Bending the the Wrong Direction? Giving your Au Pair what she really wants

by cv harquail on March 25, 2014

One day when I was feeling really overwhelmed by the administrivia, chores, chauffeuring and routines of our household, I asked my tweenage daughter:

“Of the things I do for you and your sister, which ones matter the most to you? What do I do that helps you feel really loved?”

I thought the answer might be something tender, or profound, like “Sneak in and kiss me before you go to bed.” or “Listen to me when I’m upset.”  But instead it was truly prosaic:

“I like when you fold up the corners of the wax paper on my sandwich when you make me lunch. It makes me feel like my lunch is a present.” 

And > boom < .   I would never. ever. have thought that this mattered.


The power of asking, rather than presuming.  

With my students, it’s the same thing. I obsess over crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s on the online syllabus, so that they know exactly what’s due and when. But they tell me they care less about that, than about being introduced to online tools like and OHours that we use to schedule meetings.

Of all the different things I do to help them with their learning, it’s just a few that really hit home. And who knows which ones I’m missing, by not even including them?

What would happen if I asked them directly about what (beyond the basics, of course) they would like to get from me?

What do Au Pairs really want?

With au pairs, we all do our best to anticipate their concerns, to give them the help and support they need, to give them treats or breaks to reward them for their efforts.

And many times, these are silent offerings– we make the chocolate cake, not the carrot cake, because it seems more special.  We put gas in the au pair car when we take it to the library, even though our au pair drives it 99% of the time. We bring home an extra Frappucino.

Or, we decide not to go to the late movie, and go to the early one instead so that our au pair can be off-duty in time to go out with friends.  We don’t say anything about the disappearing People magazine, the one we bought for ourself that we haven’t read yet.

Or, we write out a full-day’s schedule. We leave post-its asking for menu ideas. We clean out and repack the diaper bag, adding extra wipes and a granola bar, even though that’s his job.

Which of these choices really matter? Which ones  make things easier for our au pairs and help them feel supported? Which ones are irrelevant? Which ones don’t they even see?

Maybe we should ask?

As one reader commented:

I’d be really interested in knowing what APs really want… . Frequently I feel like I’m bending over backward for mine, but sometimes I get the sneaking suspicion that I’m bending over in the wrong direction and she doesn’t notice my efforts because it’s not really where she wants effort.

Au Pairs, if you could ask us for flexibility, or help, in any area of your experience with us and our families, what would it be?


spanishaupair March 25, 2014 at 2:47 pm

what i more aprreciate are the little details like a birthday cake, or a little egg for easter they make you feel part of the family and cared. Apart on day basis when they offer to give me a lift to/from bus stop on a rainy day so i dont have to walk on the rain for half an hour; when they get home with biscuit/cookie/gingerbread for kids and they bring one for me :)
Flexibility yeah is something i really apreciate and i also give back, i think is something that goes both ways or should. Specially when you are planning a trip/concert or event and they do the effort to get home early or call family to cover for half an hour so you can get in time, obviouslly this is something only some families can do if they have flexible work or family nearby. And specially when they offer extra day off in special dates like easter, when everyone is travelling so i can do big trips with friends. I have to say im very flexible back, my schedule is a mess that can change one day to next day, i have done last minute babysitting, extra hours and day to cover last minute problems or plans.

German Au-Pair March 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm

This really depends on the type of HF you are. Mine was a little more distant with less family time spent together, less interest in each other’s lives than many others so a real (not just out of politeness) thank you for some extra effort was really great.

My HM let me take my girl (pre-teen) on a weekend trip all by myself. Of course I enjoyed the vacation and -not gonna lie- the paid extra chance of sightseeing. But what was really the best part for me was that she’d let me plan the whole thing and just let me drive off with her daughter all by myself to have a girls weekend. It was in my second year so trust was already there but I really loved that and we had a great time.
One thing I would have wished for me personally would have been more interest in trips or special activities. Like I said, my family was just not the type so I didn’t take it personally but I would have loved to share pictures from some of the trips becuase it’s really exciting and while sharing with people at home is always great, I did miss sharing my life with the people currently being in my life a bit. (However, I would NOT have wanted that if they weren’t actually interested in it.)

