Can you train an Au Pair to be conscious of safety?

by cv harquail on October 7, 2010

Hi AuPairMom,

I can’t believe I’m sending this email, but I am at my wit’s end and don’t quite know where else to turn. I’ve been lurking on your blog for about 3 months, ever since we decided that an au pair situation would be a good one for us (we’re first timers).

Here’s a summary of the situation: My husband and I have two challenging full time careers, complete with demanding travel schedules. We have a 2.5 year old son, who has been in the care of a live out American nanny since he was 3 months old. We have both lived and worked overseas, and think we’re pretty culturally sensitive, as well as understanding to the challenges of working all day in a non native language. Having seen the model overseas, we liked the idea of welcoming our son’s care giver into our family, rather than treating them as an “employee”.

We selected a candidate that seems ideal on paper – she from eastern Europe, had worked in a day care facility with toddlers, seems to love children, and did a good job of “interviewing us” during the process. So I know she is here out of a genuine interest. Her spoken English is good (although I’m not sure about comprehension… more on that later). She arrived a few weeks ago, and after a few rocky first days of what seemed like a minor case of culture shock, really seems to be thriving in the family setting. She has made friends with another local au pair, and joins in family activities. She has also really worked to befriend our son, and it is obvious that he enjoys her company, energy levels and enthusiasm.

201010071626.jpgOne of the areas that I haven’t seen much on the blog about (and so sorry if I’ve missed it!) (here’s one, see others below:
Ways to start orienting your New Au Pair: Some advice for the first two days) is the best way to on-board and train a new au pair – and get comfortable with the quality of child care. In our case, I had her overlap with our previous nanny for a few days, and my mom visited and helped out AP for a few days.

Here’s the (main) problem – I’m getting an earful from my mother about real safety concerns. From not holding hands when walking along a busy street or in parking lots, to turning her back on him when he’s in precarious situations, to ‘playing’ with a long string from a balloon by letting him wrap it around his neck (loosely), to food not cut into small pieces – there are stories every day. And they all seem like child care 101 kind of stuff, but also stuff that can have dire consequences.

It seems that AP is a great playmate, but maybe not so much a guardian. Some of this, I think, is due to the fact that my son is pretty verbal, and so appears more mature than he is. (She expected him to climb into the bathtub by himself, and is quizzical as to why he is not potty trained.) Some of this may also be inexperience in caring for children outside of an institutional setting.

And while I can address the issues of concern as they come up, I’m starting to panic because it isn’t just one minor behavior change that I am asking for. I’m not confident that this AP has the right mindset that she needs to have safety as her top priority (even though I have said it). And that a toddler – even one who can do and say a lot – can’t judge or protect himself from risk.

Add to that the fact that my AP is pretty confident in her own skills, sends the subtle message that I’m being a bit patronizing (she’s clearly a very bright girl), and doesn’t respond to feedback in a particularly open manner – and we have a pretty large disconnect/ tough situation brewing. My mom returns home at the end of the week, so I have some decisions to make.

1. So – my question is: what the heck do I do? How do I bring this up in a way that drives change?

2. Is it fair to restrict her to the house and backyard for some time, even though that’s not what we talked about when we interviewed? (She will have access to a car, but at this stage, there’s no way I’m letting her use it for my child even though that will upset the schedule quite a bit).

3. How do I know this is getting better when I’m not here to see it? And more generally – I see folks with young kids on the blog. How on earth do you ever get your au pair trained when you aren’t there day in and day out, and get comfortable that your child is in good, safe hands?

201010071625.jpg4. To top it off, this isn’t the only mindset change I think she will need to make. She says “no” way too much for my taste and seems to engage in battles of will, so I will have to coach her on navigating a two year old ego, too.

So I’m setting a bit of a precedent here with how I deal with this situation. Other changes can obviously come later. First I need to deal with real safety concerns, but I’m just seeing that how I handle this sets the tone for the year and that is weighing on me too.

I would love any thoughts… just as soon as you and your readers have them, or before! I’m just afraid that will be a set back for the relationship we’re trying to build.

Just sign me – newbieAPMom.

