Getting Down (on the floor) with Host Kids: Too much to ask?

by cv harquail on May 19, 2010

One of my favorite moments as an au pair mom was the summer afternoon I came home to find my two year old in a diaper, my au pair in a bathing suit, both of them in the garden, covered in finger paint. They were having a blast.

201005171441.jpgThis particular au pair, although very mature and studious, loved to play with my daughter. Finger paint, Thomas the Tank Engine, mud puddles, the whole deal. It made me so happy to see them play together.

Up until the point when my two girls got really involved in playing with each other and with their best friends- the boys next door (at around ages 5 & 7), I wanted our au pairs to get down and play with the girls. Not only is this more educational, and more fun, it is way more interesting than sitting there on the coach flipping through a magazine while they argue over who would get to use the red light saber.

201005171443.jpgThe amount of time and dedication spent directly playing with the kids varied, though. Some au pairs want to play directly with the kids, while others prefer not to.

But if that’s what you as a host parent want, and what you as a host parent think is best for your kids, how do you help your au pair understand that s/he should flop down on the floor, pick up Edward, Bill, or Annie, and roll them around the track?

Here’s a question from Host Mom LL:

We have three young children – ages: almost 2, almost 4 and almost 6. We are on our third au pair and have liked all three girls reasonably well.

But, I have had one ongoing concern about our au pairs:
The girls all tend to want to sit and look on while the kids entertain themselves.

Now, – I know that would have to happen sometimes. I get tired and sit sometimes while my kids play. But ultimately of course I am looking for an au pair who will engage with them, play games with them, talk and sing with them, etc.

My husband always says, he doesn’t care what the au pair’s interests are, if she would just SHARE them with the kids. If you like to paint, paint with my kids. If you like sports, do sports with my kids.

I do not want my au pair to feel that I am spying on her, criticizing her, etc. And frankly, just criticizing someone never helps. So I am looking for more positive ways to approach this.


Should I ask her to write in a journal about what she did with the kids today? In the past this has not been as helpful as it sounds. “Played in sandbox” does not tell me whether she was actually playing with them or not. Should I take the time to make a list of activities and just ask her to do some of them each week (“Please do painting with Molly this week”) – which would be very time consuming for me but is possible?
That would also not guarantee her engagement with them, but it would at least ensure some variety of activities for my kids.

Or are my expectations too high?

Images:  “Sleeping” with Dolls from The Mooncake Box
(51/53): Play from Grums
Dylan and his Car from Extra Medium


Nicola aupair May 19, 2010 at 7:12 am

My host parent’s main worry was that their kid wasn’t learning enough English. So I specifically have to play with him and talk to him a lot to keep his English going.

Sometimes there’s difficulty about it because he’s 5 and he doesn’t really understand that if I crawled around in the loft with him I would bang my head because I’m too tall, get stuck, scrape my knees and not have any fun at all. But instead we compromise and find other things to do together- like yesterday, I drew the alphabet in bubble letters and he coloured it in. We then practiced singing ABC using the new letters, which was really fun! :)

The au-pair before me, I’m told, loved to play fighting games with him. Well, I hate fighting games! Getting bitten and kicked and scratched is not my idea of fun. When I first started to play with him, he always wanted to fight with me and it’s taken a couple of months to change that habit. Occasionally, I will concede to a fighting game using those action-figures but I don’t really think it’s healthy and it doesn’t really improve his English.

Even when I’m tired, the worst thing I have done is put on a dinosaur movie- in English- and watch it with him. But even then we end up talking a lot because he always asks questions about the movie (such as “who is that dinosaur in the background?” or “what’s he eating?”)

I consider it the duty of an au pair to interact with kids- but it should be a pleasure too. I think if an au pair is tired or just can’t deal with it all one day, they should meet other au-pairs at a park or something and have the kids play altogether, with at least one person keeping an eye on them at all times. Unfortunately I don’t have this option because there are no other au-pairs or even nannys in the area, but I can dream ;)

Then again, I only have the one kid to look after and I base our activities on what he and I like to do. I guess that once you get more kids, especially with age and gender divides, finding an activity for everyone to participate in becomes more challenging. I would suggest lots of cooking! Because everyone takes a secret pleasure in decorating cookies =P

One question though- once, we were going on a road trip and I stuck my I-pod in my ears. My kid wanted to see the music video I was playing, so I showed him (it was By the Way from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and he instantly loved it. I love music almost more than food (!) so he’s heard a lot of Chili Peppers’ in the time that I’ve been here. He likes it a lot, requests that I play certain songs for him and always plays his air guitar whenever a song he likes comes on. I think that this love of music is great, but I’m a little bit wary about showing him things like music videos too many times. He’s watched an entire 2-hour long concert of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (while I was off-duty, his mum let him watch it for some reason) and he keeps on asking if he can watch it again. I’ve only ever let him watch the music video once a week so I don’t think he should, but then again music is a beautiful thing. What do you think?

Anyway, back to the original topic, if you read a magazine while your kid’s play, aupair or mom or whatever kind of minder you are, you’re missing out on a fun, happy and sociable experience that also enhances the kid’s lives. Why on earth would you want to do that?

Nicola aupair May 19, 2010 at 7:16 am

Oh sorry, I forgot to add- just tell the au pair that you want her to play together with your kids! You can even use those words- it’s not offensive or unreasonable or anything like that. After all, nobody reads a magazine while they’re meant to be working in a normal job!

FormerSwissAupair May 19, 2010 at 8:54 am

I am a nanny two 2 year old twins. While I do get down on the floor and paint, play legos, etc, they spent a lot of time in free play with themselves and each other, without me engaging them. I am not saying it is okay for your AP to sit on the couch ALL afternoon or whatever, but children need to learn to play on their own/entertain themselves. It is good for the development of their imaginations. And kids need a break from us just as much as we need a break from them. My employer knows and respects this. Having said that, if she is just sitting reading or watching t.v. the entire time she is with them, then no, that is not okay. And I don’t think you are out of line by telling her she needs to play with your kids. And a journal is a great way to do that.

