Don’t break your own childcare rules

by cv harquail on September 30, 2009

Here’s a way to mess up your relationship with your au pair, your au pair’s relationship with your child(ren), and your child(ren)’s relationship with you, all at once: Break your own childcare rules.

_3280_2398803773_6cd829eeac.jpgHave a rule that no candy can be eaten before dinner?
How about not letting the kids watch tv before homework, or not letting them skip soccer practice because they don’t feel like going today?

Do you make your au pair follow these rules?
Do you feel free to break them whenever you want? Maybe even because you know that most of the time your au pair is holding the line and keeping up the standards, so of course it won’t do any damage if you break the rules just this once?

(please note: I’m talking here about rules about what the children can’t do ( watch adult tv, eat more cookies)… not about what the caregiver can’t do (use computer, drive while texting). Important difference.)

Consider: It is profoundly unfair to ask your au pair to uphold rules, guidelines and principles with your children that you are unwilling to uphold.

Sure, if you break your own rules once or twice you can make your kids happy – temporarily. But, you are teaching them a few things too– like that the au pair is mean, that rules don’t really matter, or that rules only matter for some people.

(Note that breaking your own childcare rules is subtly different from disregarding an au pair’s authority. Still, it has the same overall negative effect.


There are times, of course, when you do need to break your own rules for some larger reason (e.g., you get a massive headache and/or last minute assignment mean you need some ‘passive entertainment’ (aka tv) while you are ‘on duty).

If you do break the rules, make sure that you are clear to your children why you’re doing this, that it’s a rare occurrence, and that you au pair is right when she refuses to break the rules.

And, keep in mind that the next time the kids want to break this rule themselves, you and your au pair are going to have to work doubly hard to get things back in order.

See also: Sabotage your Au Pair’s Authority: 3 Easy Ways

Wales (broken twig) by sweenpole2001 on Flickr
Bend by salynaz on Flickr


Theresa September 30, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Thank you! Great post, and sooo true, it helps tremendously when the hostparents follow the same childcare rules the au pair is supposed to follow.

A September 30, 2009 at 5:08 pm

yes…although I do have a slight issue with this. A parent can decide to break a rule occasionally. For example, my baby had been sick and to reward the older child for her patience with the doctor visits, etc., I took her out for ice cream. The au pair (who I’ve told to stop feeding my child so much junk food!!) took the kids out for ice cream the very next day that I went back to work! I dealt with this the only way I knew how, which was to quote Cookie Monster and tell her that “ice cream is a sometimes food,” and that she could take the kids out for a special treat only if I approved it first!

The fact is, parents have the right to exercise their discretion to bend their own rules–but others do not.

au pair September 30, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Thanks for this post. It is the best so far. One of the biggest things that bother me about my hostfamily is the fact they take all my autority so the kids NEVER respects the rules. Like when they told me that if they behave bad I was supposed to send them to their room for some minutes. I did that when one of the boys had a nasty behaviour but the mom called and simply told me to take him out of the “time out”because he was too nervous and mad about it. hat made me look like a bad person who wanted to ground him. I was so mad. It’s good to advice parents to not take back what they tell the au apirs to do. That makes us look bad in front of the children and they just do not respect when they have to.

an aupair September 30, 2009 at 6:24 pm

good post! the family I’m with now is very good about this, but when I nannied last year, the parents never enforced their own rules- it was awful!

Dorsi September 30, 2009 at 6:38 pm

This is something I think about quite a bit. I have a no-cell phone, no internet, no TV rule while watching the baby, unless she is napping. However, I do those things all the time when I am on duty. The difference is that the AP has 45 hours a weeks she is supposed to dedicate to keeping my baby safe, healthy, happy. During those hours, that is all she should do. That leave 123 hours that I (or my husband) need to tend to the baby, pay bills, wind down, etc. I think it is acceptable in the evening to have the baby crawling around on the floor while we watch TV, but that is not how she should spend her days. I realize it is a double-standard, but taking care of my baby is not my job, it is my everyday, whenever the AP is not working.

This might be a little different, as our rules don’t pertain to what the baby can and can’t do. I haven’t had a problem with our current AP (she seems to ‘get it’) but I worry about this being a problem in the future.