Guidelines: Safety (pages from CV’s handbook)
Why Safety Rules Matter

Ways to start orienting your New Au Pair: Some advice for the first two days
Advice Wanted: How to set the right tone from Week 1
After the Car Accident: Advice on what to talk about with your Au Pair (this post has some ideas for how to talk about difficult issues in ways that build your relationship)
Extra Umbrellas and Hidden House Keys: The beauty of redundancy


cv harquail October 7, 2010 at 4:52 pm


We always treat safety as the number one issue– if your au pair can’t keep your child safe, you can’t keep your au pair.

it is really hard, I think, to teach someone to be more conscientious about safety, but it’s worth a try. You’ll want to address both the general issue of being more aware, and the specifics of predicable situations where safety concerns are prominent (bathing, eating, car seats, stairs, etc.).

Your AP has already received some kinds of saftey training at her orientation, so one place to start is to ask her about that training, what they emphasized, how your home/child situation might be different or similar compared to the situation the trainers had in mind, etc. Just a jumping off point. You can also ask her to run through a typical day with your child and discuss the safety issues that might arise. This is obviously not going to flush out everything– but you *will* get a sense of whether she can turn on her saftey goggles, or whether safety awareness is completely beyond her.

Enlist your LCC– your counselor has a vested interest in getting this AP to ‘work’ if changes are possible– your LCC can hold a small meeting with some other au pairs, or come to your house to back you up.

I’ll stop here and leave it open to parents and au pairs… cv

Gianna October 7, 2010 at 5:10 pm

I am familiar with this issue and have concluded that some of it is cultural. I second the idea of asking about her training. I suggest sitting down with the handbook and reading it through , together. My agency focuses alot of time on child safety and a number of aupairs have told me that they slept through the whole business because it was so boring. You might even ask your agency directly or through your LCC to provide you with the same information they give the aupair. It sounds like your mom is on the ball. I know people who have had friends and neighbors keep a sharp eye out for this sort of thing but that never felt real good to me. There are definitely parts of the world where children have much more freedom to roam around unsupervised and I think there are places that are more regimented ( not necessarily in a bad way, just differently ). Personally, I would not have any qualms about restricting the new aupair and my child to the house and backyard until everyone gets the lay of the land but
that doesn’t address the myriad of things that can go wrong in the house. Others know more about this than I do but my guess is that if this is a cultural matter your new aupair can learn to do as the Romans do.

My 2 cents October 7, 2010 at 5:12 pm

My first thought to be candid was not your au pair, but your Mom. I know that my own mother is terribly critical of our au pairs. It is all well-intended but she is harsh and her view is sometimes pretty skewed. So I do need to ask if you are sure your mother is not doing the same or is exaggerating things.

Our current au pair who I think is great with our young children did not start out that way. Her experience was with school-aged children and so she wasn’t in tune right away to dangers that lurk with the younger kids — like choking on small bits, wrapping strings around necks, holding hands in parking lots. We got over this quickly because (a) she’s bright and she’s motivated and (b) we spent time with her the first few weeks taking her around with the kids and observing and correcting and telling her things to be mindful of and showing her what to do and that she really needs to be physically hands-on with toddlers.

I would suggest you directly observe your au pair. Tell her she’s in charge and your just following along as you take work calls along the way. See what happens. There’s no better way to figure out her level of cluelessness (or not). I know your schedule is demanding but you and I both know that spending some time now will save you a whole lot of time and anxiety later.

If it turns out she is clueless, you need to objectively figure out whether you can or are willing to train her and how long you will give her to catch up. A lot of this is her attitude so you will need to gauge whether she is going to really be open to change. She doesn’t sound like it, but maybe if you are very direct with her about your expectations, your concerns, and what realistically will happen if she does not, that will change. Have you a specific discussion with her about what your mom is saying is happening? What does she say? You need to tell her what she is doing wrong and what she must do in the future. You cannot imply or otherwise “be nice” about it.

Gianna October 7, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Great point, My2Cts. My mother is critical of aupairs, too. I have one sister who used daycare and another sister who employs a very fancy nanny agency and my mom has issues with every choice: my niece got sick in daycare, the nanny uses incorrect grammar and serves fried eggs for lunch, the aupairs are young and ignorant of safety issues. My in-laws are very much the same way – they pretend to come over to play with my nephews and then complain to my sister in law that the housekeeper is lazy and watches television all day. We love them all but they cause tremendous anxiety.
It is a terrific idea to observe your aupair directly and make your own judgement.

