When Your Au Pair’s Efforts to Help Just Make Things Worse

by cv harquail on February 10, 2015

You know it’s a sad story when it begins … “One weekend in an effort to emulate Martha Stewart…”

… I lovingly planted thyme in between the flagstones of my back patio. My plan was for the herbs to fill in the dirt lines, crowd out the weeds, and offer up a fragrance when we walked around the picnic table. I was extraordinarily pleased with my results, considering this a weekend well spent making my backyard oh so very elegant.

A month later my parents-in-law came to visit, and while I was at work one day, Grandpa “weeded” my patio– ripping put all the lovely thyme.

He was so proud to have helped.

I was devastated. Instead of crying, though, I groped for a phrase I’d learned in my favorite parenting book:

Honor the impulse. Honor the impulse.

There’s always a healthy impulse behind a child’s behavior.

What’s true for children and Grandpas is also true for au pairs.  When they do stuff that freaks you out– before you react — “honor the impulse”.

That was my first thought whenI read Unhelped HostMom‘s email. She’s struggling with the issue of an au pair who aims to be helpful but who ends up causing more commotion.   

She writes:

I’m hoping the community would be willing to share some of their collective wisdom on my issue.  I’m really not sure how to proceed with this on my own.

Our au pair in summary: she’s generally on top of things, I have no ‘deal breaker concerns’, she’s on top of safety matters with the kids but she’s overly ‘helpful’.   She makes very gracious attempts to go above and beyond, most of which however cause me more work.   I’m looking for a way to address the situation without de-motivating her.

Here is an example to better illustrate my issue:

My daughter had been painting in the kitchen after school (on AP’s watch) and there was minor paint splatter on the kitchen floor, which I noticed the next morning at breakfast.  On the way out the door, I asked AP if she’d mind wiping up the mess with some damp paper towel after she took the kids to the school bus.  I envisioned this as a two minute task.
prarent bookWhen I got home from work she’d mopped the entire main floor of the house.  It was a very nice gesture, but she’d mopped tile floor using Murphy’s Oil Soap and left a giant smudgy residue which took me an hour to re-clean that evening.  I don’t feel like I can correct her because: she was trying to be nice and I’ve never shown her what floor soap to use (because mopping is NOT her job!).

I would just let this go, but this is just one example of many of her attempts to help which unfortunately cause more work and headaches in the end.   

Other examples include overfeeding pets, shrinking laundry and rearranging kitchen cupboards.   In all cases, her intentions are genuine, but the outcome causes me grief.   I don’t want to teach her how to do the jobs ‘properly’ because these are not her jobs.  I really wish she’d stick to her childcare tasks as she honestly doesn’t know what she’s doing in the housework department.

Overall she’s a good AP, not a superstar, but good.   Her helpfulness is done on her own time and doesn’t cut into the other work she has been assigned.   I’m at a loss on how to address this with her.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.  ~ Unhelped HostMom




TexasHM February 10, 2015 at 7:55 pm

Wow interesting dilemma. First off it’s great that your AP aims to please/help and it’s great that you are trying to be sensitive as not to demotivate her. The first question I had when reading this was does she have some reason that she is trying so hard? Meaning did her best AP friend just get surprised by her HPs sending her into rematch or does she have reason to feel like she isn’t doing a good enough job? (Did she fail the driving test and you are still making dropoffs or is there some area where you have taken over or had to pick up the slack that she is aware of and trying to compensate for?)
Assuming the answer to all this is no and she is just super motivated to contribute would it be possible to make her a list of things that she can do that are helpful that you know she can manage? Also is she enrolled in classes? Does she have friends and plans regularly? Could she be doing additional things out of boredom?
Again if yes and it isn’t too much time on her hands as much as it might be tricky I tend to fall on the sword and just be honest – of course using the sandwich technique. “I know it must have taken you a long time to do the kitchen floor and that was so sweet of you to take that on but honestly AP, that isn’t your job and I would never ask you to do something so clearly outside your assigned tasks (play the rules/spirit of the program card if needed that you could get in trouble for her housekeeping unrelated to children) and those floors have a special cleaner so I had to redo them and I know that wasn’t your intent. I probably wasn’t clear about what I asking so it’s my fault (fall on the sword) and I will try to be more clear in the future and I really appreciate your hard work on XYZ everything else and if you want to do something outside the tasks again it would really help if you would let me know so I can warn you about the cleaner or save you some time or maybe we can work together to make a list of things that are kid related that you can do to fill extra time.”