Anonymous September 30, 2009 at 10:14 pm

The problem here is the issue of judgement. Rules serve as a guiding light when the parents are not there to make judgement calls.
Judgement is something that is a honed skill based largely on age and wisdom as well as hormonal instincts and an intimate knowledge of the children involved. It happens all the time in business situations that a VP or board member makes rules and then elects to override those rules for practical business reasons or in the interest of the greater good of the organization. This does not often sit well with those further down the t/o but everyone knows that there is such a thing as supervisory overide or a presidential veto. That is real life. Having the right to bend, overrule or call rank is a parental right. The flip side of this is that the parents are paying the bills, taking the reponsibility and keeping the family together.
I do not think people should make unreasonable rules but yes, parents have the right to make judgement calls that aupairs do not have the right to call. That may sound harsh but that is just life.
Having said that, I think that people should in fact have compassion for their aupairs and be as generous as their means and schedules permit. Adults should also follow the program rules and apparantly not everyone does that. Hourly maximums, prompt payment of the correct stipend are rules that should never be bent.
But as far as the kids are concerned, sure , if I want to take them out for ice cream and restrict the amount of ice cream they eat the rest of the rest of the week, sorry folks.

an aupair October 1, 2009 at 3:33 am

Okay, maybe I’m a little off base, but in my case, it wasn’t an issue of ice cream or no ice cream after school. It was the parents allowing the kids to completely WRECK their bedrooms with friends over the weekend and then leaving the mess for me to clean on Monday, even though it wouldn’t have been acceptable at all if I let the kids do the same thing without encouraging them to clean up the mess or cleaning it myself…letting the kids have doritos or cheetos and 2 or 3 popsicles right before dinner…letting the (age 3 and 6) kids jump from bed to bed over a hardwood floor or do more dangerous things than that, unsupervised in their rooms…letting the 3-year-old walk 3 houses down the street, by herself, on the sidewalk next to the road, just because she wanted to. Things like this, I as a nanny was not comfortable with the kids doing in my care and/or was told that the kids could not do these things, but when the children were with their parents, they had no limits. Therefore, I was always the bad guy for trying to have them eat healthy and stay safe. Anonymous, sometimes caretakers have that judgment you speak of, and once in awhile the parents lack it.

Theresa October 1, 2009 at 3:42 am

Dorsi, you are absolutly right about that part, and I think most au pairs understand that they spend time with your kids the whole time, whereas you don’t, because as you said, it’s your everyday life, whereas it is our job. And I think that’s one of the great parts about being an au pair, that you can give your kids away in the evening, you don’t have to worry about them anymore, and if you don’t feel like spending time with the kids after a long day, you can just leave. Parents can’t do that. (The downside is that you have to leave “your kids” after one or two years and don’t see them grow up, aren’t involved in their everyday life anymore etc… . offtopic, sorry).
I do agree that parents can be more flexible with the rules than the au pairs, but not too flexible. Because it can get frustrating when the rule is, no TV during the week (which I think is great), and then the parents let them do it anyways. It does make us au pairs the bad persons, who never let them watch TV, for example.
I never really had problems with my hostparents making rules that I had to follow, and they didn’t follow, they are awesome, but what was kind of hard for me was to find a way in between my host dad and host mom, as my hostdad was pretty strict, and my hostmom is more on the other end. So I had to find a way somewhere in the middle, which worked great for me, I just sometimes had the feeling that my hostmom thought I was too strict, and my hostdad thought that I was not strict enough.

Emma October 1, 2009 at 4:58 am

I agree with anonymous, that a lot of it boils down to judgement. But similarly communication (between kids, parents, and AP) is key. If the HPs break a rule, it helps to provide a reason (like A said, this ice cream is a reward for being good, it isn’t an everyday occurrence.) But I also think that if you trust your AP enough, that HFs should allow the AP to occasionally make judgement calls too. For example my HF has a strict ‘no junk food’ rule (save for fridays.) But last week two of the girls from one of my host kids class (all 6yrs old) came home with us after school and we baked cookies. It’s not something we do everyday, but breaking that rule provided us with a fun wholesome activity that the kids could give to their parents to taste when they came home/picked them up. And other then being completely misshapen, the cookies came out delicious and the parents were happy that they all had so much fun despite the fact that the kids and I don’t have a common language.

I think keeping to the rules are important to providing a structured environment for kids, but I also think that (with the right AP) the AP should also be allowed to use judgement on when certain rules can be broken or bent, with good reason.

PA aupair mom October 1, 2009 at 11:51 am

One of our rules that was initially a problem was no tv on school nights. My son was rushing through his homework and not taking his time so he could watch tv. Now he isn’t allowed tv during the week so it’s no longer an issue.

Our AP was upset about the rule because she felt like we made her tell the kids “no tv” but we let them watch it when we were home (mostly weekends).

