Au Pair’s Attitude is a Downer: Can we get her to change?

by cv harquail on October 18, 2017

“A wet blanket” “Debbie Downer” “Sad Sack” “Uninspiring”

2429390000_5b4e0e2d3e_mWhat a drag to imagine these words characterizing your Au Pair.

When an Au Pair has a “not optimistic” attitude towards the every day, it’s hard to imagine them adding to the family spirit rather than subtracting from it.

Is it possible to get an Au Pair to change their behavior?  Can we ask them to automatically add “thank you”s and “sure thing”s to their interaction with us?


HostMomMarie wants to know:

I am a mom of two young girls in the Northeast, with our second AP (from Northern Europe) who’s been with us for two months.

Our first AP was a super rock star – just in every.single.way. a rock star and a great “fit” for us – we knew we were being spoiled and hope we are not expecting too much of our 2d AP.

Our second Au Pair is totally FINE. She is highly responsible, patient, and the girls seem to enjoy her for the most part. However ~~

It bugs the heck out of me is that she never says “thank you” for things big or small. I want the girls to learn that “thank you” and “please” are the proper terms to REGULARLY use. And, I’m just not used to giving someone something – as small as bringing her a glass of water to an expensive take out meal from date night – and not getting any response.

I’ve tried talking to her and there was some small improvement but not much and the human part of me doesn’t want to get her those nice things if I don’t hear that she actually is happy to receive them. I’m not sure if this is a challenge of happiness or a challenge of manners, because….

In the morning if she is not “on duty”, when we say “Good morning” she replies with a grunt. As soon as she starts her shift we get a little more from her, but not much.

It annoys me (and especially my husband) that the girls have to be around someone so cold — I wonder if there’s anything we can do. Are we being too demanding?

I’ve spoken with her directly about how the way we do things is certainly not the “right way” but that the kids are used to people greeting them and being friendly and we would like to see that. It’s just not in her I think. It’s just uncomfortable to be around and bums me out that our home environment feels like a drag with her around.

What can we do?

Image: Elisa Dudnikova on Flickr


DCmom October 18, 2017 at 10:36 am

What I’ve learned from more experienced host parents is that we tend to forgive the annoyances when our AP is a rock star, but the annoyances grate on us if the AP is only ok. Can you involve your LCC and have a frank conversation that AP NEEDS to be able to make social niceties such as saying “good morning” and “thank you”? It seems minor, but what happens if she does it on a bad day and you finally lose it? I think this falls under “personality mismatch” for rematch: there’s nothing technically wrong with your AP, but she drives you bonkers. Alternatively, if you stick it out, then you’re in the situation of counting down the months and days, then celebrating when she’s gone. Ideally, AP can adapt. However, what’s your threshold for if she won’t?

EDB October 18, 2017 at 11:52 am

I read this blog all the time and never comment, but this really hit a nerve for me. This was the story of our 2016. That au pair (who was #4) was from Eastern Germany and was also “fine.” She did the job. She was on time. She was reliable. The kids loved her. But she was also like having a black cloud in the house. I was thrilled when she left. She meant well, but she was just such a complete downer and looking back, really affected my mood as well. While we felt we couldn’t make a change due to a crazy time at work I was in at the time, looking back we should have parted ways sooner. She could have been a terrific au pair for someone else and in some ways it is too bad that she didn’t get to shine in the role either. She just wasn’t a great fit. It took having a new (terrific!) au pair arriving in 2017 to realize how poor that year really was. You can ask a lot of things of someone, but it wouldn’t have been fair (or effective) for me to ask her to change her personality.

Bridges&Tunnels October 19, 2017 at 8:36 am

Yep, completely agree!! This was my situation. The problem with personality issues is that you keep justifying that there is no “real reason” to rematch.

newAPmom October 18, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I would say don’t let her make you miserable in your own home. If she can’t change then she needs to go.

Alexandra Hinkle October 18, 2017 at 12:37 pm

I just found this website today as I searched for advice on this exact topic. She has been here 3 weeks and her energy is low, she doesn’t speak to us or our child unless necessary (although she speaks the language), no smiles or laughter. I worry, especially since our last Au Pair connected with us and was my daughter’s best friend that the new one being such a downer will cause my daughter to have a hard time transititioning and really miss our last au pair. She isn’t doing anything wrong – so is it wrong to ask for a rematch. Following thread – I feel your pain.

Dorsi October 19, 2017 at 12:36 pm

I think you are in a different situation than the original poster. No smiles or laughter is a huge red flag. It is not wrong to ask for a rematch – “warm and loving” are legitimate job requirements.

It might be best to start with a conversation about how the Au Pair thinks she is doing, if she is happy, etc. Then move on to the idea that she doesn’t seem happy and connected. Then give some specific goals. And involve your LCC.

