with your work schedule and those of the kids? you would want that to be a fixed appointment every week that doesn’t change every two weeks because of schedule conflicts), or an extra hour in the morning (though that means you are under more time pressure and that might discourage talking about difficult issues that take more time to talk)

# 2 i share cvh’s idea about offering her things/change the current routine. your kids are a year older and they can get more involved in the house than before. use the conversation with your au pair to establish those changes which will result in a changed routine and changed expectations for everyone. while your at it, you can incorporate issues that are bugging you now or that you’d like to see changed.

# 3 i would talk about the post-vacation behaviour separately (and now!). take the being late as example and ask her if she has trouble getting her mind back on the job. she needs to know that you noticed a drop in her performance and that she needs to step up her game in order to have your confidence in extending her.

C April 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Unless English is their first language things can be lost in tranlsation, no matter how great their English has improved. I think having bullet points on paper for the two of you to go through and discuss is good. It also makes a great takeaway piece so she can go back to her room and look up any words, concepts in her dictionary she doesn’t understand.

I wrote my au pair a letter via email, and she completely misinterpreted some sentences and was very, very upset. I still have not been able to resolve that issue.

TMK April 6, 2009 at 12:39 am

Hi, While my first au pair has been OK, I wish I hadn’t leaned too much on the “treat them like family” side of this and added a little more “business” structure. Family members come in all shapes and sizes and some family members we would never allow to care for our children. We can’t choose our relatives but we can choose our au pairs. For my second au pair I am going to interpret “treat them like family ” to mean I will watch out for them and welcome them like a family member but we will still have business elements to our relationship. The first being a Monday morning meeting to discuss what worked well last week and what didn’t, from both our perspectives. And to add, change, update or redirect behavior immediately, rather than waiting until I need an a major talk with her. This meeting will also give me an opportunity to praise behavior I want to reward and give her the “floor” to ask questions or to bring up concerns. The tone will be friendly, the setting casual, but the understanding will be clear that it is about the welfare of the children and how we BOTH contribute to that.
Regarding extending, I would definitely take the opportunity to talk about past problems and future expectations. It can be handled by saying, ” Each year as our children grow and mature they need different things from the caregivers in their lives. Honestly we always thought we would be starting with a new person each year so those changes would have been a natural progression. But because we like you and like the care you provide we are interested in having you extend. Would you be willing to participate in the new system we had planned for this time in our children’s lives. We now want to meet weekly, change our communication processes, update our au pair manual etc…. Is this something you can embrace and willingly participate in? We really want a good fit between our au pair and our new procedures. What are your thoughts about this? …….In this conversation I would include our new procedures about what is expected after a vacation, and I would ” verbally acknowledge” that “I know you had a difficult time after your last vacation and we want to help by writing down some guidelines about what we expect after a break in the childcare schedule”
I have learned this year that I worked too hard trying to be the right kind of host parent when I should have been working to make sure they are the right kind of au pair. I will treat them kindly and lovingly, and with generosity, so I feel ok having guidelines and expectations for them as well. Ultimately the children are the beneficiaries or victims of this system and if I have to ask more to make sure they are properly respected and provided for then I will, and without apology.
Best wishes with your decision!

Calif Mom April 6, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Great advice — on Friday I had set up a Monday evening meeting for tonight, with plans to make it a regular thing, b/c weekend meetings just never seem to work out in practice. Now I’ll build an agenda — it’s nice to hear that I’m on the right track!

Former aupair April 9, 2009 at 2:46 am

Cali mom

The meeting once a week sounds a very good idea! I was an aupair for 2 years and I’m pretty sure that the communication was the key for the success! But don’t forget that as well you are renewing your contract with your aupair because you like here after all, she is also extending with your family because she likes how things works at your house. If you decided to change lots of things, the aupair will fell like she isn’t at the same family she used to like. Leave the big changes for the new aupair and accept your current aupair the way she is right now!

Calif Mom April 9, 2009 at 5:08 am

Thank you, former Au Pair — it is great to hear au pairs’ opinions on these forums! Yes, of course we like her! But the changes that need to happen are not big changes — they are more like remembering to really do the things that are already agreed-upon. I’m not going to ask her to cook or get groceries or any big new chore. But I’m going to ask her to keep the car and the house picked up by the time I get home. I dare say that she likes it here because frankly, I haven’t held her to very high standards at all. If my boss lets me get away with doing lame work when I know I can do better, I don’t necessarily feel good about it, even if my boss is really nice about it. I think we have some of that going on here.