PA AP mom May 19, 2010 at 9:08 am

I think the best thing a host mom (or dad) can do is model the behavior you expect. When I am outside with the boys, I join in the kickball, baseball, football or whatever game. I try to play video games with them….even though they beat me horribly at them.

Our AP last year was a “watcher”. She sat in a lawn chair and watched the boys play sports while reading a book. My boys mentioned it to me several times. They were disappointed. This year when interviewing, we specifically asked questions about what the APs do in their free time. Then we asked them if they would be willing to show the boys how to do their favorite activities. Lastly, we asked if they would be willing to participate in activities with the boys, even if they weren’t the most enjoyable for the AP.

Our AP now will try anything. On any given day, I can come home and she will be making a fort, dressed up like something, baking cupcakes, painting, playing Wii, playing sports outdoors, etc.

Taking a computer lunch May 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm

I agree with you. I find that our APs mimic our behavior (including the AP who never wipes up the counters after she cooks because HD never does – and he’s the one who washes the dishes when I cook!). Some APs come with a lot of experience with special needs children and don’t need to be taught how to interact with The Camel, who loves to be tickled, bounces and sung to while sitting in a lap (and even though she’s 11 she’s the six of a 6-year-old, so she still fits). I modal the behavior I want.

My typical child is now 9, and while he stretches out on the floor to read, what he needs in an AP is someone willing to play soccer with him, go on a bicycle ride, play against him on his Wii, play a boardgame or just discuss rap and pop music. What he needs is someone cooler than his Mom.

My current AP is rather aloof with everyone but The Camel, although she will offer to do sporty activities if pushed. My son is just happy to ignore her, which is too bad, as they both out on learning from each other. Because he and The Camel have such opposite needs (he wants to play, she needs to be fed, he loves the snow and the heat, she can’t maintain her core body heat…) we usually find APs that tilt toward caring for her needs. However, my favorite APs have been the ones who ask if they may do a special Saturday activity with just my son (going to the movies, going on a hike, making a gingerbread house together, etc.)

I think it takes a special AP to engage older children, especially those who want to be “done” needing a caregiver. Now that summer is approaching, it will take planning to keep them engaged!

CO Host Mom May 19, 2010 at 9:27 am

One of my standard interview questions is “Are you ready and willing to crawl around on the floor and pretend you’re a lion?” Because this is my 3 year old’s favorite game…and we do expect our au pairs to get in there and play with him. I agree with the above comment that modeling the behavior is the best way to encourage this – but I think it all starts with the interview (not a help if the AP is already in your home, I know) and asking the AP if she is willing to do these things. Of course, she may tell you she is and not actually do it, but at least you’ve communicated the expectation which often makes it easier to approach the subject once she is actually in your home.

M in NY May 19, 2010 at 9:53 am

Sometimes I actually wished that my kids wanted to play more. But my kids are older (one is in middle school and the other one is starting high school in the fall) and they don’t really want to play anymore…in the winter when we had snow we were actually out playing, making snowmen and goofing around with the dog and I had a blast! And sometimes we play a board game together, but since the kids don’t really want to spend time with each other either, it’s usually just me and the middle school one.

In the summer we go to the grandparent’s pool like once a week and that’s usually very fun, but like I said, it’s not every day. I would have liked to play a little bit more, but maybe I should have picked a family with younger kids then, and I didn’t want that for a number of reasons.

But: if I was an au pair for a younger kid, I would definitely get down on the floor, cover myself in fingerpaint and run around in the backyard. Just tell your au pair that this is what she needs to do, and that the kids would love it.
She should understand.

My 2 cents May 19, 2010 at 9:54 am

Be direct. Tell your AP you want her physically interacting with the kids and then each day suggest and activity and tell her where the supplies are or tell her what you want to happen. It sounds rudimentary and paternalistic, and you could continue to hope she gets clues or can apply your suggests, but honestly, this is part of her job and if she doesn’t understand that you owe it to her to tell her. Just like any other job, your boss needs to let you know if there’s something you should be doing, or something they want done a specific way, and not just hope you can deduce it. And, in my little world of experience, the au pairs seemed happier with specific instructions as opposed to just saying go outside and play or do some crafts. Lot less anxiety provoking when specifics are laid out.

Another tip from experience that may or may not apply to the OP, but definitely applies to many of us: if you want an au pair to actually get in the pool with the kids and not only play, but operate as a safety net, when interviewing make sure they understand that if they check the box that they swim they will be expected to get in the pool each and every time a child does and will be expected to get completely wet, hair possibly included. I’ve had experiences with au pairs “forgetting” swimsuits, or refusing by ignoring pleas by the kids, to get beyond a foot in to avoid smearing makeup or generally looking foolish (in their minds).

Au Pair in CO May 19, 2010 at 10:20 am

I have an agreement with my host mom that as long as I spend one hour every morning with the 4yo doing homework, playing boardgames, teaching him my language and other activities that actively educates him, it is ok for me to sit back and watch him play with other kids if we go to the park. Of course I also play with him in the park, soccer, hide and seek and such games, but I think it’s great that he also gets to interact with kids his own age:)

I think the only way you can make your au pair interact more with the kids, is to tell her exactly what it is you expect her to do. If you don’t want her to read magazines/books/do other things while on duty, it’s your right as a host parent to tell her so:)

au pair now host mom 2morrow May 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I am waiting to go to the USA yet, but I know that I will go to work and I know that I will be a very important part of the growing of the kids, your au pair needs to remember that she was also a kid and I know that she liked to play like your kids, every child is different, and every one needs different special attention, she will need to be creative, and very spontaneous it is basic, I advise you that you should be the example for your au pair about what do you want she does, and be very very detailled with her, you could tell her examples like do handicrafts, but if she even is lost and dont know what kinds of handicrafts to do, she could search in the internet about a lot of things that kids and au pair can enjoy together. I hope you get the best for you and your kids. Every child deserves it!