Mimi February 11, 2015 at 12:28 pm

This is a great response and one I’ve used myself.

I’ve had two APs who felt my house wasn’t clean enough by their standards, but who knew that I was at maximum density with the cleaning I do and wanted to help out more. Unfortunately, one of them ruined my dining room drapes in the process and shrunk the curtains in the kids rooms considerably. She was so upset and nearly unintelligible over the phone that I rushed home almost in a panic. She offered to pay for replacements, but we declined and only replaced the dining room curtains, which HD told her he had never liked in the first place. (We had actually bought them to replace the ones he had shrunk when we were first married. He’s also not allowed to do laundry anymore because of the infamous bleach incident of 2005. :) )

I think the visual reminder of the short curtains kept the second super clean AP from doing anything extra without asking first and I usually tell all the APs that I don’t mind a little dust here and there because it’s been a great MIL repellant…

Schnitzelpizza February 17, 2015 at 6:25 am

My husband is no longer allowed to do any laundry but towels (I feel he can’t do anything wrong when washing towels… let’s just wait and see how long that hope lasts) since what I call “the infamous favorite 150 € sweater” incident. Cashmere is not meant to be washed hot and tumble dried. I cried so bad that my mom thought the cat had died when I called her to complain about “men”. It’s good the cat didn’t because said sweater now fits her perfectly. He also taught me that yes, dirt eraser sponges will actually clean anything including the paint off the walls… so no more dirt erasing for him either. And a pink unwashed shopping bag neatly folded between his white shirts (no, I have no idea why the bag was in his closet and not in the kitchen… with the other half dozen canvas bags) will actually stain the shirts. I think, I need a “husband handbook” and “please don’t help where help isn’t needed” would definitely be part of it. I agree with ProPair that “common sense” will highly differ not only from country to country but also from family to family. What is totally “common sense” for me is not for my husband.

If you want things done your way, you need to tell the person who is supposed to be doing it what your way is. I got told off by my hostfamily in Europe for folding the towels wrong… I wasn’t even aware there was a way to incorrectly fold towels but obviously there is. “Thanks for folding the towels but could you in the future please fold them like this (because my husband is a bit OCD and won’t use them otherwise)” gets you a lot further than yelling at the person who does your whole family’s laundry (including your bath towels) and telling them you had to re-fold everything. It’s difficult to tell someone who just wants to be helpful to please not help but if you do it politely, calmly and respectfully you shouldn’t hurt their feelings (too much).

ProPair February 10, 2015 at 8:13 pm

This really IS tricky! Normally I value forwardness above all, but I think you were right not to say anything up front because it sounds like this girl wants to impress you.

I never mopped the floor with oil based cleaner, however, some of the things that were common sense to my host family wouldn’t have occurred to me without their detailed guidance. For example, I grew up in a pragmatic household where everything was washed in hot water then thrown in the dryer. The concept of separating hang-dry and machine-dry articles and ironing children’s clothes were foreign to me upon my arrival to the Netherlands.

Fortunately, my HM was an especially organised person. Included in the family handbook was an entire page dedicated to precise washer and dryer etiquette. She also put a printed copy on top of the washing machine as a reminder. The amount of detail she put into teaching me how everything worked might have been a little extreme, but her thoroughness probably spared us some uncomfortable conversations later on.

If you want to put things gently, you could try saying things like, “The vet says Fluffy is at risk of becoming overweight, so from now on we can only give her one scoop of kibble, once per day” and, “if you ever need to clean up messes on the floor, I bought this particular soap, and this one is for the countertops/table/fabric etc.” She’ll probably catch on. Remind her occasionally, as I’m sure you have done, that you’re very happy with the work she does with the kids, that you can see she’s working very hard and that she’s not here to be a housekeeper.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 11, 2015 at 11:18 am

Your laundry comment is very funny, as an American who grew up with crunchy towels because my parents never used a dryer. To this day, I prefer to dry most of my clothes (not towels) outside on the line. I, too, have a chart for APs. I did have one incident, despite my statement not to do their laundry on the weekend, that one AP threw all my work clothes in the dryer while I was away for a couple of hours so she could do her laundry. It was a very expensive mistake, but I didn’t charge her for it. Just told her to re-read the handbook on laundry policy.