Basically just little things that show you that you are not just there as one of the many au pairs (which most of us know we are) but also interesting as a person. I don’t know if the comparism works but think of it as visiting your mother in law (not if you hate her of course :D ). She might be doing a lot of things that you appreciate but what really makes you feel great is when she shows she cares about you as a person, not as a guest or her son’s wife -not just as the role you are playing. My HM gave me a gift card for Christmas for a very specific store she knew I loved. Gift cards are always great but when it’s something that’s not as common as Starbucks or Itunes but something that shows you she’s been paying attention, THAT’s was makes you feel good.

I know this has a positive spin and I am sure I’ll think of more later, but one little, tiny thing that was annoying me really bad was their habit to leave things on the counter right after I cleaned it. I would clean the kitchen and empty the dishwasher and before they’d leave home they’d put some dish ON the empty dishwasher and expect the kitchen to be clean when they came home. I didn’t mind cleaning their stuff at all because I’m sure they’d put away some of my stuff and that’s just how family life works. But it felt really disrespectful to me as putting it IN the dishwasher would have been just as easy than putting it ON it. It wasn’t like they were being unreasonable with other things, it was just this little thing that bothered me a lot.

One little thing I loved: They had a BBQ party on the weekend and knew how much I loved corn straight from the grill so they’d made some extra and left me some for lunch on Monday.

exaupair March 25, 2014 at 3:41 pm

I’m a massive coffe drinker and even though the family did not drink coffe they’d always buy small packs of different types of coffe for me :-)

CADinAUS March 26, 2014 at 5:09 am

Personally I think it is the little things. Do they want time or little gifts that show appreciation. It’s the same with my family at christmas, figure out how they show love. My Mom shows love through gifts but enjoys receiving time. My Dad shows love though time and enjoys receiving time. Personally I enjoy both but really like little thoughtful gifts. My family is great that when they do the shopping they will come home with a brand of cookies I like just for me. It’s a nice little thing and it shows me I’m appreciated!

AnneAuPair March 26, 2014 at 5:15 am

My HF always listened to me very carefully and made mental notes on just about everything I told them. For example I had never eaten KFC before becoming an au pair so they would take me there even though they didn’t agree with KFC’s ethics. My mom came to visit and I told my HM I was taking her to a popular attraction (expensive!) nearby so she arranged for us to use her friends’ annual passes which saved us some serious $, although had it not been for the passes we would have gone anyway. But because of that we were able to use some of that saved money to fill the tank of the family car they ALSO let us use to get there (and didn’t expect anything in return) :)

Also, they didn’t drink coffee but arranged for a coffee maker and bought coffee. And not even the crappy kind some non-coffee drinkers keep in case of visitors, but delicious specialty coffee I still miss after three years :D

They bravely tasted everything I cooked and baked for them and my HM even asked for the recipe of a certain dish I was especially proud of. Probably one the biggest compliments a cook could get! She also knew without asking what my favorite food from her cookbook was and prepared that for my last night with them, completely ignoring the fact that the kids certainly weren’t the biggest fans of it :P

They always remembered to comment on all the nice things I had done for them or was willing to do for them. I felt appreciated and needed.

TexasHM March 26, 2014 at 8:04 am

What a great point! Use the 5 love languages to make sure you’re reaching your AP! Our last AP was physical touch so a hug or pat on the back made her cry with joy. Need to figure out new APs love languages…

AmericanAP in Germany March 26, 2014 at 10:55 am

My heart always warmed a little when my host mom would buy a small pile of chocolate bars and leave them by my room, or something that I said I liked magically appeared in the fridge after the next shopping trip. One time she picked up a pencil with a little owl eraser on the head because she knows I love owls. These tiny little things that reflect knowledge of who you are and what you like really make it feel more like “home.”

One thing I would have REALLY appreciated, though, wasn’t something material. In the beginning, I was too shy and my German too rudimentary to point out, or ask about, blatant violations of my contract, or take advantage of the vacation days afforded me every month (2 paid days). It would have been really nice if my family has encouraged me to take days off, mention my contract, or ask why I hadn’t used any vacation time. This is entirely on me for not being proactive or sticking up for myself, but I really don’t think this was done with bad intent. Au-Pairs may be shy about these things in the beginning, and it would be really comforting if a family brings up the contract and its provisions, reminds the aupair that she doesn’t have play with the children after certain hours, asks about vacations, etc. I would have made my stay a little easier! I just recently screwed up the courage to use one of my vacation days… ;)

Should be working March 26, 2014 at 11:43 am

I tried out the idea of the post on my children–what, of all the little and big things I do for them–makes them feel loved? My son said, “When you come in the night when I call you.” My teen daughter said, “When you give me old clothes of yours that you know I like.”