MommyMia May 19, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I agree – you have to try to elicit this in the interview, but it can be hard, given language abilities and differing ideas of what “playing with the kids” really means, as it is interpreted differently. We try to model, by acting goofy and getting messy with crafts ourselves, as we’ve had some APs who didn’t want to let the preschooler get paint on her body or clothes, so Dad took her outside on a warm day and stripped the little one down, gave her the paints to decorate herself and a hose to wash and play with, and they were having such a blast, the AP joined in to a limited extent and even the older sibling had to come and reinact one of her favorite preschool memories. We have dozens of funny photos that everyone still enjoys looking at! I’ll admit, I prefer WiiSports to the real thing (except swimming), but will kick a ball around, or jump on the swings or monkey bars at the playground, too.

Our least favorite APs were the ones who tried to hide behind the sofa in the playroom texting or reading while the preschooler entertained herself, but it was a dead giveaway when I’d hear “AP, stop doing that and play Barbies with me. You be this one and we’re having a party.” Or when there was no verbal interaction at all, just the child talking to her dolls or imaginary friends, which was really sad to listen to. And that AP wondered why her English had not improved after six months!

It can be challenging to some (even parents) to learn to sometimes sit back and watch while a child does imaginary play alone, or when to back off a bit and let them direct the playtime, as they do get “burned out” from too much active, one-on-one interaction sometimes, but when you’re being asked directly to engage with the child, do not ignore them! It’s another issue to me that often the paints/toys/sports equipment are not put away after they’re done playing, but I mind less putting stuff away when I’ve seen some fun, healthy, interactive play taking place, and it’s still a work in progress to teach the little one that things need to be picked up before you move on to the next activity.

JessicaLasVegas May 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

I have a big, emphatic NO – it is not too much to ask your AP to interact with your children. This is the main reason I got an AP. Day care would have been much, much, much cheaper (thousands of dollars cheaper). But, I wanted one-on-one care for my 9-month-old. At 9-months old, there is a two-one ratio of caregivers to children. And even at the best day care (university run) in my city, I noticed there is not as much interaction between babies and care givers as I like. Now that my son is in the 1 to 2-year old range, the ratio of toddlers to caregiver is one-to-five. This is not acceptable in my opinion.

With this said, when my current AP arrived, the interaction was not great. The first day, she sat on the couch with her laptop while my son sat in the middle of the living room. I spoke with her, and explained that the most important part of caring for my son was that he is safe and clean. But an equally important part of caring for him is also interacting with him. I suggested activities (books, legos, helping him walk, etc), and to my great surprise, she has been very, very good with him. She really changed her expectations – and her involvement as a caregiver. Over the next few weeks, I continued to talk with her and guide her. Now they play, wrestle sometimes, read books, color, and there are lots of kisses involved. I also try to introduce new activities so that the AP doesn’t get bored. We still occasionally have princess issues with her, but I’m happy with her her ability to interact with him.

As for older children, I don’t have have a lot of experience in this department, but I would think it’s just as important for them to have an adult with whom to interact (albeit maybe not as frequently, depending on the age of the child). Adults can guide children in ways other children may not be able to.

JessicaLasVegas May 19, 2010 at 1:25 pm

That is to say, “At 9-months old, there is a two-one ratio of caregivers to children [at daycare].”

JessicaLasVegas May 19, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Oh, and another way you can approach your AP is to ask for suggestions from her. This is a great way to get her involved.

AUPAIR Momma May 19, 2010 at 1:47 pm

wow … infant care here is as much as an aupair. had no idea you could get cheaper.

JessicaLasVegas May 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm

The university where I live has for $215/week for full time infant care. The Methodist daycare across the street from the uni is $182/week for full time infant care.

north cali May 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Lets think about the cost. AP weekly fee (with application fee) – $349/week, without adding any type of other expenses. I think AP are over paid. They are getting around $800 cash each month. They have a car, insurance paid, free cell phone, a room to stay and they don’t have to pay for food. Can any teens around 19-26 years old really make that much each month, tax free, after all their expense? It’s not cheaper than day care. We paid for AP for one-on-one care for our children.

FormerSwissAupair May 21, 2010 at 4:28 pm

They’re overpaid? Are you kidding me?

Host Mommy Dearest May 21, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I would like to see a post that attempted to get at the real cost per week to HFs (everyone could post their # with their assumptions and details of calculations). Also, separate from this, what is the true (adjusted) annual salary of the AP?

aria May 21, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Put your fire retardant suit on and beware the backlash. And not all au pairs get all the perks you’re talking about. I pay my cell phone, public transport pass, food, and I’m still making bottom of the barrel salary compared to a part time nanny who would do the same job as me.

BLJ Host Mom May 19, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Wow, this hits home. I have a really great AP. She does so much for our kids and really helps our house run smoother. This is the one area that I have been trying to improve. This would be the thing that I would change about her. The one thing I’ve tried without success to change about her.