Calif Mom October 8, 2010 at 9:57 am

Yep–I was about to chime in about exploring whether this is a hyper-critical mom situation. There is so much baggage in this situation for them! And don’t get me wrong; it’s probably not even a conscious attitude! Is this her first grand child? Is she a control freak to start with? All things to ask yourself.

I think you need to do some drop bys if at all possible. Come home early this afternoon, make up an excuse to work from home, etc.

I do think you need to alert the LCC and have a frank discussion with the AP, to put her on alert that she needs to pay attention to your instructions about safety. I love the idea of spending more time with her in parallel. What if you had *her* write down the “rules” as you go, so they’re in her own words, her own language?

Can you kind of throw your mom under the bus a little? Tell your AP “My mom has concerns that you are not understanding some important safety things. So I would like to go over them again with you. I know you would feel terrible if Son got injured while you were in charge.”

[Gianna–fried eggs for lunch?! Horrors! I made waffles for dinner last night….what *would* she think of us? :-) ]

MTR October 7, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Hi newbieAPMom,

As I was reading your dilemma, a few things jumped at me. I will relate them here, but I do hope that your experience will/is different them mine because mine did not end well for the au pair/host relationship.

I will gloss over the fact that your au pair is from Eastern Europe is some parts of which experiences and references are easily bought and focus on this statement: ” Add to that the fact that my AP is pretty confident in her own skills, sends the subtle message that I’m being a bit patronizing (she’s clearly a very bright girl), and doesn’t respond to feedback in a particularly open manner”.

I’ve had an au pair who was just like that, very confident, did not take well to directions, did not respond to feedback, thought she knew better than HD and I. At first, it was all about minor things that we let go off, but eventually it built up to big issues. Some of the examples were that au pair refused to follow direct instructions, refused to get in touch with me when I was at work to ask questions, refused to call me at work when I specifically told her to call me at certain time for certain reason and then lied about trying to reach me and I wasn’t picking up the phone (I have caller id’s on all phone, including work, and she never tried to call me), being completely indifferent and refusing to admit her wrongness when presented with the fact. As time went on, it got worse and worse until it ended up in rematch after 5 months.

Another au pair I had was clueless about safety issues and common sense. She had my then 4 year old walk around in spring/summer shoes in the middle of February snow storm; she lost my kid’s winter during that same snow storm and did not think it was important to tell me about it. I found out about a week later after the kid was walking around without a hat for a week. She lost my 4 year old kid in the kid’s museum, and in order to go find her, she left my 6 year old unattended. Then she forgot to tell me about the whole thing. My then 6 year old told me about the incident a few days later and told me how she ended up walking around the museum looking for her sister and the au pair. Au pair thought it was funny. As you can imagine, this too ended up in rematch.

However, all these things I have observed myself. I did not rely on anybody else’s assessment of my au pairs’ skills. I think you should follow the advice given above and make your own observations and conclusions. Also, you may not be able to get a really clear picture of your au pairs true skills until after your mom leaves, because au pair may be acting different around her, even if not consciously.

Anna October 7, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I think your au pair has no clue about children of this age.
If she has “experience” with them on her application, most probably her real experience begins and ends at posing for photos for her au pair application with kids of friends and neighbors. Recommendations from daycare centers can be had for a bribe in many places.

Some of it is cultural for sure, but what you described is too much. I am familiar with that culture very well.

Dorsi October 7, 2010 at 10:42 pm

One thing that jumps out at me in your story is that you think the AP is saying “no” too much to your child — to me, that means that she is interested in guiding and ‘parenting’ your son, not just being a playmate. I think this is something that can give you some hope — maybe you can redirect her.