ReturnAupair March 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm

I realley liked that every day i was done with my dutys my hostfamily said thank you for you help (evan that they paid me for that) it feeled me they really see that taking care of all the kids is a hard job.

I also liked when i was sick that with out beeing angry that gave me a whole week of to gett well (had the influenca and needed the whole week) and i could text them and got some food.

Or they took me on a family vacation and gave me off so i could get some new energy.

Or on a holiday to get the day off without counting the hours.

I think theire is on think who familys might think its rude but i read a lot about aupairs who kind of dont like those days: When Parents are at home for a whole day and let the aupair work 10h. Why not give her a half day off. I really liked that i knew when my hostparents where at home i was always off, because they enjoyed to spend any minuites with theire kids.

Taking a Computer Lunch March 27, 2014 at 7:37 am

Sometimes HP take the day off from work to recharge their batteries, too. While I might give my AP a half-day off if I were home, DH wants that time to himself – or to do things that he can’t do when he has to care for our special needs child. I can imagine that parents of very young children feel the same way – there are just some things that take a couple of hours that you can’t do if you’re caring for small children at the same time. So, if you’re HP are at home and you have to work, don’t necessarily begrudge them the time – get the kids out of the house for a while and they may reward you with time off when you return (but don’t be mad if they don’t).

WarmStateMomma March 27, 2014 at 9:42 am

Agreed! Sometimes I lock myself in the office for a few hours to get some work done (bills, work, etc.) so the AP understands that I need to get something done without distraction. HD sometimes tries to get yard work done when he comes home early from work – the AP’s day won’t end early because babies and weed whackers don’t mix well. It’s not like we’re just lounging around watching the AP chase after the baby, sipping champagne. But we’d probably leave the house if we needed to “recharge” so there wouldn’t be confusion about who is responsible for the little one.

AussiePair March 26, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Picking up on au pair interest and getting a small gift (when on vacation HM noticed how amazed I was seeing the fish underwater a bought me a mask that was easier to use than the goggles or snorkels that they had), picking up on my likes/dislikes (host mom and dad would buy Lindt chocolate because they knew I wasn’t a fan of American chocolate, would make sure my favourite ice cream was in the freezer, and would buy wine they knew I liked so I could have a glass with them at dinner). I think the biggest thing is when host parents notice a need or a like, or do something that just seems “beyond” what they have to do, even if it seems little to them.

Often after a particularly hard or long week my host mom would bring me home flowers which I loved, it really made fe feel appreciated, and I liked to do the same when I noticed she was stressed or having a hard week. And I always tried to pick up some beer or wine she liked when I did the weekly shop.

LookingForwardToBeAP(made it!) March 26, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Great question and it makes me think backwards too, sometimes they may not notice some things I do, and some things I did seemed to be much more important to my HF than I expected.

What I love about my HM is that she constantly pays attention to the things I like and she seems to have added me to her “list”, I feel she is just as likely to buy her daughter’s favorite things than she is to buy mine. She has come home bringing things from the supermarket just because they are marked as “from Argentina” or things that seemed Argentinean (like a “carne asada” from trader joe that was actually mexican and very spicy, but I loved the gesture). Very often she shows or tells me about some news or you tube video that she thinks I would enjoy, and I do this for her too, I guess this part is because we are both in the same field and have a lot in common.

My HD sat down with me to help me plan my first weekend in NY, so that I would make the most of it, he also contacted me with some friends and family in NY so that I would have someone to show me around, finally, made me cry when he gave me 100 dollars extra for the trip. It wasn’t the money, but that I felt he was taking care of me.

My host parents are two amazing people. Yet they are not perfect. They are not the most organized people in the world, so when I see my friends’ schedules so organized and written down weeks ahead I envy them a little (just a tiny bit) and I guess those friends rarely stop to think and appreciate all the thinking and time that organization takes, so I guess that is something most good HP do and many au pairs don’t notice.