Mostly she’ll do whatever I tell her to do, she is a direction follower. For some reason it sounds/feels kind of weird to tell a 23 year old, “get down on the floor”. We have three girls -an 8 mth old baby and a 3 & 6 year old who play pretty well together. Sometimes, I know she’s not getting on the floor because she is feeding the baby or changing a diaper or cleaning up or getting lunch ready or doing kids laundry. I know 3 kids is a lot of work, and it’s hard to make time to play on the floor. I guess that’s why when she does have time, it really bothers me when I walk in the room, the kids are playing something and she is on the couch sort of commenting or answering them only when spoken to from there, rather than helping them make the fun, giving them ideas, etc. She let’s them call all the shots. They are more than happy to do this. It is easy to see how excited it gets them on the rare occasion she does get down and say, “okay let’s pretend that I’m the mail man” or ANYTHING, they would think it was awesome. I can even see a difference in how they respond to her obeying and such if she doesn’t bring anything new to the table for them. They will easily fill up all day every day with their own ideas. But kids need new ideas too. I’ve asked her to do that. I’ve asked her to right it in our journal. I’ve given her a list of what needs to be in her journal daily. She will for a week or two, but then it tapers off. So does teaching them her language, which they are hungry to learn.

I think the hard thing for me is that I have brought it up before and it feels more awkward to revisit it for a third/fourth time, because I know she already knows what I want. And I also like her a lot, I understand about running out of time and energy. But this is her full time job.

For the next AP, I’ve made it clear that this is important, but I think that means some hand holding in the beginning, remembering that these are not professional child development teachers, these are high school / college babysitters, and we need to teach them about laying out / planning the day for our kids. Still for my current AP and thinking about upcoming summer, I think it’s hard to say, “By playing in the sprinkler, I don’t mean turn it on for only them, I want you to run in it too, not sit on the lawn chair”. It’s just a personality thing. I don’t think she wants to.

She was here for one month before I had the baby, then I thought she wasn’t doing it as much because it was awkward, or embarrassing in front of me and my husband who both work from home. Then with the additional responsibility of a baby I thought that she couldn’t find time, and I was so glad she was just able to handle it with 3 on her own, getting everyone’s schedule down, etc. But now, like I said, even when she does have time, she sits as a silent observer and only speaks when spoken to or speaks to correct behavior or to corale them to do the next obligation, like lunch, or naps. Maybe she is getting burnt out as she only has 2 months left, but I would also like to hear ideas of how to fix this in the future. I’ve already made it clear in the interview. So now what?

As far as flipping through a magazine on duty, I make it clear in the handbook that there will be no time for personal time for anything while on duty with 3 small children. No computer, TV, books, phone calls. I didn’t add magazines, maybe I should for the sake of being clear. :)

Enough running on for now…

aria May 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm

I like that BLJ Host Mom puts it squarely in the handbook that there is no time for personal time while on duty. My HF told me straight up when I started everything a list of things that were Off Limits (computer, speaking the kids’ native language, etc) and it makes my life a lot easier. Who wants to spend their time trying to walk the line of what’s permissible and what’s not, or worrying about whether what you’re doing is allowed or not? I think if there is something you want out of your AP, write it down, make it a rule, and tell it to her straight!

Should be working May 19, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Yes, I want to add this to the ‘best piece of advice’ list for first-time (and multi-time) moms. You have formulated exactly the line I’m going to add to my handbook!

FormerSwissAupair May 19, 2010 at 3:18 pm

I don’t agree that the AP should necessarily have to run through the sprinkler. If she is out there supervising and interacting on the sideline, there is no reason to make her get in. It’s not like it’s a swimming pool where they are going to drown.

BLJ Host Mom May 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I don’t want her in the sprinkler because I think it is unsafe without her, just like another HM doesn’t want her AP on the ground pretending to be a lion because the floor is unsafe without her. It is more fun for the kids and they will have a better relationship with her, including behaving better, if she is fun and playful. The sprinkler is just an example of something that would be 10x more fun for them if she were jumping through and laughing with them, instead of watching on uninvolved. There are lots of things I want her to do for reasons other than merely keeping them alive. Though of course that is always a top priority!

FormerSwissAupair May 19, 2010 at 6:37 pm

But I don’t think an AP should have to do absolutley everything a child wants to do all the time. That is completley unrealistic, and doesn’t give them the skills needed when they start school, etc. You are teaching them that they get whatever they want, when they want it. Not to mention it stifles a child’s personal creativity. An AP should not be the main entertainment in a child’s life. That is how you end up with a child with no imagination, cannot play by themselves, and thinks everyone is there purely for her enjoyment. I am not giving an AP license to sit on their butt all day and have no interaction whatsoever, but by your own admission, she helps your home to run smoothly. Why not cut her some slack and realize she probably needs a break now and then too?

BLJ Host Mom May 19, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I think you might be misunderstanding me. This isn’t about cutting slack. I’m very happy with our AuPair. But she does have a lot of needs to meet during the day that aren’t “playing”. The kids play A LOT on their own, most times she is supervising and correcting behaviour. So when she has time, the baby is napping, nobody needs fed, I’d love her to give them a little more playful attention, that’s all. I want them to see her as the fun person she is, not only as a behavior correcter while wiping down the table or giving a bottle from the rocker. I’ve seen that lead to negative attention seeking.

As far as “an AP should not have to do absolutely everything a child wants to do all the time”, I definitely agree. I also agree that sibling play is both beneficial, fun and important. My kids get plenty of that, and it wasn’t the point I was making at all.

The topic of this post was how to you get an AP to get down on the floor with your kids with trains and start playing. Also, each parent has a different idea about what an AP should be to their family. We have young children, and we need someone to be fun, I’ve made it clear what I’m looking for, in both the interview and the handbook (which I send before matching). You might have reviewed our family and decided we weren’t the right fit for you. That’s okay.

In my opinion, it isn’t okay for an AP to tell a HF that it sounds great and then get here and try to teach host parents about the importance of teaching independence skills for when their kids start school as an excuse for why they can’t do what they said they would love to do in the interview.