As an aside, we had an AP when my baby was very little who loved to say ‘no’ and we tried very hard to convince her that we try to only say it in an emergency, that other times it is more important to redirect the child. “Please don’t go up the stairs, we are playing in the living room. Can you come over to the couch?” “I asked for the puppy, and that is the cat. Can you point to the puppy?” My child was only beginning to be mobile (and otherwise volitional) the last few months of the APs stay. We never got her to break the habit, which wasn’t a huge deal, but made me very glad I did not extend with her. It would have been an issue as that child became an active toddler. At least she was apologetic everytime she said it in front of us. The only advice I can give you on this front is to make sure you are modelling good behavior (which is great that your AP spends some family time around you.)

I don’t have any specific advice on dealing with the safety issues, though I do wonder if you (or your mother) are reacting a bit strongly. A small child definitely needs a hand held when walking next to a busy street (for various definitions of “busy”, and various definitions of “next to”), but at 2.5 should be able to chew food and swallow it well. While they should be watched while they’re eating, I think food chunk size is maybe not such match/rematch issue. I think there are some very basic dangers out there to children that can be prevented by good childcare (running into traffic, falling off high objects, playing unsupervised around cords/strings) but these dangers probably can be delineated to your AP.

I do think restricting her to the house/yard may communicate effectively that you are very very concerned about safety risks and is well within your realm until she demonstrates a willingness to learn.

Taking a Computer Lunch October 7, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Each AP brings her own cultural experience to the table, and may be rigid and unbending when it comes to accepting American practice. The differences may not be at all apparent to either HF or AP. Your mother’s litany of lack of safety on your AP’s part may feel like tattling to the AP. After all, your son loves her and he was alive, happy and safe when you returned home. So, with real concerns, don’t launch into a campaign the minute you walk through the door – but ask the AP for some meeting time after your son has gone to bed for the night. If she worked in an institution, maybe she never had to walk a child across the street. If she wants to work on toilet training and greater independence on the part of your son, he’ll benefit from it. Let there be give and take if you want the relationship to succeed. She can’t always be wrong (just like your 2-year-old).

And yes, you do have to accept that the fact that your AP is not you. That caring for your son under any AP will be different than when you care for him (and that’s really okay). Deal with the lack of care that truly jeopardizes his life, and let the rest go.

Finally, if she turns out to be too loose in her care-giving and completely unwilling to meet you on substantial practices, then it doesn’t matter how much your son loves her. Be ready to listen to her, but make it clear that in exchange, she has to be ready to listen to you.

Drew Cronyn October 8, 2010 at 12:22 am

Can we trade au pairs? After 5 weeks, I feel like mine would be GREAT watching a younger kid but with mine she’s too ‘hovery,’ not really able to grasp what ‘fun’ would be for a 6 1/2 year old … I’m actually considering rematch but I like her SO much and can’t imagine sending her back to Russia if she didn’t rematch….

Seriously, she won’t let him brush his teeth and hair by himself… needs him to be within a few feet of her all the time… sits right next to him when he’s having even a small snack… and he’s a totally independent kid!

Nicola aupair October 10, 2010 at 10:08 pm

That doesn’t sound like such a horrible thing… Why don’t you just talk to the poor girl, let her know your son needs his space. Suggest some activities for her, help her out a bit. She’s trying to please you and your son.

anonmom October 8, 2010 at 10:05 am

I agree with the above comments about you observing her yourself. Safety is a HUGE concern, especially with a toddler. I also find that my Mom is very critical, too, so it is important for you to feel out your AP yourself. I do not like the fact that she is so confident in her skills that she may not take kindly to any suggetions, etc. I also am not fond of any au pair who only has experience working in daycares. In my experience, those that have only worked in daycare facility and not in a home setting do not truly understand how to care for a child all day without the help of other adults, and without the safety of a facility. This may be the reason she is so lax. I would not give her too long a period of time to see if she can get her act together. Sit down with her and possibly LCC and set forth safety concerns. Keep a written email or other proof of what you want her to do/ no do, etc so that you have it shouyld the need arise for rematch.

Good luck.

calif mom October 8, 2010 at 10:09 am

There’s also American Red Cross safety classes; maybe now that she isn’t jet lagged, it would make more of an impact.