So, I sat down with the AP and the kids and told them that I was the “meany” who made the tv rule and not AP. This seemed to help a lot.

I do agree that sometimes rules need to be broken, like on special occassions, but I have ultimate responsibility for my kids so I get to make the rules.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Parents are also totally out of the box sometimes when it comes to requests that they make of their aupairs. How in the world can an aupair insist that a kid practice an instrument if he or she doesn’t want to and how can aupairs insist that a kid do homework if the kid refuses. When this happens, parents absolutely have to send a very clear message that the aupair is their representative. If , the child still won’t cooperate it is totally unreasonable to blame the aupair.
I think that exspecting an aupair to clean up a room after the kids trash it is outrageous. When that happens, you should complain to your agency if the family won’t rectify the matter. For that matter, maids and housekeepers should not have to do that kind of thing either. I think this kind of thing is probably very common and it is extremely unfair. For that matter, aupairs should not wake up to a sinkful of dishes to wash or a table to clear.

Alison October 15, 2009 at 12:20 am

Dear Anonymous,
Families need to hold their own children accountable, just like they expect their au pair to do. Sadly, the parents who feel guilty about working, and expect their au pair, housekeeper, etc. to play parent, will pay the price for that later in life. (I grew up in an affluent suburb, with kids who got BMWs for their 16 birthday, trashed them, and now at almost 40 are practically homeless – clearly, giving materialism and no boundaries will not work.) As a host Mom (without guilt about working, and high expectations of my children) I would like to apologize for those families who have placed an unfair burden on you. Sometimes it is difficult for a family to see what is actually going on in their own household.
Take care!

au pair October 1, 2009 at 1:11 pm

The point here is not about cleaning up the mess kids do. I clean up all the time. The point is: parents should NOT tell the au pair to do something and then come and tell the kids they do not need to respect the rule they themselves told the au pair to do their ways. they have the right to change rules when they want, but when the au pair -kid relationship in on the line they need to be reseanable and smart so they cant blame the au pair later.

Darthastewart October 1, 2009 at 1:16 pm

I think that there are certain limits from what you can expect from an au-pair. HOWEVER, I do expect them to follow through with things. For instance, I have the rule that if you have food in my car, you MUST get everything out, once you get home. Simple, right? Well, I kept finding stuff. The AP at the time was like “well, I told them to clean out the car, and they didn’t”. Um.. Okay.. So, what really happened? She casually mentioned it on the way out of the car. Kids didn’t get it in the bustle of getting out. But, she never made them go back and pick up their messes either.
So, while I don’t think that the AP should have to enforce things that are nearly unenforceable, I DO think that they should have to follow through. After all, they are supposed to be adults, and responsible for the kids. If they can’t enforce rules and safety, then what’s the point of having an au-pair? (I.e. I have a toddler who hates the carseat and refuses… Does that mean she lets him ride out of the carseat? Of course NOT.)

My 2 cents October 1, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Sounds like we are all roughly on the same page here to me. Ergo, host parents can’t be hypocrites !!! Could not agree more. Who in the world wants to work for a hypocrite, and how can seriously expect anyone to say what you do if you cannot even keep up with it on a regular basis.

The way we’ve handled the issue is to explain straight away to our APs that there will be times when there is a “double standard.” I give concrete examples and explain why things are different for me. Some of ours: while I say no TV during the day, you may find me on weekends letting the kids watch a few shows while I do things and tasks where I cannot, for their own safety, have them hanging on me (an AP does not need to hang curtains or fix broken fences for example).. Another one: you may not ever use a cell phone while driving even if it’s on your personal tme. You will, however, see my husband doing that all the time. I don’t like this either, but he’s the king of the castle and has been driving 300 times longer than you.

In my experience, if you let the APs know that you realize that the rules apply to you, but that sometimes there will be by virtue of the nature of our respective “jobs,” differences, then it makes sense for everyone. And least this is what I’m hearing from ours.l

I also let the APs know that if they need or want to deviate from something on occasion, to just let me know, and that’s it’s rarely a problem.