Lucky 7 HM May 20, 2010 at 9:21 am

I think BLJ’s expectations sound very reasonable. She clearly does not expect a cheerful, fun, and happy AP ALL the time – as FormerSwissAupair mentioned it is not possible. She just wants an AP with the ability and desire to truly engage and have fun with the kids during the short windows of possible time. She would probably be happy with 50% of the possible time….

former extension au pair in CA May 20, 2010 at 12:21 am

i could not agree more with you!
and i AM a very involved au pair, i absolutely LOVE fooling around and playing WITH my host children. but what you say is VERY true, and i have experienced that with all of my host children. they expect me to do EVERYTHING they do, and at this point, there are things they wont even do at the playground or in the park because i am not going on the slide WITH them. they are 6 years old.

FormerSwissAupair May 20, 2010 at 8:49 am

Seeing as how I’m American, I probably didn’t review your family. I am a professional nanny, with a degree in education and psychology, and am more of a parent to my charges than their own are. I was an AP, for 3 years, in Europe as of December. It is rather difficult to be fun all the time. On average, most AP’s spend more waking moments with the kids than their parents do. And in my opinion, it isn’t okay for a HF family to expect a cheerful, fun, and happy AP ALL the time. That just isn’t human nature, and I highly doubt it is how you are with your own family 24/7.

Kitty May 19, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I think its a gray line. With kids that age if the au pair is their source of entertainment I think its important. But the aupair marketing material i’ve read says ‘babysitting’ kinda implies this type of care is not required. Even on the materials it says nanny is resp for thinking up activities plans rather an aupair is more of a ‘watching’ type. It says au pairs have generalized care watching children but are not expected to have developmental experience or education on best way to interact w/ children at all ages. If you read aupair letters they all want to ‘push stroller, take kids to park, play board games, art’. You have to be on the look out in experience where its clear they actively engage.

JessicaLasVegas May 19, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I have to respectfully disagree. There is not need to have developmental experience or education to interact with children. To me, it’s more part of being a family and a caregiver.

JessicaLasVegas May 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm

erm, “no need”

north cali May 21, 2010 at 2:31 pm

AP are getting paid as a caregiver. As HF, I don’t care about my AP’s education, I just want them to take care of my children. If your AP is not all that into your children, they are not doing their job. JessicaLV, your comment is right on….

Anna May 21, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Where does it say about au pair vs. nanny?
To me, its the same job.
“Babysitting” doesn’t literally mean sitting on your bum with babies around you. It means taking care of the children when parents are not home. Au pairs do babysitting, nannies do babysitting.
There is no gray line here. Au pair is there for my children, to do whatever serves my children best at the moment, not to bide the time (and be paid for it) until she is off to go enjoy her friends and out of the house activities.

FormerSwissAupair May 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Nannies generally do more educational activities, and are more hands-on with a child’s development process. They are also usually better educated.

Host Mommy Dearest May 21, 2010 at 4:39 pm

I agree that most APs do their AP year between HS and college, and many nannies have completed college, but just as age does not equal maturity, more years of education does not necessarily mean better educated.

FormerSwissAupair May 21, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I was referring to the fact that most nannies have degrees related to children as well as experience.

Should be working May 21, 2010 at 4:52 pm

My nannies have had LESS formal education than my AP, and have definitely NOT done educational activities. They were good nannies (and granted I only had nannies when each kid was under 1) but not owing to education or developmental orientation.

I would say instead that the biggest difference is in the parents’ relationship to the caregiver: nannies are clearly employees, not part of the family (unless maybe that evolves after years of care), and have a private life in which I have no say (or knowledge thereof). APs are ‘part of the family’ in an ambiguous fashion; their private lives are, insofar as they are in my house, somewhat my business. I am responsible for trying to give the AP an overall experience, or at least the conditions in which she can build for herself that experience.

My expectations for childcare are the same for nannies and APs, except that I would expect to have to give the AP more guidance on ways to handle the kids when things are difficult, and I would expect to have to give them more mentoring and advice along the way overall.

TX Mom May 19, 2010 at 4:50 pm

“get on the floor, get in the pool, go outside!” I vet it in interviews, write it in the handbook and say it repeatedly to some AP’s. I think AP’s are either active and playful or not. With the AP’s who “aren’t” they may follow instructions and comply for a time period but when it’s “too hot” or “too cold” they will stay inside and supervise the kids. With the AP’s who are active, I never have to ask and they engage in play even in their free time. Here is the stark difference: one AP played in the surf all day with us on a family vacation, another AP read books on a towel but dutifully watched the kids when asked. I highly “want” an AP who enjoys an active lifestyle, but it’s no longer a “need” criteria. For our family an active AP makes the difference between a “great year” and a “good year.”

BLJ Host Mom May 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm

TX Mom, I really like that perspective, and agree that while this is a very worthwhile topic, it doesn’t make or break the year! Phew!

A May 19, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Appealing to the AP to share what she likes to do with the children might work, and it will help all of you (you, host dad, au pair) appreciate her strengths. If she is crafty, compliment her creations and ask her to help your children make collages. If she likes to cook, find some kid-friendly recipes and ask her to make them with the kids. If she is musical, ask her to teach your children songs.
I remember being 18, 19, 20–I didn’t even know what I was good at! So saying, “please share your interests” would not have worked with me, even without a language barrier.

FormerSwissAupair May 20, 2010 at 9:43 am

I personally am horrible at arts and crafts. lol. I don’t have a creative bone in my body, and I just don’t enjoy them. But I love music and sports, so I tried to make up for my lack of craftiness in other ways. Also, make sure you have the supplies needed in your home for activities. There is nothing worse than being told you have to do X with the child, but yet have no supplies to work with. lol.