TexasHM October 19, 2017 at 1:19 pm

I dont know the OP mentioned her AP was “cold” as well and expressed concern that their girls were around someone like that all the time. Sounds the same to me but maybe I am missing something.

Anna October 18, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Is she good at communicating in general? Does she talk, share with you on other things and topics and seems interested in getting to know you, letting you to get to know her, and having a human relationship? If yes, I think there is hope to getting her to adjust to our culture.

I would be blunt with her and tell her exactly how her behavior affects your relationship with her. She will realize that this is not neutral, that this negatively affects your opinion of her as a person, and of her attitude and goodwill towards you and your family.

Virginia October 19, 2017 at 6:56 am

Oh sounds like one we had. It was so paintful to be around her. No smile, no words, everything was bad, lot so shoulder shrugs and rolling eyes. These are the words that summed her up: introverted teenager whose parents have spoiled her. I had days when I would hide from her so she won’t spoil my good mood.

Bridges&Tunnels October 19, 2017 at 8:34 am

I think attitude can be changed. The bigger issue is how forgiving we can be during the process. Because it is really hard living with an au pair that you are already pissed off with, regardless of how well she’s changing.

I had a conversation with my Chinese aupair who was so judgy of the “permissiveness” of my parenting, saying the kids need to learn to obey. She is stern with them and overrides their opinions all the time. I got her parenting books to read to help her find a different style. It takes a very long time to change the attitude though, with starts and stops. During this time it drove me insane. I can’t stop myself from feeling pissed off that she feels that way eventhough I know intellectually it is fair for her to have her own opinions about parenting. And every time she stands there pursing her lips while looking at the kids i felt a bile rising. She tries to change, and i try to not feel pissed off. In the end, i requested for a rematch because there is no use both the au pair and I having to try so hard to feel comfortable in our own home.

Ex-SA Aupair October 19, 2017 at 9:04 am

I was once a Au-Pair in the USA from South Africa, and i had noticed that especially au-pairs from European countries get effected from culture shock,you have to realize that they are miles away from home and everything they know. Our up bringing is very different from the US. I Au-paired when i was 19yrs and again when i was 25/ 27yrs. Lucky i’m open to trying new experiences and wasn’t affected much with Culture shock ,except what made me very paranoid was that US family’s let there children play in the street, walk to school or park. Which affected the eldest child i was looking after as i wouldn’t let her out of my eyesight when we used to walk home from school with her siblings, which she eventually complained to her parents who had to sit down with me and asked me to stop. When i eventually told them why i did it ,they understood. In South Africa our crime rate is very high and there are so many cases of children being raped. Not only are you trusting us with your children’s lives but what if she got kidnapped on the way home ,because she used to make sure she was at least a block away from me and her sisters, if a car pulled up next to her and someone jumped out and took her , by the time i would of gotten to her the car would of been long gone. And who would be blamed but the Au-pair.

I did see among my au pair friends that some US family’s paint this wonderful image but far from what they portraited, and the same apply’s with the Au Pair. I was one of the blessed ones and fell in the jackpot and got the BEST Family’s ever.

I think sit the Au Pair down and get to know her, ask her about her culture , her interests and show her not only is she a guest in your home but you and your family are making her apart of your family. Explain to her the importance of manners that you want your children to learn, and what a role model she will become to your children. Also show interest in her country ,let her teach you some of her language.

Ask what made her become a Au Pair. Don’t give up on her i think she’s just has the bad case of culture shock. GOOD LUCK ….

Aspie Mom October 23, 2017 at 2:29 pm

I think this is the tack I would take. Frame it as her being a role model for the kids. I don’t think you can expect her to always say please and thank you when the kids aren’t around, but if she starts that habit in front of the kids maybe she will start doing it when the kids aren’t around. I don’t think it has to be a rematch issue, but as Bridges&Tunnels said. Your AP should be making your life easier. If she is making your life a lot harder, rematch should not be off the table.

Vainilla Ex Au Pair October 19, 2017 at 12:41 pm

She’s not changing because it just who she is. As others said before: don’t let her make you uncomfortable in your own house.
Communications skills and good manners (gee, you are entitled a “good morning” wave everyday, aren’t you?) are a requeriment for applying as an au pair. She just doesn’t have them.