(I’m sure some people are going to think I’m being unfair with this, but FWIW, our family style just doesn’t jibe well with most of the caregivers we’ve met from that region. I won’t go back to that pool, even though I’m sure there are plenty of lovely young women that I am missing out on, unfairly. It’s just too hard to screen. Pointy Boots, our very first AP who completely manipulated us and the system and hated kids, hailed from Bulgaria. The uber-negative whiner we dubbed The Morose One was from Ukraine. It’s hard enough work with APs who are loving and warm and alert; I just don’t have bandwidth for taking on APs who are more like ‘projects’.)

maleaupairmommy October 8, 2010 at 10:26 am

So numerous things jumped out at me. First being you mom who seems to be over there a lot so is the au pair not a aware since she thinks another adult is around. Second he is your first so you are more concerned about than if it was your third. Like I was thinking I hold my 6 year old hands in the parking lot I do not my 3 year old as she is not impulsive. Bad things can happen quickly even to the most perfect mom and dad. Finally being first time host mom you might have not found a culture that fits with your family. Example for us the German and Europeans did not fit our family they were uber stict, not empathetic for what we like, not as lovingg as we would have like, hated noise, and didn’t apperciate what they had and want more, and not as flexiable. After an awful experience I rematch and went with the latin culture more like our family didn’t care about our noise, instead of critizing our skills as parents and the kids they helped improve on what they needed to work on. They are flexiable too with the schedule and daily routine. So something to think about there too. Good luck.

Host Mom in Va October 8, 2010 at 11:18 am

My opinion is that your mother is not the problem. She’s brought her legitmate concerns to you and these concerns bother you, too. I do believe that safety and awaremess of danger is culturally influenced. For example, my first South African au pair (colored) was never concerned about her personal safety in our very integrated neighborhood. She was great with the babies. Our second South African au pair (white) is acutely aware of her safety and that of our family.

While I think that safety skills can be taught, doing so will require time, training, and monitoring. Unless you are prepared to observe your au pair regularly and correct her as needed (or empower your mother to do so), your au pair is not going to change.

No, it is not fair to restrict her to your house while on duty unless this is a very clearly defined probationary period while she is getting better training.

In your position I would re-match.

anon this time October 9, 2010 at 6:55 am

You didn’t really, in 2010, write “colored” in your post, did you???? This was a totally racist way of putting this forward. In SA, as in a lot of countries, a person’s race has MUCH less to do with their cultural mores and attitudes than their socio-economic status. Watch your prejudices.

anon too October 9, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Thank you, anon this time, for beating me to this reply! My jaw dropped when I read this, and I flashed back to my (now deceased) grandma in the 1970’s sometimes talking about “coloreds” and my sister and I always teasing her: “What color was she!? Purple? Green?” We could understand someone of her generation and upbringing, but a parent feeling the necessity of using that term in this day and age boggles the mind, even taking into consideration the Southern locale.

anonymous III October 9, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I suggest that this was a purely personal reaction on the part of these aupairs and had nothing to do with their racial or ethnic background. Members of minority groups are just as vulnerable to physical assault as white people. Statistics support that non- white people are more likely to be assualted or robbed than
members of the majority group. In fairness to the poster, I have heard South African people who are not white refer to themselves as colored, especially if they are of mixed racial background. Still and all, it is jarring to hear an someone in our culture use the term.

Dorsi October 9, 2010 at 5:24 pm

I don’t believe that “Coloured” is an offensive term in South Africa, and is used by certain groups to describe themselves. Realize that South Africa was historically divided into three groups under Apartheid: White, Black, Coloured (people of mixed ancestry). I don’t know a more appropriate term in English — and it is not offensive to use a term that a person self identifies with.

cv harquail October 9, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Hi AnonThisTime–
If you have had south African au pairs, as I have, you learn a whole different meaning for the word ‘coloured’. In SA it doesn’t mean what it does here. in the USA, colored is an antiquated and negative label for African Americans; In SA, coloured is a political (as well as ethnic) category. It is not innately offensive, although b/c it is linked to Apartied era segregation practices it isn’t a neutral term. It is okay to say that your SA au pair is ‘coloured’ if s/he is neither white nor black nor Indian but is instead of mixed racio-ethnic heritage, as long as s/he identifies that way. Interestingly, ‘coloured’ is a bit of a catch-all category…with many different assortments of heritages, and thus traditions and norms. So, it’s not necessarily a reliable way to infer/predict cultural patterns.