A May 20, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Thanks, FormerSwissAupair. That’s a point I meant to, but forgot to make: ask for something specific and then get her what she needs to do it. If you were my au pair and I wanted to make sure you were actively doing something with my kids that you would all enjoy, I’d show you where we keep all the sports equipment in our garage. “Here’s the soccer ball, why don’t you show the kids how to kick it?”

former extension au pair in CA May 20, 2010 at 12:38 am

I have a question for parents with children around the ages of 6-7-8.

This is very important to me so I really appriciate your input :-)
How much do you expect your au pair to actively “play” with your 6 or 7 year olds? And I don’t mean things that adults love to, like playing board games, sports, reading to the kids, singing/dancing or arts and crafts, I mean playing with characters and making silly voices and keeping the game going for a while..
I dont mind playing like this for a few minutes, but then I would love to see the children being able to continue their game by themselves and use their imagination. My host children are not very good at entertaining themselves, and constantly tell me to “play with them”, and I mean constantly. Even when I tell them I am busy doing something else (like feeding the baby), they dont stop, and keep asking me to play with them (and get VERY dissapointed when I suggest they entertain themselves for a little bit until I am done feeding the baby). I always try to get them started, but as soon as I leave to get some snacks for them or do something else, they ask when I am coming back to continue playing with them.

Now, my host mom never seem to see anything wrong with this, but I feel the children are getting a little too old for this constant need for ME to play with their superheroes and dolls all the time. Please share your thoughts if you have older children, I really appriciate it. (And dont think I am the kind of “watcher”-au pair. I rarely find myself “watching” the children at all, even in the park I am running around with them. I just would love to hear what other moms think when it comes to the “play with me”-issue regarding older children)

Thank you

Taking a computer lunch May 20, 2010 at 7:18 am

I don’t expect my APs to engage in my 9-year-olds imaginary play, and I don’t think any have since he was 4 or 5. They play sports with him, including those with complicated and impossible rules that he invents. My guess is that girls want more imaginary play with adults than boys, with their love of dress-up and hair-brushing.

It is very hard to convince children to play on their own if their used to adult entertainment. When the kids do go off and play by themselves, verbally reward them when they return – I really appreciate your playing by yourselves for x minutes, it makes it much easier to feed the baby. Given verbal rewards, you’ll find the kids will play on their own for longer stretches in no time.

It is possible, too, that they are jealous of the baby’s undivided attention (my 9-year-old will try to crawl into my arms whenever he sees me holding his sister – it’s pure jealousy). And if that is the case, make it clear to them when you are giving them their special time. “The baby’s having a nap now, so we can have some special time together.” (And my recommendation is that you play what they want like a good sport, even if it bores you to tears.)

JJ host mom May 20, 2010 at 10:21 am

Some interview questions I ask along these lines:

If you took the kids to the park, would you prefer to watch them or help them go down the slide?

If you took them to the beach, would you make sandcastles with them, or would you prefer to prepare the picnic lunch while they play?

If you were doing an art project, would you do your own at the same time, or help them with theirs?

BLJ Host Mom May 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm

I like these! Thanks!

Calif Mom May 20, 2010 at 10:22 pm

It’s got to be a balance, though. I need/want my kids to be able to play with other kids and figure out how to navigate those relationships, too. I cringe at the kids who are zooming around with their adult “staff” who keep them entertained at a park or playground, becoming the centers of attention. Know what I mean? Our kids shouldn’t need adults engaged in their play 24/7. IMHO, it’s very easy these days to tip over the other side of that hill and over-supervise them, compared to when we were all kids. Even a 3 or 4 year old needs to be able to push the train around the track by herself, rapt as she builds her own little imaginary world.

There’s nothing at all wrong with parallel play, either! When my little one is doing an art project, our au pair might be sitting next at the table, too, working on her own painting or she might be in the kitchen fixing lunch. Either option is okay.

I guess I’m just sensitive to providing kids too much help, and not helping them build their “struggle muscles.” I think it’s easy for au pairs to fall into the trap of DOING for the kids, rather than teaching them to do, because it’s their responsibility. I want my kids to learn how to fold laundry and put it away, not just have it done for them.

[TACL — go easy with the gender assumptions! My girls want to play thrash-around, ferocious make-believe games that involve warring clans of various animals, not hair brushing. :-) And they will play those games together for hours, until someone needs ice for an injury.]

JJ host mom May 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

And one more thought about this – this is one of those areas where, frankly, I have higher expectations of the au pair than I do of myself. This is her job, so when she’s with my kids during their waking hours, I want her to be fully, 100% engaged. I have my paying job, my job as a mom, and my job running a household and getting dinner on the table, etc. Unfortunately that means I am always tired and often distracted. I try very hard not to be, but my mind’s always on “what’s the next thing.” I do fun things with my kids when I’m with them – arts and crafts, taking them to gym and music classes, tossing the balls around. But to be frank, I also sit by while they play in the sandbox, or sit on the floor and watch while they play with toys. I recognize that engaging with kids 45 hours a week is hard work, and that I’m asking for a double standard. But it is what it is – I still expect my au pair to engage. And mine does, so I know it’s not too much to ask!

One thing that I noticed about my current au pair (and learned from her) is that she always makes eye contact with my kids when they’re grunting at her (since they’re pre-verbal.) That speaks volumes and is a good thing to watch for to evaluate engagement.

My 2 cents May 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Ditto !!

I fully realize and don’t feel a bit guilty about the simple fact that I expect our AP to do more play and more of the fun stuff because it is her job and all the thousands of others tasks I have involving running a home are not her responsibility.

Should be working May 20, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Yes, the AP is definitely more fun than I am, and as I see it, that is why we have her–so the kids have a fun, full-attention adult around even when mom is not there or there but busy or making the house run. We are SO lucky that our AP totally gets it. I knew we had struck it rich with her when I came home from work the first week and the kids AND the AP all had things taped to their foreheads as part of some inscrutable game, and they barely looked up when I came in because they were too busy with the game.