au pair October 1, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Darthastewart. I understand your point. Specially because when my kids do not clean up and refuses to clean up screaming and crying I will do it, otherwise my host mom will have to do it and I don’t want her to do that cause she have worked all day long already and I am here to make her life easy. But let me ask you one thing: if your au pair make yur son/daughter, against their will to do something they do not want to wouldn’t you be mad at the au pair when your child come to you complaining and saying the au pair forced him/her to do something?
We CANNOT force your kids to eat healthy, to clean up, to shower. We can try our best to convince them but not Force. But if you say to the au pair: if they do not clean up you need to ground them. Thats absolutely fine once the au pair is allowed to ground the kids as long as the host parent do not come come and say: you do not need to be gounded like your au pair said. Once host parent do that kids will never respect what the au pair says and that’s the point here. Host parents that do that, that act against the rules they give to the au pairs about the kids and then takes au pairs authority as if didnt mean anything.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 4:47 pm

There is another interesting aspect to all of this that has not been brought up so far. Many kids have had a succession of aupairs even if the placements were all runaway successes. Parents are likely to try to find aupairs year after year who have the same basic traits and values. But every aupair is a very different personality with a very different style. This has to be confusing for kids. It is my observation that different cultures , even within the European community have very different styles of interacting with children.
An aupair can be perfectly in accord with her host parents but very, very different from the previous aupair. Who has thoughts on this ?

Darthastewart October 1, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I’ve encountered exactly that situation repeatedly. Yes. The AP has to force the kids to do something they don’t want to do. And yes. They have come complaining to me. And they get in trouble for complaining to me. My children understand that the au-pair is just another “parent” in the house. What she/he says is Law. So, sometimes if the kids are being punished, even if I think it is too harsh, I will follow through on my own time… I.e. taking away privileges. I might discuss it with her outside of the kids’ hearing.. But I am very careful to not undermine the au-pair’s authority, as her word is law in the house. The kids will not get a different answer from me, the au-pair, or my husband. We try to present a united front as much as possible. Is it easy? Not necessarily. But we do it because it’s the right thing to do.

NewAP Mom October 2, 2009 at 12:29 am

Yes, this is totally true. Great post.

I agree with Dorsi though. I actually haven’t watched TV in a year because I didn’t want to create a double standard since I ask our au pair not to watch TV while she’s on duty. In retrospect that’s silly, because like Dorsi says, I’m “on duty” for many more hours and need the downtime. It’s good to hear that au pairs understand that.

Theresa October 2, 2009 at 3:45 am

Darthastewart, great comment, and I love the way you all try to be on the same page, very important I think.
And NewAP Mom, it’s great that you are so thoughtful and don’t watch TV while you are “on duty” because your au pair can’t, but I’m sure she understands when you watch TV, I never even had the thought that it was unfair or whatever that my hostparents watched TV and I wasn’t allowed while on duty (at least I assume I wasn’t allowed to, they never said anything about it, they are very laid-back about these kind of things), but it would never even have crossed my mind.

Jane October 2, 2009 at 2:42 pm

It’s funny–I had the same paranoia about a double standard with the TV, so I didn’t watch TV in front of the kids for the first two years. Now, I explain to the ap that I need to give them a little TV time so I can safely cook dinner, and I still wait to watch my own shows until the kids are in bed.

Having an ap definitely means I work hard not to be a hypocrite. If I want my ap to clean up dishes right after she uses them, then I have to clean up mine too. Overall I think it’s been good to have the standards set high…if I want my ap to do certain things, I should be able to do them too. As far as double standards with rules with the kids, this has never been an issue. The only rules I have are the ones I believe in enough to always enforce myself. I absolutely don’t want my kids eating candy, and the ap sees this from what I feed the kids when I’m “on-duty”. Yes, she thinks I’m too strict about it, but she respects my decision.

TX Mom October 2, 2009 at 5:31 pm

On the double standard issue, I tell our AP’s that will happen and it’s a matter of life. The relationship and authority the parents have with the children is different than an AP. We be sure to have a united front and the kids understand that the AP is in charge but they also understand that there is a pecking order in the family. I think this actually helps the AP at times because she says, “Hey, it’s not my rule, it’s your parents’ rule; we have to do it their way.” I feel for AP’s because I know it’s a hard job. I may shout at my kids and get some compliance (but that doesn’t always work) and it’s one of my double standards; I don’t want our AP’s shouting at my kids. (At least they have a “bad cop” to use.) If anyone has a special potion to make children behave all the time, let’s get into business together!

Laura G. October 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm

This seems to be a wide-spread area of concern. About 2 weeks ago I saw an similar post which addressed these same concerns. Regardless, I think that host parents and Au Pairs need to present a united front when it comes to childcare. Obviously there will be circumstances when parents choose to break their own rules, but those same extraordinary circumstances may end up applying to the Au Pair as well. Either way it goes, the children need to understand why and when things like this may/will happen. The welfare of the children depends on this entire concept.

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