TexanadianWife February 11, 2015 at 10:28 am

If it was me, I’d simply offer thank you, and educate her on how I prefer it be done if it is done at all. I’d emphasize that it is NOT part of her job or my expectation that she do it, but if she does, here’s how we take care of it, and I appreciate her thought and effort.

It’s a delicate balance, but in my view, the au pair is a member of the household and they may wish to express their mutual feeling by lending an extra hand here and there. The difference is that we make it clear that as her employer, it is not our expectation (secret or overt!) that she do the extra task. Our au pair is very quick to do dishes after meals, for example, and we make a point of saying “Thank you, that is kind, you do not have to do that”, and she says “I don’t mind, it’s part of contributing to the family”, and we all leave it at that. As she’s become more comfortable, she is less zealous about doing it, and we make a point of thanking her every time she chooses to do it. If she puts something away in the wrong place, we simply say “we actually put that item over here” and don’t make a big deal about it.

If it’s big jobs that’s getting in the way (haven’t had that issue, specifically), I would probably let the au pair know that her thought is absolutely appreciated, and let her know that there is no need to surprise with it – if it’s her first time tackling something, that she should check in to make sure that we don’t mind how she’s going to do it.

Good luck!

Texas5TimeHostMom February 11, 2015 at 11:39 am

I’ll take any help I can get around my house, so personally I try to let it go when similar situations arise for us. Maybe you could leave a copy of this book around as a reference? :) Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook

Tristatemom February 11, 2015 at 11:48 am

This reminds me of one AP that scraped and permanently scratched my lovely All Clad pot to remove burned-on food (caused by HD!). I did not say anything to that and now, 3 years later, I almost look fondly at that scratch :)
Anyway, for the OP, I would advise to be super specific, i.e. tell her exactly what you want done: wet paper towel, wipe away pain splash, dry with dry paper towel, done. I suspect, however, that the AP does things on her own to be “helpful” (I doubt HM told her to organize the cupboards). In that case, OP has to figure out if the AP is truely clueless about hourswork or if she “knows better” than HF who to run a household. If, clueless, maybe get promise from AP that if she wants to take on something not expressly requested by HF to call HM first and discuss?

WarmStateMomma February 11, 2015 at 1:22 pm

I’ve finally made my peace with not buying nice things to replace the damaged stuff for the next few years while we have APs. The dogs and kids don’t help, but it’s the APs who damage things in my house. I’m fantasizing about a really great shopping spree once we no longer host APs and the kids are old enough to take care of things…. Seriously, the two 16-17 yo boys (foreign exchange students) we hosted caused less damage than the 25-27 yo female APs.

DowntownMom February 11, 2015 at 11:03 pm

Same here! It breaks my heart how much gets destroyed or disappears. The last one did damage that cost us a fortunate in repairs and replacements.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 12, 2015 at 7:53 am

Most of my APs have been really considerate and have taken good care of things. I had one very immature AP (the one who drove head-first into a Hummer, and fortunately wasn’t hurt – the only reason it wasn’t considered totaled was that her predecessors had taken care of it as if they had paid for it with their own money). She also broke a bead frame, washed a new pair of jeans with yellow towels, etc. She wasn’t malicious, but she didn’t have one iota of common sense.

The majority of APs I have hosted have only caused minor wear & tear, consistent with use. Now, child #2 – there’s a bull in a china shop! I swear, when he graduates from college, I’m going to re-plaster and repaint the entire house!

Host Mom in the City February 13, 2015 at 10:19 am

Love that story, CV :)

I don’t think any of my au pairs didn’t mean well with regards to taking care of my stuff (except one of them, who didn’t care about anything other than herself, but whatever), but every single one of them has broken and/or damaged something. My three excellent au pairs all apologized profusely when they damaged something and offered to pay, but of course I never took them up on anything – it’s the apology that counts.

I’m at a point where I just assume it as part of the cost of having an au pair. We’ve got many broken dishes, a giant red jell-o stain on the basement carpet (craft project gone wrong), bleached out sheets and towels, scratched pots and pans, etc. All from when they were being helpful or trying to do something with the kids.