On the other hand, I admit to jealousy that they don’t run to me first to play!

Taking a computer lunch May 20, 2010 at 12:53 pm

When my first AP asked if she should be cleaning the house and preparing the evening dinner, I replied to her, “You don’t have time.” Your job is to play with the kids, oversee their therapy (both kids were in early intervention programs for a while), and keep them safe.” (I cleaned the house after the kids were in bed, and somehow made dinner because my AP attended university classes the minute I got home.)

I set my priorities, and in doing so, made it clear that she needed to remain engaged. That did not mean, however, that I expected her to cater to their every need every minute of the day – if she wanted to go shopping at the local mall I considered it perfectly acceptable for her to drag my kids along – everything is a learning experience when they’re little. She did an excellent job of talking with my son, so that not only was he completely bilingual until he was 4, his vocabulary was incredibly rich in both languages.

However, I also set the standard of behavior, because the first thing I did when I got home, wardrobe be damned, was hug and play with my kids – because they craved that moment that I walked in the door intensely and the few hours I had with them before they went to bed mattered the most to them. (My son, by the time he was 2, asked every weekday if tomorrow were Saturday – he knew.)

Now that he’s 9, sometimes I barely get a grunt out of him (in fact, I’ll talk for him, “Hi Mom, I’m so glad your home!” just to embarass him into saying hello), and I have plenty of time to change into playclothes and keep my work clothes nice. But, I’ll tell you right now, as a parent, sometimes it’s fun to let your hair down and get into a water balloon fight with your kids. I treat my kids to a party because they have a half-day of school on the last day – they get to invite their friends – we throw water balloons, I squirt them with a hose, make them eat fruit and vegetables and then give them a bag of chips to devour and have a great time. Last year the kids thought all the parents would have as much fun as I, and boy were they sorely surprised when none of them reacted as well as I to getting sopping wet.

There doesn’t have to be a double standard, even though we as parents shoulder more of the burden of managing the household.

BLJ Host Mom May 20, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Taking a computer lunch – you get me to thinking if I need to ease up on some of the household responsibilities in order to encourage more engaging with the next AP. Do you have your AP do kids laundry, bedding, straighten up after playing? Especially when your kids were small? Mine are 7mths, 3, & 6. I have her do the lunch dishes and wash bottles as well. It’s a lot, I know.

FormerSwissAupair May 20, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Yeah, it is a lot. That is what I meant by maybe your AP maybe needs a break after a while. I’m thankful that my main focus in my job is the kids happiness (including playing) and all other household things are secondary.

Busy Mom May 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm

BLJ Mom, When my 3 kids were around those ages, I asked my nanny (age 25) to do all those houshold tasks and more. She still had plenty of time to play and engage. Also keep in mind that if your au pair does not take care of those tasks, then you will need to and you’ll have less fun time with your kids. I feel very fortunate to have always had live-in childcare for more hours than I have worked (due to a self-employed part-time schedule). It has afforded me more free/play/quality time with my kids. Some may interpret this as a selfish viewpoint, but our caregivers have always had time to play with the kids as well.

Taking a computer lunch May 20, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I was in a different situation from most of you. For the first year our first AP was with us, The Camel was just 2 and had 5 one-hour therapy sessions every week and my son (who had had bacterial menigitis at 4 weeks) received two one-hour sessions. It wasn’t like having a toddler and a newborn, it was like having two newborns. So, no, our AP did not have to tidy after play (I did that in the evening after the kids were in bed because I didn’t want them to live in a house where they didn’t feel free to play with their things). She did two loads of laundry a week – that’s all – usually with her stuff. I didn’t want her upstairs tidying their rooms, because I don’t believe in playpens – so I wanted her on the ground floor – or anywhere, with the kids. She did her lunch dishes and a round of bottles. The Camel napped for three hours straight, but was totally erratic – she was 6 before she developed a schedule (which now that she’s going through puberty, is being undone again). My son was a lousy napper, and usually I returned home and found The Camel asleep in her crib and my AP in the next room – her bedroom – asleep with my son.

When my son was 2, he gave up napping completely and never shut his mouth. Once a neighbor traded childcare with my AP – and the afternoon she cared for my 2-year-old while her kids napped, she said, “I don’t know how X does it – he never stops asking questions!” (My other rule – is that every question deserves an answer, even if the answer is “It was rude of you to listen to our conversation.”

Today my son is in an advanced class – because he was stimulated both by me and my AP. He’s a good friend, and he’s still lousy at picking up (but he points out that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak) – but he’s learning to take care of his things and vaccuum the playroom. My goal for him is to be able to clean, do his laundry, cook simple meals and navigate public transportation by the time he’s in high school. He’s only 9, but he’s already starting to clean and cook. The Camel will never be independent, so he’s the one to do it.

BLJ Host Mom May 20, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Totally agree with this. I’m not expecting a cheerful attitude 24/7, but I am expecting it 45 hrs a week. And I do model the behavior I want, like you, when I can, but you are right, during the work week, it is hard to find the time to be fun with 3 kids, so I need her to pick up that slack. I have her to fill a hole while we are at work. When I was 23, I had to be “on” the whole time I was at work; if she had another job, she couldn’t say to her boss, “It’s not human nature for me to have energy at work the whole time”. Please! :)

That eye contact thing is something I added to our handbook. As a tip for her. “The kids will always respond to you better if you make eye contact when they are speaking to you or you are speaking to them.” As often as you can, especially in the morning, treat them as though what they are saying is the most important thing you’ve heard all day.

To be honest, I’m trying to remember this “tip” myself every single day!