TexasHM October 19, 2017 at 1:31 pm

It is my general understanding that personality mismatch and driving are the top two reasons for rematch and there is a reason for that. While personality “differences” may sound fluffy I am pretty sure if you talk to divorcees that filed that paperwork you will get an earful and I think it’s the same here.
At the end of the day, there are a couple of things at play here. You need to decide what the job requirements are for your au pair and what your expectations are of your au pair when it comes to relationship. Some families want a professional relationship and might do perfectly fine with your current AP. Others might want someone very warm and bonded and member of the family in which case someone that is cooler and doesn’t want that bond would never work.
Some cultures are generally known to be more “warm” or “cool” but even that will vary. I once asked a German AP that was at our house a lot where I would interview in Germany to find a “warm, sporty/low maintenance German with a sense of humor” and she told me to “stick with the warm countries” I had already had success with for our family/needs (Brazil, South Africa in particular). We had a good laugh about it but she was serious.
I personally had pined for a German from the beginning when I first heard about the program and here we are almost 7 years in and we finally have our German unicorn but even she is much cooler/less emotive than any other AP I have hosted and I know she loves us and the kids. She has learned to be a little more emotive and has gotten used to the “fakeness” lol of Americans and even appears to maybe like the pleasantries now but it definitely was not her normal and she is only half German. ;)
It’s really hard to teach gratefulness and convince someone to be warmer or have a better attitude. In our case when we struggled at first we talked openly about it all and then gave it a little time. Ultimately it was up to our AP if she was willing to change her outlook or not. Luckily she did but if she did not we would definitely have rematched. As others have said, there is a lid for every pot and she can absolutely be successful/find a better fit elsewhere especially if you reference her. Also, she might not love it/be comfortable in your home for the exact opposite of the reasons you listed so it might be a relief to you both actually (assuming you take the high road and reference her and house her and take the fear element out).
Either way, talk to her openly (sounds like you did), keep your LC in the loop, give her clear action items with timelines to improve and if it doesn’t turn around quickly then find a better fit. Sticking with OK is death by a thousand paper cuts…

Bitka October 19, 2017 at 8:43 pm

Au pairs and HP should be informed more about social interactions. Yes, Europeans portrays people in USA as being fake and it makes them resentful even more. In your Au pair case it seems that she is there to do the job. Maybe she doesn’t want to be bothered every time when you see her.

Elizabeth October 19, 2017 at 9:12 pm

Hi, I am the OP and I really appreciate the advice and connection I get from you all! The “no thank you” thing really bugs the heck out of me and I feel badly about it. My daughter told the AP earlier after I thanked the AP for her work that day, “you’re supposed to say your welcome!” – ugh. it’s not like we are obsessive about it but her lack of response is noticeable to all. Anyway, what also helped me was reading older posts where HMs shared that how the AP is around you may be different than the kids and I have noticed that – that she is quietly sweet and playful with the kids but more reserved with me. I’m going to give it time I guess – honestly it drives my husband the most nuts and I don’t want to hear his complaining anymore LOL! the AP says she’s happy and said, any way we are so great (like over the top) when I asked her (her FB page and other media have posts how incredibly happy is) but you’d NEVER know it. I cringe every time she is in my kitchen, pulls into the drive, way. She was so peppy in our many Skype talks – so confused.

Schmetterfink October 20, 2017 at 6:59 am

You really shouldn’t be cringing every time she walks into the room! No matter how good she is with the kids, she also needs to be a decent room mate to you. Sit her down (again) and tell her what you need. Teach her to fake it til she makes it.

Without knowing the full situation… my guess is that it could well be both a personality as well as a cultural problem.

In Germany for example you typically don’t get a “Thank you” for simply doing your work. For going an extra mile, doing something completely extraordinary, maybe but definitely not for simply doing what you are expected (and paid) to do. If somebody told me “Thank you for doing your job” when I leave the office, I would be dumbfounded. My answer would probably be “Aha” or “Mhm”. Now, had I just organized dinner for 25 people, for tonight, with calling three dozen restaurants because there is a huge fair in town, I would expect a thank you and I would react accordingly (though the “You are welcome” would most likely be followed by some type of ‘not a big deal’ and most likely a ‘that’s what I am here for’). It’s difficult to explain I guess. We are just as expected to do our jobs as we are to turn the water off after washing our hands. We have no idea how to react to a thank you in such a situation.
I think that at least Finland and Norway are somewhat similar in that respect. My Finnish friend has three kids (4-12) who barely squeeze out a thank you in an everyday situation (after lunch, when getting ice cream in the zoo etc.). I usually bring presents, those do get a kiitos but other than that? My Norwegian friend found my (acquired in the US) habbit to constantly thank people for the smallest thing odd. My colleague still thinks it’s strange that our (US American) boss thanks us for everything from handing him a pen to posting his letters (which is our job, so no real need for a thank you).
For me? As soon as I switch to English my personality changes into that fluffy, huggy, warm, out-going, witty, gentle person that is so contrary to my calm, stoic, reserved, blunt, and anxious German personality that it feels like being two different people in one body. (There actually is really interesting reseach on personality in multi-linguals)

From your example of “as small as bringing her a glass of water to an expensive take out meal from date night” – a family member or close friend handing you a glass of water would (culturally) most likely not require more than half a smile or a nod, a take out meal from date night (unless it’s your leftovers, which I assume it’s not) would definitely ask for a thank you though, especially if it’s something you got because you knew it would be appreciated (a favorite food or something ‘exotic’ to try).