I also have a giant spot on a chair pillow cushion (I know now that our bad au pair had a party when we were gone one night, spilled something all over the chair, and just flipped the cushion over without telling me). That one I was mad about – but if an au pair is trying to be helpful and apologizes, I would totally just let it go.

I laughed when they other poster said she looked at her scratched pot fondly – I feel the same way about a hair dye spot on our wall from our very first au pair.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 13, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Hair dye – don’t get me started! Our only rematch AP (an 8-week burnout) left half of the grout in the AP tub pink! Even my favorite bleach solution didn’t get it out completely!

hOstCDmom February 13, 2015 at 12:44 pm

try industrial strength peroxide!

Unhelped HostMom February 11, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Thank you everyone for the feedback! In my perfect world, AP would step away from all housework related tasks other than the ones the few child related ones she’s been specifically assigned. I’d love to tell her that I appreciate her efforts, but if she’s looking to be a superstar, focus on the kids. I’d love if she’d spend her extra energy / efforts thinking of new games or reading a childcare book to learn some new skills. I’m honestly nervous to have the conversation, two of her close friends recently went into rematch and I know she’s edgy. (she’s always been an overzealous helper though, so the events are not directly connected).

I sincerely do appreciate her efforts, but I can’t continue to ignore it and be thankful for her good intentions. Her costly (time and money) mistakes are weekly. I cringed last week when she asked if I wanted to get rid of our twice monthly cleaning service and give her money for working the extra hours (that offer was quickly declined, I wormed out of it quoting the rules of the program). My take is she’s enjoying playing “Suzie Homemaker”, but she skipped the home economics 101 class.

@TexasHM, your feedback sandwich was put together so nicely, I’m going to have to model a more generic ‘stop cleaning stuff’ one after your example.

MultitaskingMama February 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

I agree with some of the above comments that she may be overcompensating for something. Recognizing that, I think proceeding with caution might be in order. It seems as though directly approaching her and pointing out the mistake, however gentle it may be said, could cause more harm.
When things like this have come up in the past, I’ve used a combination of strategies outlined in prior HM comments. First, acknowledging all her hard work and letting her know it’s not the expectation. You can even refer back to the handbook and let her know it’s not in her job description (as another HM mentioned) but that you appreciate her efforts. I usually offer a quick but casual comment like, “oh, and if something ever gets on the tile floor I just picked up some tile cleaner.” Again, another technique outlined above. The quick but ” oh yea” as if it’s just a side note, spontaneous and no big deal approach gets the point across, seems genuine (if kept casual) and gets the information out there without things getting uncomfortable.
It seems she’s doing her best to please you by going above and beyond, and even the smallest criticism to her efforts could derail her emotionally and potentially undermine your relationship. I don’t think I would mention how hard you had to work to clean the tile after her. Although for us moms, who are already crazy busy, it can get super frustrating to have to clean up after the AP too, it’s just not conducive to resolving the situation.
Another technique I often use to figure out how to approach the AP on a situation is putting myself in their shoes. I try to think of how I would be feeling in that situation if I was them, and how would I like to be approached about it. And truly be honest with myself about how it could make me feel. That seems to really help. Good luck!

HRHM February 11, 2015 at 3:55 pm

I may be a particularly mean HM, but in this instance, I would have said “Gee, thanks for mopping the whole floor, but that was the wrong cleaner and now you may notice that the whole floor is a smeary mess. Could you please clean up the smeary mess with this (bucket of clean water, appropriate cleaner, whatever)?” I might word it a little differently but after 7 APs, I’ve learned that I can’t let them make more work for me and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask her to “undo the damage” instead of me having to spend an hour doing so.

Seattle Mom February 12, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Ideally that is what I would do too. But I often just fix whatever is broken/dirty, because it seems to be the easier (less risky) path. I agree though, that cleaning up from one’s own mistakes are the best way to ensure that future mistakes are more carefully considered.

Fortunately (or not) for me, most of these domestic tasks fall to my husband, and he’ll just take over and fix it and grumble endlessly about it for a week. To me. And I’m about as likely to mess things up by being “helpful” as any au pair… so it’s not entirely unfair ;).

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