Host Mom in the City March 28, 2014 at 9:42 am

Thanks for posting this! I think I’m the one that asked the question you have in your OP and I’ve really enjoyed reading the responses. It seems that au pairs just want their host parents to be thoughtful toward them, pay attention to who they are and get to know them, follow the rules and their original agreements, and give that little extra when possible. Same thing host parents want! :)

I will say that one thing that does bug me is when au pairs complain that their host parents don’t give them the time off when they’re not at work for some reasons. I actually do this to some degree – my au pairs have off every weekend, every Federal holiday, and I am usually home about 45 minutes earlier than my scheduled time (I have that time built in because a couple times a month, I actually am home that late, but I never know ahead of time). My au pairs also get to choose their own two weeks off, and get lots of extra time off if we travel or take a day off, etc. And I rarely if ever ask them to work last-minute when not scheduled (we do their schedule months in advance). A lot of this is because we have two sets of grandparents nearby – a lot of host parents really don’t have this kind of flexibility with the schedule.

But there have been days where I have taken the day off to paint the house or to have a day off with just my husband and me, or I’ve taken a sick day and spent the day in bed, or I’ve gotten home early with plans for a time-consuming dinner and needed my au pair to keep playing with the kids. My two best au pairs have happily continued to work their hours no matter what I was doing with that time, continued to act like I wasn’t even there and fulfilled their duties, and I really really appreciated it. My poor au pair acted like it was a big imposition for me to ask her to work her scheduled hours and couldn’t operate when I was home for whatever reason while she was supposed to be working. It was really frustrating for me.

I would hope that au pairs would realize that parents rarely have time to work on the house or clean without having to manage the kids at the same time, time with just their spouses, time to just be sick and sit in bed to get better, or time to just spend the day doing whatever they want like shopping or seeing a movie. One of the reasons I have an au pair is, yes, to watch the kids when I’m at work, but also, so I can steal some moments of life pre-kids so I can feel like myself again instead of just mom. I always thoroughly appreciate when my au pairs are able to give me that gift of a little extra time without acting put-upon.

HRHM March 28, 2014 at 11:26 am


Maybe we could have a separate post about things our APs do that WE really appreciate?

Ex-Au Pair in Europe March 30, 2014 at 11:05 pm

There are countless little things that my host parents did that I really appreaciated. For example my host mom used to always say thank you for doing a good job today at the end of my shift. It was such a small thing but it made me feel really appreciated and actually it helped to motivate me to keep up the good work cause I knew it didn’t go unnoticed. And in general I loved that my host parents remembered to give me a lot of direct positive feedback. They would always thank me if I had done something “extra”, like worked a little longer than expected or come up with a really fun, creative things to do with the children. They would often mention how much the children clearly loved me, how good of a job I was doing, how glad they were that they had chosen me as their au pair etc. It just made me really happy to hear those things said out loud.
After my on-duty time finished my host parents made sure the children knew I was off. Sometimes I would still continue playing with the kids but the mom often reminded me that I didn’t have to unless I wanted to. I didn’t mind doing it but it was nice that she wanted to make sure I didn’t feel pressured to keep going even though I wasn’t on duty anymore. The parents also told the children that when I was off duty they were not allowed to come into my room unless I invited them. They wanted to make sure my free time was truly my free time, which was very considerate of them.
I also appreciated all the help I got from my host parents during my free time. I love practising yoga so my host mom helped me to find a local yoga studio and sign up for classes. And once when I had trouble with my laptop my host dad spent a whole evening with me trying to help me fix it. I knew my host parents were busy people and they didn’t have that much time to relax so I was very thankful when they were willing to spend some of their prescious free time to help me.
My host mom would always ask me if there were any particular foods that I would like for her to buy. I rarely asked for anything but still she would notice which foods I preferred the most, for example certain kinds of breads and stuff, and she’d make sure to always have them in the house. Sometimes she would buy me a little extra treat like chocolates or flowers for my room. Those always made me feel really special! Also, before I started as an au pair my host family and I had agreed that they would pay for my first phone bill but after that it would be my responsibility. However, when the second bill came my host mum told me that because they were so happy with how I was doing they would keep paying it. That was such a lovely gesture and I certainly felt very thankful.
Another thing that I really loved was having a written schedule for each week. My host mom would always email me the schedule for the upcoming week the weekend before. It was really helpful to know in advance the exact times I was expected to be on duty so that I could make plans for my free time. All in all my host parents just made me feel really appreciated and welcome. I was usually always invited to join the family for dinner parties, visits to relatives, activities during the weekends etc. Sometimes I joined them and sometimes I didn’t if I had my own plans. My host family was okay either way and I think we had a really good balance of me doing stuff with them but also occasionally letting them do family things without me.

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