Follow up: Monday meeting was very good. She even brought up a subject that was going to be on my list for a later meeting, so it makes me very happy to know that she, too, is thinking about things that she needs to do. I think maybe the regular meeting will be a big help for us all. Most of all, the kids, because if Mom is happier, then AP is happier, and kids are happier, too. They get the ‘trickle-down’ from all of us.

Ann April 15, 2009 at 5:29 pm

I’ve hosted 2 APs for 3 years (one for two years). In setting expectations, first of all I think you should keep them low. Always remember that these are not trained professional childcare providers; English is not their first language; and for many of them this is their first job ever. And for many they didn’t understand how difficult full-time childcare would be, the AP program was marketed to them as a year of study and tourism.

I’ve lived, studied and worked overseas and can confirm that it’s difficult to understand verbal input 100% in a second (or third) language, especially over the telephone), especially at the end of a long working day when your brain is tired. Foreigners always seem to speak too quickly and there alway some words, expressions, or idioms that you don’t understand.

I’ve had great experiences with my two APs.
-I controlled the quality of who I was getting. I pre-matched with both APs. Now I have the luxury of not only speaking the language of the country they come from, but also having relatives/friends there on the ground who could meet/”check out” both candidates for me. I did choose older APs (over 21, both university graduates) who had worked before. With the 2nd AP I also talked/emailed with all her references directly.

-I set their expectations up front and try to dispel any “romanticism”. I don’t sent my AP handbook to them in advance (that would be too overwhelming), but I do have a 3-5 page “host family letter / job description) that clearly describes the full-time hours I’ll want them to work, what they’ll do during those hours, that they will not be driving but on public transportation, that it is harder in the snowy winter months to get places, that we will be taking just basic family vacations etc. At the same time I try to write up what might be attractive to them (proximity to large metropolis, student night life, nature, etc).

-I do have a long (~20-25p) AP handbook they get upon arrival, that we review and adjust a couple of times during the year when new developments in their personal lives start happening (boyfriend, or going out more with friends). I’ve tried to be more strict at the beginning then relax.

-We have a scheduled house meeting once a week for 1-2 hours after dinner. Usually 1 hour with my husband that’s a general check-in, discussion of parenting/discipline approaches etc, then an hour with just me to discuss AP’s upcoming travel plans, other more personal issues.

-There’s a weekly schedule of activities and homeschooling curriculum topics co-developed by AP and me (I volunteer teach at my daugher’s weekend language preschool so I also offer those materials to the AP); weekly/daily rotating list of typical chores; and a whole bookshelf of books on activity ideas.

-Daily notes/comments by me and AP in the agency’s handbook; also neutral emails by me on some topics I don’t have time to discuss;

-A verbal transition 5-10 minute conversation at start and end of each day (usualy me at start and husband at end); also I ask the AP to call me at work at lunchtime each day to check in. Not only is it a good way to check in on her, but also lately my daughter loves talking to me on the phone.

-I had my last AP overlap for a week to train in the new one in at least the basics, the house was crammed, but it did help.

So most important thing is for you as a host mom to be a teacher and guide and train your AP in everything how you want things as a childcare provider but also in how to be a consumer and tourist in American middle-class life; assume nothing about American (even basic technology like dishwasher) will be familiar to her. So the burden is on host mom; if you are not a clear and organized host parent look first at your training and management style.

I have told my APs I expect professionalism from them as childcare providers during the hours they are on duty; and during those hours I try to behave as a professional employer myself; off duty I say I expect them to be like a responsible adult family member and am more relaxed dwith them.

Please show and try to befriend your APs outside of working hours and show sympathy and interest in their situation. Keep them happy with chances to see American events, people, life. If they are OK with the kids then it’s often just easier to let other things slide. No one is perfect and you will never get the perfect au pair, they will always surprise you with unexpected situations.

So you have to use all means of communication; repetition and writing things down is key because there is so much information to teach them; I find at the 6 month point things are finally going the way I want and then they are already talking about going home…

If things work out well these are young women with whom you hope your family will have a long-term future tie.

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