Host Mom in VA October 12, 2010 at 9:54 am

This is not an offensive term in South Africa. People refer to themselves as black, colored (not the same as black), white. I understand that the use of the term was unfamiliar to you, but do you really think it is appropriate to characterize a post as racist? In South Africa race has as much to do with culture as economic status. Don’t generalize from your own historical experience.

Hula Gal October 8, 2010 at 11:56 am

I can second maleaupairmommy comments about finding the right fit for your family. We started with two German au pairs and while they had other issues not related to culture, we ultimately decided that their cultural norms did not jive well with our family dynamic. We then had a Thai au pair and are now with a Latin American au pair and both have been great for us. Being nervous about a lack of safety awareness on the part of your au pair is nerve wracking. You need to be comfortable with your caregiver and their competency. If you cannot get there than you should consider rematch. I would put the au pair on notice that if she cannot prove to you that she is practicing good safety measures than you will need to find an au pair that is a better fit for you. I am also a first time mother of a two year old. Regardless of whether you are over cautious or not, if you are nervous about the quality of care your child is getting while you are away than you need to make a decision about whether to continue with this au pair – that is the bottom line.

Hula Gal October 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

ooh Calif Mom – you got me with Jibe vs. Jive. I learned something today!

JBLV October 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Perhaps I am overly-cautious or over-protective, but I would take my mother’s concerns very seriously even though I know my mother is hyper-critical, prone to exaggeration, and wants to be the “most important” person in my toddler’s eyes. But safety is safety and there is no point in dismissing any concerns without follow-up. The things you mentioned (like not holding hands on a busy street, not holding hands in a parking lot, etc) would make me pull my hair out and run screaming to my LCC. You have a 2.5-year-old, not a 9-year-old.

Here is how I would deal with the situation (which is not to say this is how everyone should):

1. Call the LCC within the hour and put her on alert that you have serious concerns about your AP and her ability to keep your child safe.

2. Sit down with your AP tonight and explain in detail your concerns. Repeat your concerns more than once if you feel she doesn’t comprehend you. Explain that if her carelessness doesn’t change that you will be forced to make changes for her.

3. Plan to spend time observing the AP. Schedule time for her to work or otherwise be with the family this weekend if possible and observe her unobtrusively. Employ friends/neighbors/relatives to observe her as well.

4. Create a back-up childcare plan ASAP if you were to go into rematch.

5. If by Sunday/Monday/Tuesday you continue to lack confidence in her, sit her down and explain that you think that your family is not the best fit for her. Explain that you will write a letter of recommendation that would be explicit that she be placed with older children.

And absolutely do not let her drive your son anywhere if you feel like he would not be safe with her. That’s the kind of stress no parent wants. If you find she has improved in other areas, but you still cannot assess how well she drives, employ a local driving instructor to asses her. That should give you some peace of mind.

Gianna October 8, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Another thought comes to mind… you mentioned that you have been working with a live out nanny until now. Is it possible that this is one of the big differences between a nanny and an aupair ?

D October 8, 2010 at 1:52 pm

The thing that bothers me most is this:

“Add to that the fact that my AP is pretty confident in her own skills, sends the subtle message that I’m being a bit patronizing (she’s clearly a very bright girl), and doesn’t respond to feedback in a particularly open manner – and we have a pretty large disconnect/ tough situation brewing.”

No matter the situation, If your au pair is not receptive to listening to things that it is IMPORTANT to your family in regards to the children……thats a huge RED flag!
If we tell an au pair that its important to be safe and you guide them to what you feel is safe. (it doesn’t matter at that point what they think, you are the boss) If they don’t want to be receptive to it, thats not good at all. Otherwise, as CA MOM says….you have now a “project” in your home. Your au pair is not putting the family 1st, she is putting herself first in her expectations. That value that is missing is called “compassion” for the family. Cultural, maybe. Still doesn’t excuse it.

Our two rules
Hands in the parking lot always
If you are in public and you can not see the children, better put them where you can see them or install eyes in the back/sides of your head so that you can. Only takes seconds to loose a child.