Pia Aupair May 20, 2010 at 11:12 am

When my hostmum got on longterm disability leave from work I had a hard time entertaining my 2 and 3 year old girls. My hostmum was sitting on the couch watching tv and the girls wanted to be around her and not play with me – so i started sitting on the couch too, which after a while gets kind of boring.
My hostmom is a former elementary school teacher and after sharing my concerns we created a visualized schedule for me and the girls.
We took a long piece of project board and clued a long piece of velcro on it. Then we listed activities on a piece of paper eg. free play, craft, music, outdoor, field trip, reading and tv but also naptime and meal times.
we found a picture on the internet for each and used mochpod to clue them on 3×3 cardbord pieces. every piece got a small piece of velcro on the back. we also made 3×3 cards for the weekdays, colors, shapes, letters and numbers. and yes it was a lot of work!!!
but it works great. every week we have a letter, number, color and shape to concentrate on and we put those at the top of the project board schedule. After that we set the rest… in the beginning i did it at night so it would be ready in the morning when the girls got up. now the girls help me to pick activities they want to do and stick them on.
Each activity isnt longer then 30min since their attention span isnt any longer either ;-) (i often use a timer so the girls get a feeling for time)
It works great for me especially since i do not drive my kids and a 9 hour day can get pretty long if you dont have a lot variety. Every time we finished an activity we take it off and put it in a little baggy so its easier for the girls to see whats next.
It also helped to decrease my girls tv time (that i am not at all a fan of but my host parents see as down time) my 3 year old could watch tv all day long if i would let her and 300times a day i was asked if she could watch tv. now she just looks at the schedule and can tell that tv time wont be until after nap (and mommy is back in charge).

maybe you can try something like that. =)

Pia Aupair May 20, 2010 at 11:15 am

we also put things like laundry time or room cleaning time on the schedule since my girls are pretty good helpers/watchers when it comes to chores.

M in NY May 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Wow, this sounds like a great idea for younger kids! You must have had a good time putting it together too. Awesome.

MommyMia May 20, 2010 at 4:49 pm

I agree, PiaAuPair, this is a great way to have everyone involved in learning and doing and keeping busy. I can see possibilities for adding things as they get older, or changing the pictures as another craft project. Letting them select some “free” blocks of time would also be great, IMHO, just as an alternative to having everything planned out for the day – maybe put some “extra” activity pictures in a bag to draw from for the Mystery block once a day or once a week, just to add some variety?

Calif Mom May 20, 2010 at 10:25 pm

A variation on this works for older kids too. It’s a white board with the day’s schedule and “Things to Be Done Before The Parents Return”. Really helps au pair and kids, both, get through the day.

HostMomLL May 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Wow, I am amazed at all of this helpful feedback. A few reactions, in no particular order:

My instinct is always to “model” the behavior I am looking for with the AP, -but to tell the truth, I have not always found this approach to be successful. So I remind myself that the AP cannot read my mind, and I make the effort to speak up. This also forces me to put what may be vague frustrations in my head into clear and reasonable expectations.

I also agree with putting housework second. You can’t have it both ways. My AP knows that my kids are her priority. I’m not going to complain because I come home occasionally to toys on the floor or dirty dishes in the sink, -I’m happy they spent the afternoon at the park.

I really appreciate the interview questions (“Are you ready and willing to crawl around on the floor and pretend you’re a lion?”) and handbook suggestions people gave.

However, I do take some exception to FormerSwissAupairs comments that she is more of a parent to her kids than their parents are, or that she is concerned the family will end up with “a child with no imagination, cannot play by themselves, and thinks everyone is there purely for her enjoyment.” Whatever degree you may have, I would never have a nanny in my home who I felt was going to disregard my wishes because she “knew better” than I do how to raise my children. …There is so much trust involved in this relationship, from both directions, which is what we all struggle with. I feel that once I have an AP I am comfortable with, it’s fine that she may not handle every situation the same way that I would, she is an individual. But I could not be comfortable with an AP who I know disagrees with my whole approach to parenting and informs me my children will come to no good end.

I think the age of the children must make a difference here too. My children are 1, 3, and 5. I do not expect toddlers to come up with stimulating activities to entertain themselves. As working moms we wish we could be home, and there are so many activities with our own children we wish we could be doing. I loved “Should be Working”‘s description of coming home to find the nanny and kids with “things taped to their foreheads as part of some inscrutable game”, not even looking up when she came in. I’m not looking for someone to spoil my kids, or wait on them hand and foot. I’m looking for someone who enjoys kids and will bring some joy and creativity to their days together.

FormerSwissAupair May 24, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I take exception to your comments. I said I am more of a parent in the sense that I am the only one that the kids see for more than an hour a day, as they do their parents. I also said that their parents and I were on the same page regarding development, playtimes, etc. Maybe you should read everything I said before you pull out certain things, and twist them to make a point. I am not their parent, nor would I ever claim to be.

HostMomLL May 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I did read what you said, all the way through, multiple times. The tone of several of your remarks was similar. However, I am happy that you and your host family are on the same page and did not mean to make the discussion personal, so I apologize. It was only what you wrote that I was responding to. I should stated more simply that we do not agree, on the topic of this thread overall, that looking for an au pair to be actively engaged with my children, “on the floor” with them rather than looking on, somehow leads to the assumption that they receive too much attention, cannot entertain themselves, etc.

cv harquail May 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Host Mommy Dearest — we actually HAVE that post, although I admit that I’ve been too busy to update it…
Au Pairs: Still “low-cost” childcare?
There are some great comments, and if you do just a little math to account for the increase in pocket money, the results are rather surprising!! cv

Host Mommy Dearest May 21, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Awesome, thanks cv! Sorry I didn’t catch that one on my own!

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