The cultural issue, I think is something that can be worked on. “I know it might not be as it’s done where you are from but here if x happens we do y and I want the kids to learn that because they live here and need to fit in here.” Some personality issues might work themselves out over time (if she is more reserved towards you than the kids she might simply need some more time to find her place in your family dynamics or might have to figure out for herself how she fits in and how the relationship between the two/three of you is supposed to work), little issues that come from different upbringing, maybe different expectations and just being used to things being done differently may just disappear over time. However, do not think that you (and that includes you, your husband, your children AND her) have to suffer through the year if you notice that the personality mismatch still makes you cringe after she has worked on it for another month or so. If you need her to work on it, she needs to work on it.

Chicago Host Mom October 19, 2017 at 11:05 pm

She might be shy. We had a lovely au pair #6 who was so low key and reserved that we weren’t sure she had a good year at all, and then when we friended her on FB at the end of the year (I always wait), she had a FABULOUS year. She was just an introvert. That said, she wasn’t a downer – just quiet. we have had two Debbie downers over the last decade and I have little tolerance for that now. In both cases we should have rematched. I work in client service and so I expect a little pep and a nice “good morning” and “have a nice day” out of my au pair in the morning – just like I deliver at work even if I’m not excited. I say discuss it with her and see if she adapts. It sounds possibly like a combo of cultural difference, introverted personality, and possibly youth or different upbringing. If it is bringing you (or DH down), and she can’t adapt, rematch. There are so many great au pairs out there.

ConnectMom October 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm

And what about if is the opposite situation? Don’t you think our often au pair has been called upon to deal with problems and bad moods from us?

Taking a Computer Lunch October 21, 2017 at 11:06 pm

You’ve had a great response both from the HF and the AP point of view. My guess, at two months, your AP is still feeling “new” and trying to figure out how she fits in with the family. If your child is queuing your new AP on expected manners in your household, then it is up to you to reinforce it. “X is right, in the house, we expect a ‘thank you’.” Say it pleasantly and with a smile.

I had the pleasure of hosting 11 out of 13 of my APs. Even from the two for which I did not particularly care, I learned something. From the other 11 I learned loads!

My advice. Have a conversation – in the evening after your kiddos have gone to bed and when it’s convenient for your AP. She can’t read your mind nor you hers. You have the upper hand as her employer. Rather than expecting thank you, tell her you want a sentence – but understand that even if she’s fluent in English she may still be exhausted by having to spend every working minute thinking in English! Some of my German APs were perfectionists and really took several months to join in the dinner table conversation and convey their wants, needs and feelings. Some of them really felt like part of the family from day one – they just couldn’t convey it.

And while my Brazilian APs were great with my kids when they were babies, they were lousy at treating them like independent people. The European APs might not have been so cuddly, but child #2 gained real independence under their tutelage (and the Camel, who will never be independent, was truly loved and cuddled – but pushed to do as much as she was able for herself).

The great thing about the AP program is that you get to figure out what works best for your family. While some families never host a northern European, for mine German APs who had completed an Ausbildung that included caring for people with special needs was perfect.

The Camel is now older than 18 and no longer eligible for an AP. I truly, truly, truly miss the flexibility and love. Nurses are okay, they’re just not APs. On the other hand, my typically developing child is capable of cooking a meal, doing his laundry, being responsible for remembering everything he needs for school, and getting around on his own. German APs, while seemingly cold, really helped him learn to be responsible and he thrived under their care (and loved them enough to cry at the airport when they left).

If you don’t think this young lady fits well into your household, at least give her fair warning that she doesn’t match up to your expectations. I always tried to treat my APs the same way I wanted my supervisor to treat me – and part of it was to give an opportunity to reset one’s attitude.

cv harquail October 22, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Oh TACL I love that you still come and share your wisdom!

Elizabeth October 22, 2017 at 8:29 pm

Yes thank you TACL and all the HMs with experience – so helpful. We are having a sit-down to discuss this and our noise issue – making breakfast at 4 am before a road trip, at 11 pm at night making tons of noise. It’s taken us five years to get our kids to sleep thru the night and now we’re being woken up but I tell my husband we must accept for having another in our family. She doesn’t get the be quiet at night though – just like I’d expect from a guest or hubby.

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