My 2 cents.

anna October 8, 2010 at 6:13 pm

All the comments regarding safety concerns are valid. I also agree with open communication between host mom and au pair.

A side note to maleaupairmommy and hulagal, I think that his forum would be better served if we avoided listing subjective comments about cultural attributes. Yes, there are generalizations that can be made about all cultures, but even within cultures people are so different from one another. Stereotyping is counterproductive.

To each his own and whatever qualities you prefer come more from the development of an au pair’s personality rather than her/his country of origin.

Hula Gal October 10, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I think that there have been numerous past posts regarding culture and stereotypes with many participants in the discussion. It is not my intention to say that au pairs of a certain nationality and culture are superior or inferior than other au pairs merely that au pairs of a certain nationality and culture do not mesh as well with the personalities and culture of my family.

franzi October 8, 2010 at 6:35 pm

i agree with the previous posts, safety comes first and you need to sit down with your ap immediately to establish some ground rules – such as holding hands in a parking lot, when walking along a busy street holding hands is a must as is that the ap is walking next to the street and not the kid.

also, these rules should be reinforced with the kid eg before you get out of the car in a parking lot remember the child to hold your hand once you’re out of the car.
also, it is important for the parents to be role models as well. if you don’t hold your childs hand in the parking lot (especially in the first days when the ap is around to shadow you) then that sends a certain signal to the ap.

if you find your ap to be unresponsive to your safety concerns i would be very clear that these are ground rules that are not to be negotiated.

regarding potty training, most kids in eastern europe are potty trained by age two. so the fact that your son is still in diapers is an odd fact for her (but part of the culture deal you sign up for).

regarding restricting car access when ap is with the child – i think this is ok. it’s your car and your decision to evaluate her driving skills (of which safety assessment is a big part). restricting her access in her free time is also ok imho if you have true concerns. did you ever drive with her? do you know if she is a safe and reliable driver?

regarding child care references – there’s plenty of fake references around and agencies don’t check it all (though they should, but keep in mind that a bribe can take you a long way in some countries). i would always follow up with the references indicated in the application.

momto2 October 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm

We advise our au pairs during training/orientation that the liberty to go on activities/outings with our children is earned by trust. The trust is built by demonstrating the ability to make sound decisions, keep children safe at home, and near the home (outside, at the park, etc). Trust is earned by being honest and keeping us informed of important issues with the AP and/or the kids. Trust is also earned by demonstrating the ability to follow the house rules and manage the daily routine independently, and to manage kids behavior. As I do not expect the AP to master everything during the first couple of weeks, neither should she expect me to turn over my kids to her in the car at the amusement park during this time frame. If the AP does not earn my trust, the AP has restrictions on where I let her go with the kids. The AP is still free to go out on her own time and I trust she can keep herself safe, and she has the typical understanding of car liability issues, etc., b/c I can replace car parts–but I can’t replace my kids.

And Anna- I do not think the other HM’s are sterotyping as much as they are reflecting the reality that not all cultures are compatible with one another. Even as a veteran host mom, I learned that this past summer after going through a frustrating and depressing rematch with our last AP. We were clearly shocked to learn (according to the AP) that nurturing, love and affection are not routinely practiced in her culture. Our family found the AP to be very cold and downright mean with the children, and she was insulted and angry when we told her how we felt. She said everyone in her country was the same way and that it was normal to treat children the way she did. It was not compatible with our family, though it may be with a different type of family. We did have better compatibility with South American AP’s b/c the nurturing sense was second nature. They were always very doting and loving towards the kids, as are we.

PerfectHost Mom October 8, 2010 at 11:39 pm

I suggest you make a list of three or four values or requirements that are must-haves for your au pair to remain with you. Not nit-picky sorts of things, but general values that you require for your au pair to remain with you. Our family’s are generally:
(1) Health and safety are your #1 concern;
(2) Help us raise well-behaved, creative and kind children; and
(3) Work with us as a team to keep the house going.
Then, under those general categories, add three or four bullet-points for the most important behaviors — e.g., listening to and following your directions; reporting xyz types of incidents to you and when/how; holding hands when crossing the street; redirection vs. confrontation.

Sit down with your au pair and the list SOON before this snowballs – you are setting precedent and this needs to be fixed for you to keep her. Explain that you’re having some concerns about your kids’ safety and you want to clarify the essential parts of her job so that she understands your expectations. The list is partly an exercise to help you solidify the most important things for you on a big-picture level — it’s not as useful to list 35 specific things that she needs to do (although I have certainly done that before . . .), but also, it is meant to convey the gravity of the situation to the au pair. Sit down at the kitchen table and walk through the list with her. If this talk doesn’t tip her off that you are serious, and if she does not work to correct the behavior in the next week or two, or if she doesn’t take you seriously or mocks your attempt to communicate, I would personally rematch. I can put up with unfolded laundry and broken dishes, but I cannot effectively go to work every day if I am worried about basic safety issues (i.e. stove burner left on, feeding child M&Ms for breakfast, I could go on . . .). I also will not tolerate a young girl in my house blowing me off. YOU are the parent and you are paying her to help you.

You definitely need to observe her yourself. We are fortunate that my husband is a teacher and home in the summer to help acclimate and observe. Maybe your counselor has some suggestions for ways you can do this. Maybe you can take a couple days off work or work from home over the next two weeks and shadow her a little.

It is DEFINITELY fair to restrict her activity until you are confident about her taking the kids out of your environment. We have always restricted driving the kids until the au pair has sufficiently proven her driving ability to us. Just be careful to be reasonable — she needs to get out of the house just as much as your kids do, and she cannot improve if you don’t give her a chance.

Having said all of this, our third au pair made three big safety faux pas during her first two weeks and did not seem to understand the gravity of our concern. We rematched lickety split. There are some things that simply cannot be taught. Keep your counselor in the loop so she can help and is not surprised if things go south. Good luck!

MTR October 9, 2010 at 1:09 am

PerfectHost Mom,

I like how you put all most important things into 3 easy to digest categories. It has given me some food for thought. Would you mind sharing what kind of things you have in category 3? To me that seem to be the hardest category to get right while toting that fine line between member of household vs employee and trying no to overstep program rules regarding au pair’s allowed household duties.


aussiemum October 9, 2010 at 1:27 am

You have only one chance with your child’s life. Don’t risk it because you are too scared to confront this au pair. She keeps him safe or she goes. Simple.

newbieAPmom October 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Hi everyone,

Thanks so much for all your comments, support and suggestions. I had no idea that my question would generate so many thoughts! But I am so glad I asked because all of the thoughts were really helpful. Like many of you, I had some qualms about whether my mom was being over-anxious, and whether having a second person around might be contributing to some of the issues. I won’t say too much about that here since she may read this blog (tee hee) but I decided that her issues were real concerns so I needed to address them in any case. I thought you might be interested in the plan I decided on, since so much is drawn from your thoughts:

1. Observe — as you all said, I need to experience for myself, so I’ve re-arranged schedules (as has my husband) so we can be around. Not all day every day, but at varying times to see how different parts of the day are going. Thanks for pointing that out.
2. Get educated — I called my APC coordinator mid last week, actually, as a first stop. I raised the red flag and requested info on their AP university curriculum. She had *literally* no clue what the APs learned on that front and hasn’t gotten back to me with more information. Hugely disappointing and frustrating — not to mention a bit scary. I had counted on that training to be pretty decent. But since I can’t get a response, I’m going to enroll both AP and me in a first aid/CPR class. Better safe than sorry.
3. Communicate: Address this all at our weekly meeting: which is tonight (and I’m nervous)! But I love all the ideas around having HER tell me about safety concerns in the course of the day and how she’ll address them. That’s just brilliant. Then I don’t run the risk of appearing patronizing. And I’m going to use the framework from PerfectHostMom to structure our family meetings going forward. Its a great overview of what really matters!

And at a macro level — I’m going to stop feeling intimidated by this whole process, and feeling guilty that I want to put parameters around my child care… I like the idea of ‘more freedom with trust’ and am going to talk theoretically about that approach. That way, she’s incentivized and doesn’t feel like today’s restrictions will be there forever.

Thanks so VERY much, everyone, for helping this ‘newbie’ get her sea legs!

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